The NFL will not officially turn its calendar to 2021 until March 17, but it is already getting ready for the new league year scheduled to begin that day. Negotiations about next season’s salary cap are currently in full swing, while the league is also trying to move forward with its plans to introduce the 17-game regular season that was agreed upon in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement signed into effect last spring.
Under the CBA, the league or its ownership have the discretion “to increase the number of regular season games per Club from sixteen (16) to seventeen (17) (but not more), provided that the combined total of preseason and regular season games played per Club shall not exceed twenty (20) games.” Given the revenue lost in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic, such a move is expected to happen this upcoming season.
NBC Sports’ Peter King shared additional details of the switch from 16 to 17 regular season games on Monday, noting that “TV partners and NFL schedulers are working under the assumption that the 17-game schedule” already. Accordingly, teams should also prepare for one more regular season game this season as well as a reduction of preseason contests.
The move itself, meanwhile, will have a trickle-down effect on the NFL’s schedule as a whole. One tidbit in particular catches the eye:
Hearing it’s most likely to be AFC hosting all 16 newly invented games in 2021. Then NFC teams hosting in 2023. If that’s how it goes, it’s the fairest way. Competitive equity is the key. You don’t want three NFC East teams playing eight at home and the fourth playing nine at home.
The NFL introducing a 17th regular season game also leads to a new scheduling format for the 2021 season, based on the 2019 regular season. This means that the inter-conference games would be scheduled as follows:
- AFC East vs NFC East
- AFC North vs NFC West
- AFC South vs NFC South
- AFC West vs NFC North
The AFC East will therefore host the NFC East teams that finished in the same exact spot in the standings last season. The two divisions’ meetings are expected to look as follows should the number of regular season games indeed be increased this year:
- Buffalo Bills vs Washington Football Team
- Miami Dolphins vs New York Giants
- New England Patriots vs Dallas Cowboys
- New York Jets vs Philadelphia Eagles
This means that the Patriots as well as their three division rivals will each host nine home contests during the 2021 regular season while still playing the standard eight road games. While there is an obvious advantage to playing one more game at home as opposed to on the road, it also will not make much of a difference when looking at it from a division- or conference-wide perspective. Every team in the AFC will play nine games at home, after all.
Still, the change to the 17-game regular season will be a big story because it entails more than just adding one home contest on the AFC side.
The preseason, as mentioned above, will go from four to three games (if not fewer). The Super Bowl could move from the first Sunday in February to the second. The wild card playoff schedule might see a Monday Night game introduced. Reserve and practice squad sizes might change increase, as will the player revenue share.
All in all, the NFL of 2021 could look a lot different than what we are all used to.