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2021 NFL schedule winners, best matchups, win total predictions

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The 2021 NFL schedule is out, and the regular season will begin with the Dallas Cowboys facing the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday, Sept. 9. Week 1 also features a meeting of AFC powerhouses in the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, the New Orleans Saints beginning their post-Drew Brees era at the Green Bay Packers and new Carolina Panthers QB Sam Darnold facing his old New York Jets team. And the opening Monday Night Football game will see the Baltimore Ravens visit the Las Vegas Raiders.

The NFL also expanded the regular-season schedule to 17 games, which begins this year. The NFL had played a 16-game schedule since 1978. And the league will return to international play with the Atlanta Falcons set to host the Jets and the Jacksonville Jaguars matching up with the Miami Dolphins at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.

But what should we make of the 2021 slate? Who’s the biggest winner from the schedule release? Which games should you circle on your calendar? And which rookie debut will be the most interesting? Our panel of NFL experts weighs in.

Skip to a question:

Which matchup do you have circled on your calendar?

Matt Bowen, NFL analyst: Bills at Patriots, Week 16. I really like the roster upgrades New England made this offseason through free agency and the draft. There are scheme-specific players there. And this matchup in Week 16 against Buffalo could have major implications in both playoff seeding and the AFC East race.

Mike Clay, fantasy writer: Browns at Chiefs, Week 1. Two of the league’s best teams facing off in the first week? I’m here for it. The Browns are absolutely loaded on paper, and this is their opportunity to establish themselves as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Cleveland will be eyeing a hot start after getting crushed 38-6 by the Ravens in Week 1 last season. The Browns will also be looking for revenge after being eliminated by the Chiefs in the playoffs last season.

Jeremy Fowler, national NFL writer: Bills at Chiefs, Week 5. Buffalo’s dream 2020 season fizzled quickly with a shaky performance against Kansas City in the AFC title game. This rematch should be tighter, with the Bills eager to make the proverbial next step. And by Week 5, Kansas City’s reimagined offensive line should be in full swing.

Dan Graziano, national NFL writer: Buccaneers at Patriots, Week 4. There weren’t any Patriots fans in the stands last year in Foxborough, so it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun if Tom Brady‘s return had been last season. Good on the scheduling gods for waiting a year for the juiciest revenge game of the season — whichever way you think the revenge should be directed.

Kevin Seifert, national NFL writer: Buccaneers at Patriots, Week 4. I guess I’m a sucker for storylines, but will there be a better one in 2021 than Brady’s return to Foxborough in prime time? And if the numbers work out right, Brady could pass Drew Brees as the NFL’s all-time leader in career passing yards. He’ll need to average about 289 yards per game over the first four games to do it that night.

Seth Walder, sports analytics writer: Chiefs at Ravens, Week 2. I think there’s a decent chance Lamar Jackson and the Ravens recapture the magic of their 2019 season and become one of the best teams in the league again. What better way to find out if they are for real this year than taking on Patrick Mahomes? Plus, I love watching two effective offenses that are this stylistically different.


Who or what is the biggest winner of the schedule release?

Bowen: The Week 1 prime-time slate. I see three really good prime-time games here. Dallas at Tampa Bay starts it off in the Thursday night opener with Dak Prescott and Brady. On Sunday night, we get to watch Matthew Stafford in his first game with the Rams’ offense, and maybe we also see rookie quarterback Justin Fields taking snaps for Chicago. And on Monday night, it’s Jackson against the Raiders in Vegas. That’s good football.

Clay: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has the league’s easiest projected schedule based on my evaluation of each 2021 roster. The Bucs face the NFC and AFC East divisions, which aren’t particularly intimidating, and they’ll also benefit from a relatively light slate of six divisional games against the Falcons, Panthers and Drew Brees-less Saints. Tampa Bay is set up nicely for another Super Bowl run.

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Chris Canty explains why he’s more interested in seeing how Dak Prescott and the Cowboys will bounce back for the upcoming season.

Fowler: Dallas Cowboys. Nine of Dallas’ opponents had a losing record last season (including the entire NFC East, of course). There are the Saints, Bucs and Chiefs, but not much else to scare you. Prescott should rebound nicely from his ankle surgery against a few defenses that don’t mind giving up big passing yardage.

Graziano: Philadelphia Eagles. All of the NFC East teams got nice-looking draws (which, based on last year, they all could use), but the Eagles don’t have to get on a plane after Week 10. Late-season travel is a big part of what players look at when they assess the schedule. I haven’t dug in enough to know whether Philly is the biggest winner, but I did see that late-season travel note and thought it was worth pointing out here.

Seifert: Capacity for hype. The NFL added a new level to this ridiculous and beautiful day by teasing out the Week 1 schedule on its partners’ morning shows. Instead of consuming one evening of the offseason, the NFL stole a full day’s worth of attention. Impressive.

