The NFL’s 2020 regular season is in the books, which means three things: 18 of the league’s 32 teams, including the New England Patriots, are now headed into the offseason; the draft order for the first 18 picks has been set; the list of 2021 opponents has been finalized.
While a lot can still change between now and the NFL’s eventual schedule release in spring — the league is reportedly considering adding a 17th game to make up for the revenue loss of the Covid-19 pandemic — the basic structure of the 2021 season is now set in stone. And from the Patriots’ perspective, it projects to be a highly interesting one based on the upcoming opponents alone.
As usual, New England will play its three AFC East rivals and the AFC teams ending the regular season in the same place within their respective divisions (i.e. third). Furthermore, the Patriots will take on the entire AFC South and NFC South. If a 17th game is added, the expectation is that it will come against the same-ranked team in the NFC East (the third-place Dallas Cowboys) in a yet to be specified location.
With that said, let’s take a look at the Patriots’ 2021 opponents:
Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There are some intriguing matchups on New England’s 2021 home schedule. From the three rivalry games, to playoff rematches against the Titans and Jaguars, to a meeting with what could be a new-look Saints team without quarterback Drew Brees. While all of those games project to be interesting challenges for a Patriots team that will likely experience plenty of changes over the course of the offseason, one home contest stands out: the return of Tom Brady.
Brady left New England last offseason to sign a two-year pact with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Showing no signs of slowing down and having his new club in the playoff race, it seems unlikely the long-time Patriot will decide to call it a career after this season — regardless of how it ends, and the fact that he will turn 44 next August. Accordingly, Brady and the Bucs are scheduled to visit Gillette Stadium for what could very well become the most hyped-up regular season game in NFL history.
Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Los Angeles Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons
New England’s road schedule is not as attractive as the home slate. The three AFC East contests always feature a special dynamic, particularly the ones in Buffalo and Miami, but the other five games lack that kind of feel. The Patriots-Colts rivalry of years past does no longer exist, while the Texans and Chargers are both teams in transition after firing their head coaches during and after the 2020 season, respectively.
The most intriguing games could therefore very well be the two versus the NFC South. The contest against the Panthers could feature Cam Newton’s return to Carolina, if he is still a member of the Patriots’ quarterback room by then. The game versus the Falcons, on the other hand, will feature New England returning to the stadium where it won its last Super Bowl — a stadium that is home to a team that was famously beaten by the Patriots in another legendary title game.
As is the case every year, the NFL is expected to announce the full schedule for the next season in April. International games could be announced in late January, although the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic makes it unlikely the International Series takes place in 2021 after already being canceled in 2020.