The entirety of the Jacksonville Jaguars 2021 schedule has been released and now an entire summer of speculation is on the horizon. Now that we know the dates, times and locations of each game—including the new 17th game on the schedule—Jaguar Report's John Shipley and Kassidy Hill comb through each game and matchup to find the most intriguing storylines.
A Favorable First Four
Hill: The transition to the NFL can be stark, even for generational talented prospects like Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The speed of the game, the breadth of the defensive end collapsing the pocket, the different looks that were never shown by teams like the NC State Wolfpack; it can all be a little overwhelming to start.
So it’s perhaps fortuitous that Trevor Lawrence will get to open his NFL career against four teams that will allow him some breathing room. Of course in the league, everyone is good and even the worst are better than college defenses. But it’s not like Lawrence will be opening against a team that mimic’s the ’85 Bears.
The Houston Texans, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, and Cincinnati Bengals all have defenses that Lawrence can work around. In fact, even when offensively bereft, the Jaguars have been able to exploit the Texans, Broncos and Bengals defenses in the past two years. The Texans have lost J.J. Watt since then, and if it comes down to who makes the least mistakes on offense…well the Texans' offense is currently the most uncertain thing in the NFL.
The Broncos aren’t in a much better spot, with a quarterback position that has little depth. There are weapons on the outside, but if Shaquill Griffin and CJ Henderson are the starting cornerback duo, that could be a draw. And on defense, Denver will return linebacker Von Miller but don’t have much on the backend to slow down DJ Chark, Marvin Jones, and Laviska Shenault. Of course this all changes if Aaron Rodgers is under center for the Broncos.
The Cardinals have an offense that swings from potent to puny depending on whether Mercury is in retrograde. They added Watt to the defensive line this offseason, which will be the first huge test for Lawrence and his protection.
The loss to the Bengals in 2020 was one of the closest the Jags suffered, showcasing just how close they were to being a quarterback away from winning that game. Defensively the secondary required constant rotation due to injury, but each new face was able to hold his own against a Bengals offense that was relying entirely on Joe Burrow to be a superhero. Despite upgrading at receiver with Ja'Marr Chase, the Bengals treated their offensive line upgrades in much the same way the Jaguars treated the tight end unit.
Will it be easy? No, it never is. But the first four games set up favorably for Lawrence as he looks to lead the Jaguars into a new era.
A tough post-bye week stretch
Shipley: You know those memes that show one smaller, non-intimidating version of something and then a second larger, much more intimidating version? That is essentially what the Jaguars are getting with their pre- and post-bye week schedules. As Kassidy noted above, the Jaguars' first few games are far from daunting. Then they have a home game against a Titans team that looks like it has some potential to take a step back, along with a game in London against Miami. But after that, the Jaguars hit a rough stretch.
From Weeks 8-14, which comes directly after the Jaguars' bye week and Week 6 game in London, the Jaguars have the following games: at Seattle Seahawks, vs. Buffalo Bills, at Indianapolis Colts, vs. San Francisco 49ers, vs. Atlanta Falcons, at Los Angeles Rams, and at the Titans. Those are five playoff teams and two teams who are legitimate candidates to go from worst to first in 2021. Plus, the Jaguars haven't won in Nashville since 2013. This is a stretch where the Jaguars could go 1-5 or 2-4 and it wouldn't exactly be shocking.
As a result, it will be fascinating to see how Meyer navigates the Jaguars' second-half schedule. One thing former Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone struggled the most at was getting his team out of long skids. Once things went downhill, they rarely went back up. If the Jaguars can come out of this rough stretch with a few bumps and bruises but still be able to win a few games to end the year, that would be a clear best-case scenario.
Lack of Primetime Games
Hill: Despite the allure of Lawrence and Urban Meyer’s foray into the NFL, the league clearly isn’t expecting much from the Jaguars in 2021. The only primetime game on the schedule for the Jags is the requisite Thursday Night Football matchup early in the year. This year it will be against the Bengals in Week 4. Kickoffs against the L.A. Rams and Seattle Seahawks are set for 4:05 p.m. and 4:25 p.m. ET respectively, due to the games being played on the West Coast. The London kickoff will air at 9:30 in the morning in Jacksonville. Other than those times, the remaining 13 games are all scheduled for 1 p.m. kickoffs (local time).
