Patriots

The NFL season kicks off tonight. Here’s your complete guide.

Bills quarterback Josh Allen is entering his fourth season in the NFL.


The 2021 NFL season gets underway Thursday when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys at 8:20 p.m. ET. The game will air on NBC because it is considered part of its Sunday Night Football package and can be streamed on Peacock.

With the first game of the season typically played at the home of the defending Super Bowl champion, former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will once again play in the season opener, albeit as a member of the Buccaneers.

The Mac Jones era will begin when the Patriots open the season on Sunday by hosting the Dolphins at 4:25 p.m. on CBS. The Sunday night game will be the Chicago Bears at the Los Angeles Rams at 8:20 p.m. on NBC, while Baltimore heads to Las Vegas for the Monday night opener at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN. You can keep track of all of the action here.

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The season will have a bit of a pre-pandemic feel, in that all 32 NFL teams have been cleared for full capacity at their stadiums, and with the Patriots having a quarterback capable of throwing more than eight touchdowns.

Here’s a look at the upcoming season.

COVID protocols

Of course, we’re not completely back to normal. While some teams are requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of the game, the Patriots, who began welcoming fans back in the preseason, are using the honor system. Vaccinations will not be required for entry into Gillette Stadium, but ticketholders must agree they will not attend a game if they test positive for COVID in the 14 days leading up to the game, been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 14 days, or experienced symptoms of COVID-19 within 48 hours prior to the game. Unvaccinated fans are asked to wear a mask.

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Tickets to all games at Gillette Stadium will be accessible via mobile device only and can be downloaded on the official Gillette Stadium app. In addition to touchless entry, the stadium has gone completely cashless.

A series of health and sanitization policies have also been implemented. Bathroom fixtures are now touchless, while an added emphasis has been placed on more frequent and diligent cleaning and sanitization practices, especially at high-frequency touch points.

The league is doing its best to push players to get vaccinated. In a memo to all 32 teams in the offseason, the NFL highlighted the fact that if a game has to be canceled because of a COVID outbreak, players on both teams won’t receive their weekly paychecks.

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Viewing options

After the season opener, the rest of the Thursday night games in September will air on NFL Network. Starting in October, those games will also air on Fox and Amazon Prime.

All of NBC’s games will also be available on Peacock, provided you pay for one of its premium subscriptions, while games broadcast by CBS will be available on Paramount Plus’s premium tier. In-market and prime time games can also be streamed on the Yahoo! Sports app.

New rules

Jersey number changes: The league adjusted the restrictions on who can wear which jersey numbers. The reasoning was that teams were running low on numbers to give players at certain positions, particularly following the NFL’s expansion of teams’ practice squads from 10 to 16 players last season to allow for increased flexibility during the pandemic.

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Prior to this season, only quarterbacks, kickers, and punters could wear single-digit jerseys. Now, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends can wear numbers from 1-49 and 80-89. Defensive backs can go from 1-49, linebackers 1-59 and 90-99, and defensive linemen between 50-79 and 90-99.

Brady has voiced his displeasure, saying it gives the defense the advantage.

“The number rule is crazy,” Brady told the Tampa Bay Times. “Literally, guys changed their numbers today. I’m playing two guys who had different numbers in the preseason. So, yeah you’ve got to watch film and know who you’re studying but so do running backs. They’ve got to know who to block. So does the offensive line. So does the receivers who are adjusting their routes based on blitzes.

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It will seem strange in Week 4 if Brady looks across the line of scrimmage and sees Ja’Whaun Bentley at middle linebacker, and the on-field microphones pick up him barking out “8 is the mike! 8 is the mike!”

I’ll have another: The season has been expanded an extra week, with each team playing 17 games this season. Super Bowl LVI will be played on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium, the home of the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers.

More successful onside kicks? Only three onside kicks were recovered by the kicking team last year in 67 tries, the lowest rate of recovery since 2001. This year, only nine players on the receiving team will be allowed within 25 yards of the ball.

Slight adjustment on replay: Replay officials on-site now have the authority to offer referees advice on what they see on broadcast replays related to possession, completions and interceptions, players down by contact, and the spot of the ball relative to the out of bounds lines. They will not be able to reverse calls on their own or tell referees to throw flags.

Taunting: The league is telling its officials to strictly enforce taunting rules in 2021, reminding players that two taunting penalties by an individual player will result in automatic disqualification.”

Top storylines

Can Josh Allen and the Bills take the next step? Buffalo captured the AFC East and advanced to the conference championship game last year, with Allen finishing the year with 4,544 yards passing and 37 touchdowns. The young quarterback is already garnering attention as a preseason candidate for league MVP.

Can Brady and the Buccaneers repeat? Tampa Bay re-signed just about everybody as it aims to become the first franchise to win consecutive Super Bowls since the Patriots in 2003 and 2004.

Kansas City’s new look offensive line: Quarterback Patrick Mahomes took a beating last year, particularly in the Super Bowl when he was sacked three times, hit nine times, and picked off twice, so the Chiefs overhauled their offensive line, including signing former Patriots guard Joe Thuney to a five-year $80 million deal.

Dak Prescott’s health: When Prescott went down with a dislocated ankle in Week 5 last season, the Cowboys’ season was effectively over. The sixth-year quarterback didn’t have much of an opportunity to test the surgically repaired ankle, missing all of Dallas’s preseason games with what was ultimately diagnosed as a latissimus strain in his right shoulder. The time off apparently worked, as Prescott is expected to start against Tampa Bay.

Aaron Rodgers’s future: Rodgers was a hot topic all offseason after reports circulated on the first day of the draft that the quarterback wanted out of Green Bay. But Rodgers reported to camp and has expressed a desire to stay in Green Bay moving forward. Will it last?

Ben’s last stand? The Steelers started the 2020 season by going 11-0, but then dropped five of their last six games, including a first round exit in the playoffs. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, 39, is entering his 18th season, and could be on the hot seat if Pittsburgh gets off to a slow start.

Browns on the way up: Cleveland also had a breakthrough season in 2020, reaching the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, then beating the Steelers before being eliminated by the Chiefs in the divisional round. They’ll contend with the Ravens and Steelers for the AFC North title in 2021.

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