The NFL’s 2021 schedule will be released Wednesday. How will it look? Armed with a predetermined list of opponents, I decided to take a stab at predicting how the coming year will look for the Patriots.
I used three different measuring sticks in coming up with the mock schedule for New England:
• History. I leaned on some of the tendencies the schedule-makers have displayed over the last decade-plus to craft what (hopefully) appears to be a reasonable slate.
• TV demands. Most of the compelling regular-season games are usually shifted to November for sweeps. That’s when many of the big-ticket games are going to be played, so that’s when the majority of bigger games will be grouped. (If I swing and miss on this entire thing, the one prediction I feel pretty good about is the fact that Tom Brady’s return to Gillette will be sometime in November.)
• Little idiosyncrasies we’ve noticed over the years — minimizing short weeks, lengthy stretches on the road or away from home, etc.
Sun., Sept, 12 at Buffalo, 1 p.m.: There’s some talk the Bills will start their season against the Bucs in Tampa on opening night. If not, I like the idea of the Patriots beginning the season in Buffalo. After all, history favors a Bills-Patriots opener: New England has begun its season with the Bills four times since 2003, the most of any opponent. (Regardless of what happens in Week One, I feel strongly we’ll see a New England-Buffalo game within the first two weeks of the season.)
Sun., Sept. 19 vs. Jacksonville, 1 p.m.: The Patriots and Jaguars have played eight regular-season games in their history, and three of them have been in September, including the last two times they’ve met. Even with the idea of Trevor Lawrence making his first start against Bill Belichick, if there’s a game on this schedule that screams September, this one is it.
Sun., Sept. 26 at Houston, 1 p.m.: This also feels like an early season game, even with Nick Caserio at the controls in Houston. The Texans, who had four wins last season, are one of five teams on the Patriots’ 2021 schedule that had five or less wins in 2020, a group that includes Jacksonville (one win), the New York Jets (two), Atlanta (four) and Carolina (five).
Sun., Oct. 3 vs. Miami, 1 p.m.: The Patriots and Dolphins almost always meet in the first six weeks of the season and the last few weeks of the season. An October contest in Foxborough while the region keeps one eye on the Patriots and another on a possible Red Sox playoff game? I’m in.
Sun., Oct. 10 at Carolina, 4 p.m.: I put this one relatively early in the season because it affords the networks the potentially juicy storyline of Cam Newton facing his old team. Why? Depending on how he plays to start the season, if they push it to November or December, maybe Newton isn’t under center any more for New England.
Sun., Oct. 17 at Indy, 1 p.m.: Patriots-Colts used to be a guaranteed, prime-time showdown, a good vs. evil blood feud guaranteed to get TV execs salivating. A slam-dunk for November. Now, a Carson Wentz-Newton contest makes it a little less compelling.
Mon., Oct. 25 vs. Dallas, 8 p.m.: Two things stand out: One, the Cowboys still move the needle nationally, which makes this an attractive Monday night possibility. And two, three of the last four times the Patriots have met Dallas, it’s been in mid- to late-October. Good enough for me.
Sun., Oct. 31 vs. Cleveland, 1 p.m.: Five of the last 10 times these two teams have played, it’s been in October. While this is approaching November-worthy status — it’s one of seven games this year for the Patriots against a team that made the playoffs the year before — this one still has a late-October feel.
Sun., Nov. 7 vs. Tampa Bay, 8 p.m.: The biggest regular-season game of the year is the best way to kick off November sweeps. The networks are going to be wrestling over this one, but my guess is it gets the Sunday Night Football treatment.
Sun., Nov. 14 BYE: I know it’s wishful thinking to get a bye nine weeks into the season. Worth noting that New England has averaged a Week 8 bye the last 10 years.
Thu., Nov. 18 at NY Jets, 8 p.m.: Doesn’t necessarily have the juice of some of these other games, but New England vs. New York can still get people excited. (Last year’s contest at MetLife came down to a Nick Folk walk-off on “Monday Night Football.”)
Sun., Nov. 28 vs. New Orleans, 4 p.m.: This doesn’t offer the quarterback matchup of years past, but a competitive AFC-NFC crossover event like this one — which could put a nice capper on Thanksgiving weekend — is enough to give it a late start during sweeps.
Sun., Dec. 5 vs. Buffalo, 1 p.m.: If the Bills are able to get out of the gate quickly, and if the Patriots’ offseason moves have paid off to the tune of, let’s say an 8-3 record by this point, this one has a chance to be flexed into prime time. (For the record, the Bills — who finished 13-3 last year — had the most wins in 2020 of any team New England will face this coming season.)
Sun., Dec. 12 at Atlanta, 1 p.m.: This feels a little too interesting to schedule for September or October, but not good enough for November, so we’ll give it a nice spot here near the start of what could be the stretch drive for the Patriots. I know it will have been a few years since Super Bowl LI, but what’s the over/under on 28-3 references for the broadcast crew in this one?
Sun., Dec. 19 vs. Tennessee, 1 p.m.: Tempted to move this one to November, just because of the Belichick vs. Mike Vrabel matchup, but it feels like a good mid-December tune-up that should provide us all with an opportunity to see just how well the Patriots fare when faced with what could be a stout test against a worthy AFC foe.
Sun., Dec. 26 at LA Chargers, 4 p.m.: A December trip to Southern California is guaranteed to put a smile on everyone’s face.
Sun., Jan. 2 at Miami, 1 p.m.: Late season game in South Florida? What could go wrong? Ho ho ho. Regardless of the circumstances, a December-January game between the Patriots and Dolphins in Miami is always interesting.
Sun., Jan. 9 vs. NY Jets, 1 p.m.: The Patriots have closed with the Jets three of the last four years. I’ll bet the NFL will stick with that matchup again.
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