As part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement signed by the NFL and the NFL Players Association in 2020, the league gave its ownership the option to add a 17th regular season game as early as the following year. With the league always trying to improve its
product revenue, that is exactly what happened.
The 2020 season was the last played under the 16-game format, with the league switching to 17 regular season games by 2021.
That 17th game would be an extra AFC-NFC matchup, with the opponent determined based on 2020 standings and 2019 matchups. In the New England Patriots’ case that meant that they would go up against the NFC East team — they matched up with the division two year prior — that ended 2020 in the same place in the standings. That team was the Dallas Cowboys, who visited Gillette Stadium in Week 6.
The Patriots lost the contest 35-29 in overtime, dropping to 2-4 on the year. They did rebound, however, and eventually made it into the playoffs as the second-ranked team in the AFC East.
With that in mind, what would their season have looked like without that 17th game? Now that the offseason is underway, let’s cook up that little thought experiment.
Had the league not gone to its 17-game regular season format in 2021, the Patriots would not have played the Cowboys and in turn not been able to lose that game. Accordingly, they would have ended their season with a 10-6 record instead of 10-7.
The win-loss columns would not be the only ones impacted by the change. New England’s statistics both individual and team-wide also would have changed.
Instead of amassing 27.2 points per game, the Patriots would have ended the regular season with 27.1 points scored on average. On the other side of the ball, they would have given up just 16.8 instead of 17.8. Their turnover differential would not have changed — they had two giveaways versus Dallas as well as two takeaways — but their special teams unit would not have surrendered one of its three blocked punt on the year.
As for quarterback Mac Jones, his numbers without that game would be slightly worse: the game against Dallas saw him go 15-for-21 for 229 yards as well as two touchdowns and an interception. Without that solid performance, he would have ended 2021 completing 337 of 500 pass attempts (67.4%) for 3,572 yards as well as a 20:11 touchdown-interception rate.
Running backs Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson would be robbed of two of their better games if the Cowboys game had never taken place. Harris carried the football 18 times for 101 yards, while Stevenson gained 23 on his five carries. Both scored a touchdown.
In this hypothetical, Harris would have ended the regular season with 184 carries for 828 yards, a 4.5-yard average and 14 touchdowns. Stevenson would have run the ball 128 times for 583 yards and a 4.6-yard average as well as four scores.
In the receiving department, Jakobi Meyers would lose a five-catch, 44-yard outing, while both Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne would have finished the season with one fewer TD each. Meyers would still have been New England’s top receiver, though, gaining 822 yards on 78 receptions: Henry and Bourne would still have led the team with eight and four touchdown catches, respectively.
On the defensive side of the ball, Kyle Dugger would have registered one fewer interceptions to finish with three total. Ja’Whaun Bentley would have lost 13 tackles but he still would have led the team quite comfortable in that category with 96 on the year.
New England’s per-game sack numbers would have look a bit better without the Dallas game: instead of notching 2.1 per sack, the defense would have finished with 2.3 per contest.
Most importantly, though, the Patriots would not have lost Jonathan Jones to injury. Their starting slot cornerback suffered a shoulder ailment against the Cowboys that forced him to undergo surgery and end his season on the sidelines. In fact, Jones was among multiple players getting shaken up that day. Linebacker Chase Winovich, for example, hurt his hamstring and had to sit out the next four games.
While statistics are fun, the most interesting part of that thought experiment is how the absence of a 17th game would impact the league-wide standings. As noted above, New England ended the season ranked second in the AFC East with a 10-7 record; the division-champion Buffalo Bills went 11-6 but one of their wins came against the extra opponent.
They won that game against Washington, meaning they too would have gone 10-6 to end the regular season if the 16-game format was still in place. That said, due to the better in-division record, Buffalo would still have won the tiebreaker for the AFC East title.
That said, the playoff picture within the conference would have looked a bit different:
- Tennessee Titans (11-5)
- Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
- Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)
- Buffalo Bills (10-6)
- Las Vegas Raiders (10-6)
- New England Patriots (10-6)
- Indianapolis Colts (9-6)
While the first two seeds in the conference would have remained unchanged, there would have been some changes at numbers three, four and seven.
The Colts, for example, would have made it into the tournament over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh made the cut due to its 9-7-1 record reigning superior over the Colts’ and Los Angeles Chargers’ 9-8 campaigns. In this scenario, Indianapolis would make it into the tournament based on its better conference record compared to the Chargers.
Wild card weekend would therefore have seen the Colts travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs. One has to wonder whether or not they would have been better equipped to handle the reigning AFC champions compared to the Steelers.
From a Patriots perspective, they would have traveled to Cincinnati for the wild card round: the Bengals would hold the tiebreaker over the Bills because of a better conference record. But even in that case it would be hard to see New England advance to the divisional round. The Bengals, who ended the season as AFC champions, were an impressive team on both sides of the ball while the Patriots were slumping into the postseason.
They may not have gotten blown out 47-17 as they did in Buffalo, but their playoff run would likely still have ended with an early exit even under a 16-game format.
In the NFC, meanwhile, the playoff picture would have looked as follows:
- Green Bay Packers (13-3)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-4)
- Dallas Cowboys (11-5)
- Los Angeles Rams (11-5)
- Arizona Cardinals (10-6)
- New Orleans Saints (9-7)
- San Francisco 49ers (9-7)
The NFC would have also seen a few changes at the bottom of its playoff standings. The Philadelphia Eagles would not have made the cut at 8-8, while the 49ers would have entered as the seventh seed instead of No. 6. The big beneficiary would have been the Saints, who ended the season outside the playoff picture but would have been in as the sixth seed under a 16-game format.
The wild card matchups in the conference would therefore have featured 49ers at Buccaneers and Saints at Cowboys. While the latter matchup would have favored Dallas, the first of the two might have been a more balanced affair than the eventual Tampa Bay blowout win over the Eagles.
On the other end of the spectrum is draft positioning. Nothing would have changed there: the Jacksonville Jaguars would have been the worst team in football regardless, ending the season at 3-13 instead of 3-14. New England would likely still pick at No. 21.