Geoff Schwartz lays out the 10 games to circle on the 2021 NFL calendar
By Geoff Schwartz
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
With the release of the 2021 NFL schedule, we can finally start to visualize the upcoming season.
Fans visualize the schedule in wins and losses, picking out which games they think their team can take and acknowledging which ones they'll probably lose. Players, on the other hand, are different.
Here are the six things we look at when the schedule comes out.
1. Bye week. Ask any player, and if they are being truthful, they'll say the first thing they look at is the bye week. The bye week serves an important function for the team and its players. First, it’s a physical break from the wear and tear of the season. This is why a bye week ideally lands in the middle of the season. You have the five weeks of camp, followed by eight or so regular-season weeks. That’s at least three months of football and the body needs some rest. When you return from your bye week, your body feels fresh, even though it may not be.
But more important than resting your body, it allows you to rest your brain. We know football is a violent sport and as such, you have to get into the right mindset to play ball. You must find ways to deal with the stress and anxiety of playing, as well as dealing with the pain of a beat-up body.
During the bye week, none of that exists (well, maybe the pain of an injury). You get a full week away from the game. No stress of game-planning, practicing, worrying or any of the other game week duties. It’s a week to spend with a family you might have ignored for weeks, and to enjoy some quality time with your kids. You might even take a vacation and leave it all behind for a week. It's easily the top thing players look for when the schedule comes out.
2. Thursday night games. Along the same lines, players then look for the Thursday night football game, which is a mini-bye week. In an ideal world, you’d have Thursday Night Football somewhere in Weeks 2-4, and then your bye week in the 8-10 range. When you play on Thursday, your week of practice is almost all mental and then you’re off for the three days right after the game.
3. Primetime games. Next, players look for primetime games, but not for the reasons you’d think. Yes, these games can be seen by family members and friends who are out of market. Yes, they are often against the better opponents and therefore are a good test for your team. They can put players on the map. However, they are at night. And they are late. And the next few days you’re dragging if you’re flying home after that late game and don’t get home until the wee hours of the morning. The older players get, the less they want that drag on the body.
4. Opening week game. The release of the schedule is when the next season starts to feel real. Before you know it, camp will be here. And as you set your sights on this new season, you can look to that Week 1 opponent for motivation. It’s good to have something to look forward to.
5. Personal games. These are the games where you’re playing a former team or former teammate, or it’s in your home city, or it’s a team that didn’t draft you. There’s something personal to you in this game.
6. Cold-weather games. Who the heck wants to play in a cold-weather game? I know players check out the back end of the schedule just to see how many times you will be bundling up as you run on the field.
Now that you know what players look at when the schedule comes out, let's examine 10 games everyone should be circling on their schedule.
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The entire Green Bay schedule
I do not think the Green Bay Packers want to trade Aaron Rodgers and they will try their best to keep him. The schedule release will tell us what NFL people believe might happen with Rodgers. If the Packers have their usual high number of primetime games, the NFL believes Rodgers is staying. If the Packers' schedule is lacking in primetime games, then the opposite is true. The league believes Rodgers is gone. So with that being said …
We have the new schedule format to thank for this game. On paper, this matchup is a dream for the NFL, with two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks meeting on the field for the first time in the regular season. The NFL will be hopeful that Rodgers is on the Packers and Patrick Mahomes is healthy, but this game should live up to the hype. It could be a possible Super Bowl preview.
The Bills and Browns are the two immediate threats in the AFC for the Chiefs, who are my overwhelming favorite to win the conference for the third year in a row. The Bills lost to the Chiefs twice last season – once in Week 6 and later in the AFC Championship game. Both games played out the same way: The Chiefs offense did what it wanted because the Bills couldn’t touch Mahomes with their front four. The Chiefs made Josh Allen uncomfortable the whole time, making sure to pressure his throwing hand. For the Bills to win the AFC, they will need to prove they can beat the Chiefs.
Josh Allen made a historic jump in his third year to become an MVP candidate. This season, he gets a first-place schedule and a game with Tampa Bay. All season he will be tested, and the expectations will be even higher in this game. The Bucs' defense will be outstanding and Allen's counterpart will be Tom Brady. It'll be a good test for Allen and the Bills.
I keep getting told that I’m premature in putting nails in the Super Bowl coffin of this Ravens team. This matchup will be the perfect opportunity for them to show they can be a postseason threat. The Chiefs have won the three previous matchups between Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, and they have done so in a progressively stronger fashion each time. The first game was an OT win for the Chiefs. Then, a five-point win after the Chiefs entered the fourth quarter down by 17. Then last season, the Chiefs controlled the game from start to finish, winning by 14. So I have to see it from the Ravens and this is a chance to show me.
Duh … it's Bill Belichick against Tom Brady for the first time ever. We know Tampa is loaded and when Brady has something to play for, look out. He’s a man on a mission. Belichick retooled his roster and he’s looking to show everyone he can win without his former quarterback. This game will be a fantastic watch with both sides knowing everything about each other.
The Browns stunned the Steelers in the playoffs and this game could be the turning point in the rivalry. The Steelers have beaten the Browns 17 straight times in the regular season at Heinz Field. If the Browns can go into Pittsburgh and follow up their playoff win with another win, it will signal that the Browns are overtaking the Steelers. The Browns roster could be the best in the league and the Steelers are holding onto Big Ben for one last season. This could be a turning point for the AFC North.
This is the battle of the top two draft picks. The Jaguars will head to MetLife with the first pick in the draft under center in Trevor Lawrence. The Jets will have Zach Wilson throwing the rock. These two will be linked together for the rest of their careers.
This game probably won’t be good, but it will have intriguing storylines. Jared Goff returns to Los Angeles to face Matt Stafford and his old club. This game will not determine who "won" the trade but I’m sure it will feel awesome for Goff to win it.
The Giants are rightfully the trendy pick for the NFC East title, as no team has repeated as division winner since 2004. Heading to Dallas for a late-season prime time clash against the Cowboys could put the Giants over the edge for their first division title since 2016. It would also cement Joe Judge as the head coach and show the growth of his team. Don't expect the Cowboys to go lightly if their defense improves, however, as they already have the best offense in the division. This game could be for the NFC East crown.
Geoff Schwartz played eight seasons in the NFL for five different teams. He started at right tackle for the University of Oregon for three seasons and was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection his senior year. He is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffSchwartz.