One immediate thought came to mind after seeing the 2021 NFL schedule: Teams were not as egregiously, righteously screwed as they’ve gotten in the past. That said, there are still some unfortunate pockets that all clubs have to deal with based both on the strength of their own division and the strength of other divisions that they’ll inherit for the year.
Another thought: there did seem to be more of a mindfulness surrounding Thursday night games, unless you are the Green Bay Packers, who follow up a game against the pesky Washington Football Team with a short-week TNF tilt against the Cardinals before a matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
We’ll have plenty to break down from the schedule release in the coming days (and have the 15 best games posted over here). But here are a handful of teams who still have a right to complain and may feel like a 17-game season is even longer due to the way it's laid out.
1-2. Half of the AFC West
Raiders schedule: BAL, @PIT, MIA, @LAC, CHI, @DEN, PHI, BYE, @NYG, KC, CIN, @DAL, WAS, @KC, @CLE, DEN, @IND, LAC
Chargers schedule: @WAS, DAL, @KC, LV, CLE, @BAL, BYE, NE, @PHI, MIN, PIT, @DEN, @CIN, NYG, KC, @HOU, DEN, @LV
This post was initially going to be Raiders specific, given that they start the season against Baltimore on Monday Night Football, then head to Pittsburgh, then host a very good Dolphins team before traveling to Los Angeles and hosting the Bears on Oct. 10. On the backside of their schedule post-bye, Vegas has both Chiefs games, a Thanksgiving game at Dallas and an end-of-season slate against the Browns on either Dec. 18 or 19, the Broncos, the Colts in Indianapolis and the Chargers. Getting hosed by the schedule gods isn't a foreign concept to the Raiders, either. Back in 2019 they had more than 30,000 air miles on their schedule, while both New York teams combined traveled fewer than 25,000 miles.
But a look at all schedules in the West, despite the generous out-of-conference date with the basement-dwelling NFC East, reveals some difficult pockets. The Chargers, for example, start the season in Washington and host the Cowboys, arguably the two best teams in the NFC East. Then, they travel to Kansas City, play a prime time game against the Raiders, turn around on short rest to host the Browns and travel to Baltimore before their bye (after the bye, New England looms, by the way).
3. Chicago Bears
Bears schedule: @LAR, CIN, @CLE, DET, @LV, GB, @TB, SF, @PIT, BYE, BAL, @DET, ARI, @GB, MIN, @SEA, NYG, @MIN
The Bears have one of the more difficult schedules in the NFL in terms of raw strength data based on last year’s winning percentages. And while the league schedule makers did a solid job of spreading out the landmines, this will be a thick forest to wade through, especially if Chicago is planning to insert a rookie quarterback at some point. Some particularly thorny stretches include Oct. 17 through Nov. 21, where the Bears take on the Packers, the Buccaneers in Tampa, the 49ers, the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the Ravens post-bye. They also have an end-of-season stretch that includes the Cardinals, Green Bay at Lambeau, the Vikings on Monday Night Football and the Seahawks in Seattle.
This makeup represents an interesting choice for Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy. If the hope is to reach the playoffs, there will be a ton of pressure to pick up wins during a smoother portion of their schedule at the beginning of the year.
4. Baltimore Ravens
Ravens schedule: @LV, KC, @DET, @DEN, IND, LAC, CIN, BYE, MIN, @MIA, @CHI, CLE, @PIT, @CLE, GB, @CIN, LAR, PIT
After a plum schedule in 2020 with extremely limited travel, the Ravens get put through the gauntlet in 2021. It’s hard to overstate how much steeper the climb becomes post-bye. After winnable back-to-back road games against the Dolphins on Thursday Night Football (Nov. 28) and the Bears (a solid placement for their Thursday night game considering they get the mini bye close after their actual bye), Baltimore hosts the Browns, travels to Pittsburgh, travels to Cleveland and hosts the Packers. Then, after a game against the Bengals in Cincinnati, they close out their regular season with back-to-back home games against the Rams and Steelers, both of whom will likely factor into the playoff conversation.
5. Detroit Lions
Lions schedule: SF, @GB, BAL, @CHI, @MIN, CIN, @LAR, PHI, BYE, @PIT, @CLE, CHI, MIN, @DEN, ARI, @ATL, @SEA, GB
The Lions open the season against the 49ers, Packers and Ravens and close the season at Seattle and against the Packers. Assuming Aaron Rodgers is active, this certainly throws a wrench into their kneecap-digesting plans. Post-bye (Nov. 6), the Lions also have dates with the Steelers and Browns, both on the road. Depending on how good the Cardinals and Falcons turn out to be, there’s a chance the end of their season is essentially a plank walk, testing the outer limits of Campbell’s defense with dates against an Air Raid offense, a Shanahan offense, a McVay offense and another Shanahan offense to close out the season.
6. Carolina Panthers
Panthers schedule: NYJ, NO, @HOU, @DAL, PHI, MIN, @NYG, @ATL, NE, @ARI, WAS, @MIA, BYE (Dec. 5), ATL, @BUF, TB, @NO, @TB
While it doesn’t seem like the Panthers are quite ready to emerge on the scene as playoff contenders, any hopes of such a run will have to go through the defending Super Bowl champions twice in three weeks. The back end of Carolina’s schedule, which asks them to play in Buffalo on either Dec. 18 or 19, host Tampa Bay, travel to New Orleans and then Tampa is a tall task, especially if the Saints are able to maintain some relevance without Drew Brees under center. Carolina starts the season against Sam Darnold’s old club and gets the No. 1 pick-bound Houston Texans as their Thursday Night Football appearance on Sept. 23, which are both significant wins. They also pick up games against the NFC East, which could help them pad some early season wins. However, after playing against the Falcons in Atlanta on Halloween, the Panthers have to play the Patriots, travel to Arizona, host the Washington Football team and travel to Miami before the bye.
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