The 15 Best Games to Look Forward to in the 2021 NFL Season

With five new quarterbacks in the fold, Sam Darnold in Carolina and Bill Belichick formally repositioning after the Tom Brady era, there is plenty to look forward to in 2021.
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It’s strange to look back a year at what we wrote about the schedule release, which was a little bit more about our collective fears and uncertainties than the actual schedule release. Back then, it seemed impossible for a season to occur. The celebratory nature of previewing a football season in itself felt like denial.

This year, with progress on the vaccination front and many stadiums planning to welcome back something resembling full crowds, envisioning games, plotting revenge scenarios and marking calendars feels a little less macabre. We will most certainly have football, with far less discomforting, white-knuckle moments when a player with COVID-19 is traipsing around the sidelines speaking to someone unmasked and we’re all looking around wondering what the NFL knows about personal health and safety that the CDC doesn’t.

This year will feel like football sans guilt (moving aside for a moment the built-in ethical trade-off we make already knowing about the inherent health and safety risks). And that is a good thing.

To mark the occasion on a day when the schedule news trickled out via different Twitter tributaries like a broken sink with low water pressure hours before the prime-time televised event—truly, a glorious American football tradition unlike any other—let’s discuss the 15 best games on the schedule. With five new quarterbacks in the fold, Sam Darnold in Carolina and Bill Belichick formally repositioning after the Tom Brady era, there is plenty of juice to work with.

Here are our favorites ...

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

1. Buccaneers at Patriots, Oct. 3, NBC (Sunday Night Football); 8:30 p.m.

There is no question: This is the game we’ve been waiting two years for. Tom Brady returns to Foxborough in early November on the heels of a Super Bowl championship. While the lot of us are clearheaded enough to not view Brady’s Super Bowl as some kind of indication that Bill Belichick is slipping, here is a direct forum for comparison: Tampa Bay’s roster is obviously stacked, and, for now, outweighs the best of what New England has to offer. That said, the pair’s relentless competitiveness should make for a quietly furious week of preparation behind closed doors. There are moments when Belichick unveils some of the most beautiful defensive masterpieces, the kind of game plans that can alter a team’s competitive arc (think: the defense he played against the Rams in the Super Bowl). Might we see something equally as potent here?

2. Bears at Raiders, Oct. 10; 4:05 p.m.

We’ve already had the potential Khalil Mack revenge game two years back, when Jon Gruden was so obsessed with the idea of the edge rusher dominating the contest that he triple-teamed him. That story line isn’t new. What is new? The Raiders have still not made the playoffs. They are arguably worse off this year than the year before, and the Bears could be coming to town at a critical point in Gruden’s tenure. Vegas will have already played the Ravens on Monday Night Football, gone to Pittsburgh, hosted the Dolphins and played the Chargers on Monday Night Football before this game. Its schedule is brutal, with Mack nestled right in the middle. While Raiders owner Mark Davis is never going to move on from his muse, especially midway through a 10-year contract, having a tipping point game like this against one of the foundational players Gruden traded away is always noteworthy.

3. Browns at Steelers, Jan. 3, ESPN (Monday Night Football); 8:15 p.m.

This may have been one of the safest games for networks to jostle over for prime-time usage. Both of these teams will almost certainly be competitive (Cleveland, because its roster is stacked and Pittsburgh, because Mike Tomlin doesn’t have losing seasons). It will be first time in Pittsburgh for the Browns since their pummeling of Ben Roethlisberger & Co., in the playoffs last year. Something tells us that this is the kind of game the Steelers could specifically win to keep the Browns out of the playoffs (or vice versa). It’s a shame it will probably be Roethlisberger’s final Browns game, as this had the trappings of a fantastic divisional rivalry that could have been everything we wanted Steelers-Bengals of the early 2010s to be.

4. Chiefs at Ravens, Sept. 19, NBC (Sunday Night Football); 8:20 p.m.

There’s not much else to say about this game other than it’s going to be good. Until the Ravens reach the Super Bowl with Lamar Jackson, it may not have the same kind of marquee panache as a Brady-Manning matchup from the mid-2000s and on. But whenever two of football’s most important players are on the field it should be considered appointment television. One might call it the Orlando Brown revenge game, but I’m more interested in whether the upgrades Steve Spagnuolo got on the defensive side of the ball will be enough to continue the Chiefs’ strong track record against Jackson. In three games against Kansas City, Jackson has a quarterback rating of 78.9, which is the second-lowest against any team with a sample size of more than two games (Pittsburgh is the lowest). He also has a 52% completion rate, which is the lowest among all teams with a sample size of more than two games.

5. Jets at Panthers, Sept. 12, CBS; 1 p.m.

When Rex Ryan was in his salad days at Florham Park, the NFL’s scheduling team felt like his own personal hype man, lining up a series of perceived foes slated in prime time for him to knock down like Don Quixote’s windmills. Lately, it seems the NFL’s scheduling team enjoys finding different ways to see how foolish the Jets can potentially look on the grand stage. Lining up Darnold week one in Carolina is as transparent a middle finger as one might get through this process. And while the Jets have a potential superstar quarterback of their own and a bright new defensive coach in Robert Saleh, there is always the potential for Joe Brady and Darnold to cook up something sinister week one for a true revenge game.