That means competition from other games and no Sunday Night or Monday Night Football games. As Michael DiRocco of ESPN points out, “it has been 13 years since the Jaguars played a Sunday night game (a 26-21 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 5, 2008) and 10 years since they played a Monday night game (a 38-14 loss to San Diego on Dec. 5, 2011), both of which are the longest active streaks in the NFL per ESPN Stats & Information.”
During that 13-year span, the Jaguars have gone 62-141 in the regular season, so it’s not hard to see why they’ve been ignored. However, it’s of note that the Green Bay Packers have received five primetime games but legendary quarterback Aaron Rodgers has insisted he won’t be returning to the Pack. The San Francisco 49ers have also received five primetime kickoffs, which is the max allotment by the league. The 49ers quarterback position is also in flux.
The league has built-in a contingency for teams that do “get hot” so to speak. The TV schedule for games from Week 5-Week 17 can be changed to flex a game into a primetime spot. One to watch? The Week 16 matchup against the New York Jets on December 26, which will pit the No. 1 overall pick, Lawrence, against No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson.
Why Week 1 is even more important this year than usual
Shipley: There are rarely instances where teams have must-win games in Week 1, but I would honestly argue the Jaguars have to win their 2021 opener. In fact, I can't think of another season-opener in recent seasons that could decide the momentum of a season more than this one.
Simply put, the Jaguars can't afford to lose the Week 1 opening against the Houston Texans. The Texans may not have Deshaun Watson under center, have arguably the NFL's worst roster, and are the strong favorites to earn the No. 1 overall pick in 2021. If the Jaguars lose to that team in Urban Meyer's and Trevor Lawrence's debut, the Jaguars will have wasted away a good bit of goodwill that they have built up over the offseason. Imagine a scenario in which the Jaguars trot out Tim Tebow and lose to Houston to start the season ... that would be, well, not great. It would be a strong sign toward a long season in Duval.
If the Jaguars drew a team like the Rams, Bills, or even their other two divisional rivals in the Colts and Texans to start the year, Week 1 wouldn't hold the keys to the outlook of the Jaguars' season. Instead, the Jaguars have a pressure-filled contest to kick off the Meyer and Lawrence regime.
Meyer Vs. the NFC West
Hill: Just as Lawrence and other rookies will have a learning curve, so will Urban Meyer. The first time NFL coach has spent months studying the league and how things are run differently from the front office. And he's known in the college ranks as one of the best offensive play callers and man up top. But, as mentioned, the speed of the game and some of the differences in rules will require some on-field learning, if for no other reason than habits are hard to be broken.
Although possibly painful for his first year, this season will be some baptism by fire for Meyer as he will not only be facing his friend and gamesmanship extraordinaire, Bill Belichick, but also the entire NFC West, due to scheduling rotations. This includes Kliff Kingsbury, who is a sharp offensive mind (at least in theory) as well as Pete Carroll, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, all at the top of the game when it comes to offensive minds and in-game play-calling. While all three are heading into uncertain quarterback situations (McVay with a new passer in Matt Stafford, Carroll being sensitive to Russell Wilson's wandering eye to new teams and Shanahan juggling Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance) the three have also proven themselves capable of near perfect game plans. Execution can sometimes come into question, but there's a reason they have been perennial playoff contenders.
Meyer will have to rely on his play-calling more than ever before, since his talent will be equitable or possibly less than the team across the field. Carroll, Shanahan and McVay provide a great opportunity for a crash course as Meyer adapts to the in-game nuances of the NFL.
Which games have flex potential?
Shipley: I am not expecting the Jaguars to get flexed into any primetime games toward the second half of the season unless they are significantly better in terms of wins and losses than most are projecting as of today. With that said, we have seen matchups bumped from primetime slots in the past because other games became that much more interesting by the end of the year.
So, which Jaguars' games apply here and could have flex potential? Here are the main ones that catch my eye.
- Week 11 vs. San Francisco: If each team has a winning record and the 49ers are starting Trey Lance by Week 11, this game could have serious primetime potential due to the Lawrence/Lance duel.
- Week 13 at Los Angeles Rams: Jalen Ramsey against the Jaguars will be an excellent revenge storyline to follow for each side.
- Week 16 at New York Jets: Trevor Lawrence vs. Zach Wilson. Urban Meyer vs. Robert Saleh. Enough said.