Release date, schedule changes, divisional opponents, more


With the 2020 NFL season in the rearview mirror, the release date of the 2021 NFL schedule is immediately in sharp focus. When will the 2021 NFL schedule be released, and what do we already know about the schedule for next season?

When is the NFL schedule released?

The release of the NFL schedule always generates excitement, and 2021 will be no different. The exact date of the schedule release has varied over the past decade. However, the schedule is usually released in either the second or third week of April. 2020 saw the schedule release delayed by a month, but expectations are it will follow the regular schedule in 2021.

Additionally, the schedule is normally released officially on a Thursday. Therefore, the dates to circle for the NFL schedule’s potential release are the 15th and 22nd of April. In previous years, teams have released their schedules at around 7:30 PM ET, with the NFL releasing the full schedule at around 8 PM ET.

However, on March 4th, Ben Fischer of Sports Business Journal reported that the NFL plans to release the 2021 schedule in mid-May. Additionally, we know that the 2021 NFL season is expected to begin on Thursday, September 9th, and conclude with Super Bowl 56 in February 2022.

What is the standard process for setting the NFL schedule?

Even though we do not know the exact 2021 NFL schedule until the official release date, we do know which teams will face one another. The NFL has a defined structure for deciding which teams match up on a yearly basis. Each team plays six games against their divisional opponents, one at home and one on the road.

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A further four games are played against the teams in another division within the same conference. Additionally, each team plays four games against a division in the opposing conference. These are rotated yearly across a three-year cycle. Here is how the 2021 schedule rotation looks:

  • AFC East opponents:
  • AFC North opponents: 
  • AFC South opponents: 
  • AFC West opponents: 
  • NFC East opponents:
  • NFC North opponents:
  • NFC South opponents:
  • NFC West opponents:

The remaining two games on the traditional schedule we will see for each team following the 2021 NFL schedule release involve the remaining two teams who finished in the same position in the other divisions within their conference. So, for example, the Jacksonville Jaguars will face off against the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals.

What considerations go into the NFL schedule’s creation?

Beginning in 2010, two schedule restrictions were introduced. We will see both of these restrictions in place at the release of the 2021 NFL schedule. The first of these is that the final regular season game is a divisional matchup. The idea was to prevent teams from resting players because of the games being of a rival nature. However, this has not been the case in recent seasons.

The second restriction is already in place in the way the schedule rotates. Teams playing the AFC West or NFC West are assigned to prevent a team from traveling to the west coast twice, while the other team does so for neither game.

Is there a 17th game in the NFL in 2021?

The 2021 NFL season is expected to introduce a 17th game to the NFL calendar.

Much has been made of how the 17th game will work, including discussion of all 32 teams playing those games at a neutral venue. The exact details regarding the process for the 17th game are yet to be known, and we will potentially have to wait for the release of the 2021 NFL schedule to learn the exact details.

What do we know so far?

In December 2020, Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport reported on that plans are in place to expand the regular season. The NFL has not officially ratified these plans, but it is expected that we will see each NFL franchise playing 17 games when the 2021 schedule release occurs.

In terms of how the 17th game will be decided, Albert Breer reported the potential matchups. The matchups will be an interconference tilt based on standings on a rotational basis. In 2021, those matchups see the AFC East teams face the NFC East. The AFC West will match up with the NFC North, and the NFC West will face the AFC North. Therefore, the AFC South will face off with the NFC South to complete the schedule.

Who will match up on the 2021 NFL schedule release between the AFC East and NFC East?

Buffalo Bills vs. Washington Football Team
Miami Dolphins vs. New York Giants
New England Patriots vs. Dallas Cowboys
New York Jets vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Who will match up on the 2021 NFL schedule release between the AFC North and NFC West?

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Seattle Seahawks
Baltimore Ravens vs. Los Angeles Rams
Cleveland Browns vs. Arizona Cardinals
Cincinnati Bengals vs. San Francisco 49ers

Who will match up on the 2021 NFL schedule release between the AFC South and NFC South?

Tennessee Titans vs. New Orleans Saints
Indianapolis Colts vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Houston Texans vs. Carolina Panthers
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Atlanta Falcons

Who will match up on the 2021 NFL schedule release between the AFC West and NFC North?

Kansas City Chiefs vs. Green Bay Packers
Las Vegas Raiders vs. Chicago Bears
Los Angeles Chargers vs. Minnesota Vikings
Denver Broncos vs. Detroit Lions

The home team determination in the 17th week will likely unveil during the 2021 NFL schedule posting.

Want more NFL news and analysis?

Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay up to date with all things around the NFL. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis concerning the 2020 season and beyond.

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