6. 49ers at Rams, Jan. 9, Fox; 4:25 p.m.

It was worthwhile to see what, exactly, the NFL would do with season finales in the NFC West. This should be the league’s best division and could potentially feature three 10-plus-win teams. Pairing the 49ers and Rams in the national game slot is a vote of confidence both in the Sean McVay/Matt Stafford pairing and the idea that Kyle Shanahan will have something cooking with Trey Lance at that point. If­—and this is a big if—Jimmy Garoppolo played a majority of the season, this could also be the first time we see Lance in a bit of a Mahomesian preview of attractions to come.

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7. Giants at Washington Football Team, Sept. 16 (Thursday Night Football); 8:20 p.m.

This will be a great early test for Daniel Jones, who has a weapon set with a ton of equity poured into it. A game against Ron Rivera in prime time could be an immediate bellwether on Dave Gettleman’s decision to opt for a receiver overload in the first round instead of an offensive tackle. The Giants traded out of their No. 12 slot with Rashawn Slater of Northwestern on the board—a prospect who handled Chase Young quite ably during their time together in college. Barring any injuries to the Giants' receiving corps, this will be a very early indication as to whether or not Jones can handle an elite pass rush after a 2020 season when the team was blitzed more than all but two other teams in the NFL (and ranked 30th in the league against the blitz).

8. Jaguars at Bengals, Sept. 30, NFL Network (Thursday Night Football); 8:20 p.m.

An early takeaway: Thursday Night Football did all right this year and having a Joe Burrow–Trevor Lawrence matchup this early in the season is a good get. Depending on how Burrow is recovering from knee surgery, this could be a fine way to properly showcase two franchises that likely won’t make the playoffs early in the season before they drift out of contention.

9. Dolphins at Jaguars, Oct. 17 (London), CBS; 9:30 a.m.

Back-to-back on Lawrence, this time with his London debut. An interesting nugget I found while reporting on his marketing value as an NFL player: The high upside of his off-field earning potential comes from his performance in the international market. The NFL is positing the Jaguars as London’s team, but the Jaguars have never had a quarterback to market. Attempts made with Blake Bortles never really caught on. Should Lawrence stage some heroics here, it could be a meaningful step forward for growth of the game overseas.

10. Panthers at Texans, Sept. 23, NFL Network (Thursday Night Football); 8:20 p.m.

The Texans’ lone dip into prime time. From a television production standpoint, it will be fascinating to see how they handle the complexities and nuances of the litigation surrounding Deshaun Watson. Where is Watson at this point? Who is playing quarterback for the Texans? How does a league-owned network discuss a team that does not appear to have a single, winnable game on its schedule this year?

Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson

11. Falcons at Buccaneers, Sept. 19, Fox; 4:05 p.m.

A great note from Sports Illustrated editor Gary Gramling: This will be the first time Tom Brady plays against a player (Kyle Pitts) who was born during his rookie year in the NFL. Pitts, who is 20, was born on Oct. 6, 2000.

12. Chargers at Broncos, Nov. 28, CBS; 4:05 p.m.

For the defensive nerds out there, this will be the first time Brandon Staley faces off against mentor Vic Fangio in a battle between two of the more versatile and innovative defensive minds in football. The teams face off again just after the New Year. Interesting note about this: While Fangio’s defense is often copied, Staley is one of his only true mentees, so viewing the pair on opposite ends of a chessboard will be instructive, especially since both defenses figure to be quite good.

13. Colts at 49ers, Oct. 24, NBC (Sunday Night Football); 8:20 p.m. 

Circling this one on the calendar because it’s the 49ers’ first home game after the bye, which is often the final window from which a team will insert their rookie quarterback. Matt Eberflus would be a formidable first opponent and could be a cautionary roadblock. However, this is a great chance to emerge post-bye at home and tout the future of the franchise … if Trey Lance already isn’t the starter out of the gate.

14. Lions at Rams, Oct. 24, Fox; 1:05 p.m.

This won’t have the same Scoville level as Jets-Panthers because Stafford and the Lions mutually agreed keeping him around wasn’t going to be in his best interest. That said, it should be interesting to see what kind of stored passive aggression the longtime Lion has in store for his former franchise. Just don’t take it personally, Dan Campbell. He’s probably picturing Matt Patricia on the sidelines while he flings touchdown darts.

15. Vikings at Packers, Jan. 2, NBC (Sunday Night Football); 8:20 p.m.

Putting a Packers game on this list to ask the question: Where’s Aaron Rodgers at this point? There are three options …

1. He’s back in Green Bay and this game is a heater, one with serious divisional implications.

2. He’s back in Green Bay and this game gets unflexed.

3. He’s not in Green Bay and the football world has turned itself inside out writing Aaron Rodgers trade destination posts. 

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