2021 NFL Schedule: Headline game for each week

The 2021 NFL season is fast approaching, but following the release of the schedule, which games stand out as the headline in each week of the season? Additionally, when was the 2021 NFL schedule released, what day does the season begin, how is the schedule set, and what is the process for the 17th game in 2021?

When does the 2021 NFL season start?

The 2021 NFL season will begin on Thursday, September 9. Despite extending the season and reducing the preseason, the NFL did not alter the start date of the season. Moving the season forward a week would have led to Week 1 being played on Labor Day Weekend, which appears to be something the NFL wanted to avoid.

However, this does alter the date for Super Bowl 56 in February 2022. Unless the NFL were willing to remove the “bye week” between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, the Super Bowl would have to move back a week. This was confirmed in the press release for the 17th game. Therefore, Super Bowl 56 will be played on February 13.

What are the headline games on the 2021 NFL schedule?

Let’s take a look at which games stand out as some of the most intriguing in each week of the 2021 NFL schedule. For a full list of matchups, be sure to check out the 2021 NFL week-by-week schedule.

*All times in ET unless otherwise stated

Cowboys at Buccaneers | Week 1, THU, Sept. 9 | 8:20 PM

Dak Prescott will return to the field following his injury on the opening day of the 2021 season. It will be a tough task for the Cowboys against the defending champion Buccaneers, who will be looking for a strong start in 2021.

Chiefs at Ravens | Week 2, SUN, Sept. 19 | 8:20 PM

This could potentially be a preview of an AFC playoff game between the two teams. Kansas City has had the upper hand over Baltimore in recent years. However, Lamar Jackson and the Ravens will be looking to make a statement on Sunday Night Football in Week 2.

Buccaneers at Rams | Week 3, SUN, Sept. 26 | 4:25 PM

A rematch of one of the Buccaneers’ defeats from 2021. The Los Angeles Rams’ defense provided a blueprint for attacking the Buccaneers’ offense last season. This game makes up a tough start to the Buccaneers’ 2021 NFL schedule.

Buccaneers at Patriots | Week 4, SUN, Oct. 3 | 8:20 PM

Another tough matchup for the Buccaneers and one that will have an emotional feel. Tom Brady will lead the defending champions into Foxboro in the biggest revenge game of the 2021 NFL schedule.

Bills at Chiefs | Week 5, SUN, Oct. 10 | 8:20 PM

This game between the Bills and Chiefs kicks off an important three-week stretch in the AFC. The Bills fell short against the Chiefs in both matchups last year. This game represents a huge marker for the Bills early in their season.

Bills at Titans | Week 6, MON, Oct. 18 | 8:15 PM

Another huge game for Buffalo coming off the back of facing the Chiefs a week earlier. Buffalo and Tennessee could very easily be two of the final four teams in the AFC. This game could be a deciding factor in who has home-field advantage in a potential repeat game in the playoffs.

Chiefs at Titans | Week 7, SUN, Oct. 24 | 1 PM

Bringing this full circle, the Titans host the Chiefs just six days after hosting the Bills. Tennessee has given the Chiefs very competitive games in their past couple of meetings. Above all, the Titans and Bills have the chance to deal two defeats to the Chiefs in a three-week stretch.

Titans at Colts | Week 8, SUN, Oct. 31 | 1 PM

This game ends a tough three-week stretch for the Titans. Games against the Bills and Chiefs could lead to a potential letdown performance in Week 8 against the Colts. That is something Tennessee can ill afford in what should be a tight battle to top the AFC South.

Packers at Chiefs | Week 9, MON, Nov. 7 | 4:25 PM

Things do not get easier for the Chiefs in Week 9. Having faced two AFC rivals in the space of three weeks, they have to take on the Packers in a potential Super Bowl preview. Could the 2021 NFL schedule be set up to hand the Chiefs three losses in a five-week period?

Rams at 49ers | Week 10, MON, Nov. 15 | 8:15 PM

The NFC West looks set to be a tight division. Currently, the Rams and 49ers are the favorites, meaning this Week 10 matchup could be crucial. The winner will take a huge boost into the stretch run of their season.

Colts at Bills | Week 11, SUN, Nov. 21 | 1 PM

An important matchup in the context of the AFC South and the AFC as a whole. The Colts need to at least match the Titans’ result against the Bills from Week 6. If they drop this game after the Titans have beaten the Bills, it could be a difference-maker in deciding the winner of the AFC South.

Browns at Ravens | Week 12, SUN, Nov. 28 | 8:20 PM

With the Steelers expected to struggle in 2021, the Browns and Ravens will duke it out for the AFC North. This matchup on SNF really could set one of these teams up for a strong finish to the season.

49ers at Seahawks | Week 13, SUN, Dec. 5 | 8:20 PM

Another potentially crucial matchup in the NFC West. These two teams seemingly always bring their very best when facing off against each other.

Cowboys at Washington | Week 14, SUN, Dec. 12 | 1 PM

The two favorites for the NFC East go head-to-head with just a month left remaining in the season. This matchup could decide who hosts a playoff game on Wild Card Weekend in what is always a tight division.

Seahawks at Rams | Week 15, SUN, Dec. 19 | 4:25 PM

Once again, we bring a head-to-head-to-head full circle with the Seahawks and Rams matchup in Week 15. Both teams will be hoping to still be in the race for both the NFC West and a first-round bye.

Browns at Packers | Week 16, SAT, Dec. 25 | 4:30 PM

An intriguing matchup to gauge the form of a contender in each conference. Assuming Aaron Rodgers is on the field, this is a fantastic Christmas Day clash that should entertain everyone looking for entertainment after their family festivities.

Rams at Ravens | Week 17, SUN, Jan. 2 | 4:25 PM

Another wonderful inter-conference matchup between two likely playoff teams. The Ravens humiliated the Rams a couple of years ago in Los Angeles, and both should be fighting hard to try and earn at least one home playoff game.

Patriots at Dolphins | Week 18, SUN, Jan. 9 | 1 PM

These two always seem to play out fascinating games, especially when something is riding on it at the end of the year. The Dolphins and Patriots are expected to be playoff contenders in the AFC, and this game very much could decide which one of them continues playing in January.

What is the standard process for setting the NFL schedule?

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

Another 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 have a rotation yearly across a three-year cycle. Here is how the 2021 schedule rotation looks:

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

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 saw 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 will see the NFL introduce a 17th game to the NFL calendar. Much has been made of how the 17th game will work, including discussing all 32 teams playing those games at a neutral venue. Confirmation of the exact details regarding the process of the 17th game came on March 30.

How did the NFL decide the schedule for the 17th game?

In terms of how the 17th game was decided, Albert Breer reported the potential matchups back in September. Confirmation of these details came in the NFL’s announcement on March 30.

The matchups will be an interconference tilt based on standings on a rotational basis. In 2021, those matchups will 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. In the 2021 season, the AFC will get the extra home game, with the NFC getting the honor in 2022.

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.

Ben Rolfe is a Senior Managing Editor at Pro Football Network and is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can find him on Twitter @BenRolfePFN.


Have some thoughts you want to share on this article? Notice anything that you think might not be accurate? Join in on the conversation by clicking here to jump to the bottom of the page to get involved!


Follow along each week in our NFL Podcast - More than Football with Trey Wingo. Trey and co-host Brett Yarris host an exclusive interview series where they sit down with some of the most prolific names in sports media and the football world to dive deeper into the people who did More Than Football. Follow and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform, including Apple and Spotify.


Every day, get free NFL updates sent straight to your inbox!