The NFL season has moved to 17 games, so we’ll be able to add an asterisk to all of the stats as we compare them to past seasons. It will take some getting used to, but those are up on the changes and pay attention to the schedules could find some advantages for this season.
All teams still play six division games. In cross-conference play, it will be AFC East vs. NFC South, AFC North vs. NFC North, AFC South vs. NFC West, and AFC West vs. NFC East. Teams also play games against “same-place” teams and then also a full division in the same conference.
Because 17 is an odd number, that means that some teams will play eight home games and some teams will play nine home games. Be sure to factor that into your handicapping, as home field advantage should return to full strength, or at least close to it, for this season.
The teams still only get one bye week, so that will make things challenging, as injuries are likely to play a big role in the season. COVID still seems to be hanging around as well. The season is now 18 weeks long and will run from Thursday September 9 until Sunday January 9. That pushes Super Bowl LVI out to February 13, 2022.
Let’s look at some teams with really tough and relatively easy schedules to see if we can find some teams that have gotten a bit of a break and those that have a hard road in the first year of a 17-game schedule.
Toughest 2021 NFL Schedules
The Steelers have a very challenging schedule this season. Pittsburgh will play the six games against Cleveland, Baltimore, and Cincinnati. The AFC North draws the NFC North, so the Steelers get the Green Bay Packers on the road, along with a road trip to Minnesota to face the Vikings.
Because Pittsburgh won the division at 12-4, that means two other first-place teams on the schedule, which happen to be the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans. The AFC West is also on the menu for the AFC North, so that means games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Chargers.
There are 12 playoff teams in the NFL every season, 11 if we don’t count the Steelers themselves. Pittsburgh plays seven of them and nine games total, with the Ravens and Browns on the schedule twice.
The Ravens run into a similar problem. They’ll play that tough AFC North schedule and also run into the AFC West and NFC North. They’ll play three of their first four games on the road. Along with facing six playoff teams from the scheduled divisions, the second-place schedule yields the Dolphins, who were close, and the Rams, who made it.
The Ravens had to win five in a row to get to the playoffs last season, but did deal with a lot during the COVID year. We’ll see if they can get back to the postseason in spite of a really difficult schedule.
You may not find a more miserable road schedule than what the Chicago Bears face this season. They’ll start on the road against the Rams in Week 1. Their frequent flyer miles will take them to Cleveland, Las Vegas, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Green Bay, Seattle, and Minnesota.
The interdivision games obviously are what they are, but there are some long trips in there and a whole lot of time zone changes. The Bears will go to the Pacific Time Zone three times during the 2021 season.
On the plus side, the home games seem manageable and the drawing the Giants as the second of the second-place games seems like a bit of a reprieve. This is still a tough road.
Easiest 2021 NFL Schedules
You kind of hesitate to call a schedule “easy”, but the Philadelphia Eagles got some gifts here. The NFC South is no picnic, but we all know that the NFC East looks pretty weak again this season. The Eagles draw the AFC West, but get the Chargers and the Chiefs at home, for whatever that’s worth.
The last-place schedule gives the Eagles a couple of winnable road games against the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets. It is a bummer that both games are on the road, but we saw late signs of life from Philadelphia when Jalen Hurts took over the team.
This is a pretty decent schedule for a team looking to make a move up the standings.
The Falcons seem to have one of the best away schedules in the NFL this season. They do play at San Francisco on December 19 and a really cold, likely miserable game against Buffalo on January 2, but other than that, the Falcons benefit from a lot of regional travel. They also only play that one cold-weather game with quarterback Matt Ryan.
With a new head coach and no Julio Jones to fall back on, there aren’t a lot of big believers in the Falcons, but their non-division schedule is rather reasonable. The AFC East isn’t a great division top-to-bottom and neither is the NFC East. Atlanta does lose a home game to London, at least for now, but we’ll see how things are progressing by October.
The schedule is set up for the Broncos to get off to a good start. Denver plays the Giants, Jaguars, and Jets in the first three weeks of the season. Obviously the games against division foes are very challenging, but the Broncos run into the NFC East, which could yield some very winnable games.
They don’t benefit from getting any teams unaccustomed to cold weather out to Denver in December and January, with the exception of the dome Lions on December 12. But, the schedule is set up in a way that allows Denver to at least be competitive prior to the Week 11 bye.