The NFL schedule release is such a weird time on the league calendar. The draft is over and the season isn’t for another five months, but somehow there is hours and hours of content dedicated to sussing out the order of games that won’t be happening until summer is over. If you don’t think that the 2nd most popular sport in America is the NFL offseason, a quick trip around any and all sports sites each May should quickly put those doubts to rest.
And I’m nothing if not a follower, a sheep who will gladly go along with whatever the group is thinking. So here’s my contribution to analyzing something that nobody really has any business whatsoever analyzing. Let’s take a look at The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly from the New England Patriots’ 2021 schedule.
Early home stretch. Three of the first four games of the season will be at Gillette, which presents a great opportunity to hit the ground running and get off to a strong start. The first four weeks of the year aren’t all that important in terms of the big picture, but to come out of the first quarter or so of the season at 3-1 will set the team up nicely for October, when things start to ramp up in earnest. Miami, New Orleans, and the Jets are all beatable teams, and that Bucs game could be one of those ones that goes either way. As this new team continues to grow and gel together, it’s a plus to start the year with a bit of a home stand.
Late bye week. The general rule of thumb regarding NFL bye weeks is that the later in the season they can come, the better. Getting stuck with that dreaded Week 4 bye is just the worst, and honestly anything before Week 8 or so is territory to avoid at all costs. This year sees New England’s bye land all the way in Week 14, which is a very weird thing to write, but it’s as late as it gets as far as bye weeks go. Hopefully the Patriots will be right in the thick of the playoff hunt by then, and this late bye will give them an excellent opportunity to heal, regroup, and come back for a strong final push.
Only three 4PM games. The only thing I hate more than primetime games are those 4:05/4:25PM games. At least the Sunday/Monday/Thursday Night games have a decent amount of buildup and usually represent marquis matchups with good storylines attached. The 4PM slot is usually reserved for the games that aren’t quite good enough to flex into primetime and the league figures they’d make a good national broadcast. More often than not, they never live up to the hype, and if your team is playing at 4 your day is more or less completely shot; not really enough time to do anything major before the game, and it’s like 7:30 by the time the game is over and the weekend is more or less done. So that the Pats only have three of these, with the chance of maybe one of them getting flexed back to that wonderful 1PM slot, is a nice thing to see.
3 of 4 on the road in November. The yin to a home stand’s yang is that you’re likely going to see at least one stretch of away games, and for the Patriots that comes in November. Starting on Halloween at Los Angeles, they then head to Carolina before getting a very good Browns team at home and then heading down to Atlanta. That has potential to be a very tough stretch for New England, and a multiple game losing streak right as the second half of the season gets underway could be a real momentum killer.
Close the season at Miami. The odds of the Patriots getting a 1st round playoff bye in 2021 are pretty slim, to be honest; who knows how the season is going to unfold, but with only the 1 seed from each conference getting a week off, New England is likely to be playing for the entirety of the playoffs should they make it in. And who wins the AFC East may very well come down to the final weeks of the season - which means that this game, at Miami where the Pats have historically struggled, could very likely have huge playoff implications. I’d much rather get the at Miami loss out of the way earlier in the season so the Patriots can put it behind them and figure out their path to a playoff berth from there; to have to go to Miami to close out the year with the season potentially on the line is pretty nerve-wracking.
At Buffalo on Monday Night. The Bills are currently the team to beat in the AFC East and won’t be an easy W the way they have been for so many years. So to have to go to Buffalo, on Monday Night, with a Bills Mafia that couldn’t go to any games in 2020 due to the pandemic on the loose and looking to set a world record for flaming tables destroyed, is a very tough outing. Not only that, but at Buffalo will represent the 4th road game out of the last six before the Patriots head into the bye. Going into the week of with a W is a great confidence builder, and getting spanked on national television by the division rival you used to stuff in a locker twice a year as their fans throw sex toys onto the field could very well have the opposite effect.
Patriots/Bucs coverage. I’m already completely sick of it and there hasn’t even been any yet. Hey, remember that Tom Brady guy? Well he’s playing against his old team! Belichick vs. Brady! Belichick ran him out of town and now he’s back to show them that he’s still got it! A grudge match for the ages! It’s going to be awful. And since it’s on Sunday Night Football, buckle up for some nonstop, insufferable storylines as hacks scrabble for pageviews and clicks. And to make matters worse, the narratives after the game is over are going to be just as ridiculous, no matter who wins. A Week 4 non-conference game that most likely isn’t going to have any impact whatsoever for either team beyond the W or the L is going to get blown so far out of proportion there may not be any coming back from it, and there isn’t a damn thing we can do about it. So start preparing yourselves now.
18 Week season. I know that feelings are mixed on this topic, but I for one say nuts to an extra game. By the end of the season, players are beat to hell, playing hurt, and literally limping to the finish line. Adding an extra game to the regular season is a money grab, plain and simple, a chance for the NFL to make more money than they already do, and once again they show no regard for overall player health and safety. 2021 also now marks a sea change in stats, as every record or milestone set from here on out will have a demarcation line as to whether it took place in 16 games or 17. Rushing and passing records will fall more quickly. Starting streaks are different now. Overall stats will just have to be altered - not that it really matters, if you measure a sport primarily by stats you should take a step back and enjoy the sport itself. The NFL went from 14 to 16 games, and I’m sure there was similar grumbling from crotchety old men who don’t like change back then as well. But I just don’t see a need for more games. On the surface it’s an extra week of football, which is great. But the long-term effects here are going to do more harm than good, in my opinion.