Now that the NFL schedule is out for the 2021 season, we can better assess which key teams got a more favorable draw than most.
Looking at the raw strength of schedule numbers based on the 2020 campaign can be useful, yet it can’t be the only metric relied upon. Fresh playoff teams emerge each year, and some presumed favorites just don’t meet expectations.
Let’s take a look at the five key teams who are in ideal position for what they’re setting out to accomplish this season, based on how their respective schedules shook out.
The late Week 14 bye isn’t ideal, but what does work heavily in New England’s favor is the beginning of its schedule, where plenty of momentum can be generated for a hot start.
Bill Belichick loves teeing off on young quarterbacks, and he’ll get to face Tua Tagovailoa and Zach Wilson in the first two weeks. They stand little chance of success against the Patriots’ defense.
Off of what should be a 2-0 start, it won’t really matter whether it’s Mac Jones or Cam Newton under center in New England. The team’s upgraded skill positions and tight end duo of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith will make the Pats offense run much smoother than it did in 2020.
After hosting the Jameis Winston-led New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay thereafter, the Patriots travel to Houston, and are then back in Foxborough for the presumably soft defenses of the Cowboys and Jets.
Most of New England’s toughest games are at home. The young Dolphins are asking a lot of Tagovailoa to help them to a division title, and the Buffalo Bills aren’t used to having a target on their backs. This sets up nicely for the Patriots, because they face the Bills in Weeks 13 and 16 before a road trip to Miami for the regular-season finale.
All three of those teams should be in the AFC East hunt, and the Patriots should have the edge thanks to Belichick’s historic ability to have his side peaking at the right time.
To keep the focus on the Pats in the last section, it was necessary to downplay the Week 4 showdown between Tampa Bay and New England. Tom Brady returns to Gillette Stadium, and it’s going to get weird.
Beyond the Patriots, though, there aren’t many foes for the Bucs to worry much about in the early going. They’re returning all their major starters from last year’s Super Bowl team, and face the cupcake defenses of Dallas and Atlanta at home to start the 2021 slate.
Following road trips to face the Los Angeles Rams and Patriots, Tampa Bay faces Miami, Philadelphia, Chicago and New Orleans before a Week 9 bye. None of those teams have a surefire franchise QB, much less anyone who’s close to Brady’s level.
It’s not outlandish to suggest the Bucs could enter their idle week with a 7-1 record. If that’s not a phenomenal start to a Lombardi Trophy defense, what is? From there, it’s all about fine-tuning for a team built to go back-to-back.
Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer bring an excitement to Jaguars football that’s sorely been missing for years.
Thanks to landing Lawrence and a ton of additional team speed through the draft and free agency, Jacksonville is a true wild card entering this season. It’s very likely the Jaguars can catch some folks by surprise early until the NFL gets more tape on Lawrence and figures out what Meyer is trying to do.
But until then, this could be a prolonged honeymoon phase in Duval County for the franchise’s new QB-head coach combo.
The Jaguars get to face the Houston Texans on the road in Week 1, and should overwhelm their inferior foe with that newly acquired speed and upgraded quarterback play. From there, it’s home against Denver and Arizona before a road trip to Cincinnati.
Prior to the Week 7 bye, which is a little early, Jacksonville gets Tennessee at home and the Dolphins in London. That latter trip to the UK robs the Jags of a home game, yet they’ll still host three of their first five, and because the Texans are so bad, that doesn’t really count as an away trip.
Although the middle of the schedule is a little tougher, the Jaguars’ last four games are home against the Texans, at the Jets, at the Patriots and home for the Colts. It’s very possible to pull off a 3-1 record in that stretch, and it could be the difference in who wins the AFC South.
First of all, the Rams won nine games last season Jared Goff’s 15 starts. Imagine what they can do with a far superior passer in Matthew Stafford at the controls of Sean McVay’s offensive attack.
Los Angeles wasn’t able to keep star safety John Johnson III and nickel corner Troy Hill. They both went to the Cleveland Browns in free agency. That doesn’t mean all is lost on defense, however.
Aaron Donald is still wreaking havoc in the trenches, and Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams are arguably the best cornerback duo in the NFL. The Rams will be just fine on D, and if Stafford provides the expected juice in the passing game, LA should be favored to win the competitive NFC West.
So between those unique edges these Rams have on their divisional adversaries — not to mention the uncomfortable Russell Wilson dynamic in Seattle, the awkward QB transition in San Francisco, and the intense scrutiny facing Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona — the schedule also played into Los Angeles’ hands.
Whoever Chicago wants to trot out in Week 1 on Sunday Night Football, the Bears aren’t beating the Rams in LA.
After a visit to Indianapolis, who has a shaky quarterback in Carson Wentz, and home games against Tampa Bay and Arizona, the Rams’ next four-game stanza in the long season is as follows: at the New York Giants, home for the Lions, at Houston and home versus Tennessee.
None of those defenses or opposing quarterbacks should strike fear into this team. If Los Angeles enters Week 10’s Monday Night Football duel against the rival 49ers with only one or two losses, don’t be surprised.
Just look at the piece linked above this image. Good luck finding a winnable game on Houston’s schedule. Now, you may be wondering why the Texans are a “key team.” Their season will be one to forget as quickly as possible, right?
Exactly! Houston has the least-talented roster in the NFL, and is in dire need of a high draft position. Thanks to a combination of opponents that features tons of playoff contenders and enough ascending teams, the Texans should escape this year with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
With no end in sight to the Deshaun Watson scandal, it’s likely that Houston will trot out Tyrod Taylor to lead its offense. Taylor is a respected veteran, with great leadership intangibles, good running ability and a live arm. He’s not a miracle-worker, though.
It’s going to be tough sledding for Taylor, because the Texans aren’t going to be able to stop anyone on defense. They should be 0-9 going into the Week 10 bye, and don’t be surprised to see rookie Davis Mills get at least a few starts thereafter so Houston can see what it has in the rookie third-round QB.
The best-case scenario is if Houston goes 0-17, manages to trade Watson for a big haul, and uses that load of assets to overhaul its roster in 2022 and beyond, likely building around a new quarterback.