Walder: Carolina Panthers. The most important part of the order of a team’s games is how much rest they have relative to their opponents. Carolina doesn’t play any teams coming off a bye and overall has a plus-13-day rest differential relative to its opponents over the course of the year. That’s tied for the highest rest differential among all team schedules since 2002 (though there is an extra game this year).


Which rookie debut are you most interested in, and why?

Bowen: Kyle Pitts, Eagles vs. Falcons. Pitts has a tight end frame but the traits of a wide receiver. There’s matchup ability at all three levels of the field with scoring upside in the red zone. And I’m eager to see how new Falcons head coach Arthur Smith schemes him up in the pass game.

Clay: Trevor Lawrence, Jaguars vs. Texans. Granted it’s a road game, but Lawrence is otherwise set up about as well as you can be in your NFL debut. The first overall pick will face what is arguably the league’s shakiest defense on paper. Houston’s defense was one of the league’s worst last season and will be without offseason departures J.J. Watt and Benardrick McKinney, as well as suspended cornerback Bradley Roby. Lawrence is positioned for a hot start to his career.

Fowler: Najee Harris, Steelers at Bills. Pittsburgh’s schedule is brutal, the offensive line is patchy and Ben Roethlisberger is pushing 40 years old, so counting out the Steelers is a convenient thing to do. But Harris is the franchise’s best every-down back since Le’Veon Bell and will set a tone Week 1.

Graziano: Zach Wilson, Jets at Panthers. I think this is a brutal break for Wilson, to have to beat Sam Darnold in Week 1. I’m not saying he can’t do it, or that he won’t turn out to be better than Darnold. But I’ve lived almost my whole life in New Jersey or Connecticut, and I know Jets fans. If Wilson struggles in Week 1 and Darnold lights it up in the same game, it is not going to be a fun week for the rookie.

Seifert: Travis Etienne, Jaguars vs. Texans. New coach Urban Meyer justified his decision to draft a running back in the first round, despite the presence of James Robinson and Carlos Hyde, by suggesting a Percy Harvin-like “hybrid” role for Etienne. I’m dubious. Harvin was a once-in-a-generation playmaker. But Week 1 will be our first opportunity to see what Meyer has in mind, assuming he doesn’t give much of it away in the preseason.

Walder: Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals vs. Vikings. It’s the Joe Burrow-Chase reunion. And it will be extra sweet after we missed Chase in 2020 (he opted out of the college season) and Burrow in the latter half of his rookie year (due to injury). They were a special pairing in college, and they’d jolt Cincinnati to life if they can keep it up at the next level.


Which win total over or under do you feel best about picking right now?

Bowen: Washington over 8 wins. Ron Rivera’s team has one the best defenses in the league, and I see an upgraded offense that will have more explosive-play ability in the pass game. Give me Washington to top the eight-win mark — and challenge for the NFC East title.

Fowler: Raiders over 7.5. If Vegas had shored up its defense last year, it might have been a 10-win team. If the Raiders can get a semblance of a pass rush and a pass defense, I like their chances to surpass last year’s 8-8 clip. They’ve made moves to address those spots through the draft and free agency. The wild card is a rebuilt offensive line that lost some high-caliber talent, but they had to get younger, and that might rejuvenate the running game.

Graziano: Vikings over 8.5 wins. Aaron Rodgers might not be in the division anymore. The Bears have questions at QB, and their defense isn’t what it used to be. The Lions are … a ways off. Minnesota has stability at key positions and should be the best team in the NFC North if Rodgers isn’t in Green Bay. And even if he is, I still think they can get to 9-8. Yeah, that’s not a typo. Welcome to the 17-game season.

Seifert: 49ers under 10 wins. What’s more likely? The 49ers go through a full 17-game season with Jimmy Garoppolo as their quarterback? Or, for one reason or another, Garoppolo gives way to rookie Trey Lance at some point during the season? Assuming you agree with the latter, 10 wins is a big number for a team that transitions to a rookie quarterback.

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Doug Kezirian, Joe Fortenbaugh and Tyler Fulghum share their favorite Week 1 matchups.

Walder: Steelers under 9 wins. With an aging Roethlisberger and a very questionable offensive line, this offense could get ugly fast. The defense was elite last season, but we know that side of the ball is less stable from year to year, particularly with a few players — Cam Heyward and Joe Haden, among others — reaching the twilight of their careers.


What’s your early Super Bowl pick?

Bowen: Chiefs over Rams. Stafford elevates a pass game in L.A. that will be more vertical and more explosive. And we know the Rams’ defense can play. But I still like the Chiefs to win it. Patrick Mahomes is the difference-maker here, with the playmaking ability to take over games.

Clay: Buccaneers over Browns. Tampa Bay will return its entire starting lineup from last season’s Super Bowl run, and its young defense should only be better in 2021. Cleveland’s offense was already very good last season, and the front office did an A+ job overhauling and improving its defense during the offseason. As long as Baker Mayfield doesn’t stumble, the Browns should be legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Fowler: Packers over Bills. Let’s set aside Green Bay’s acrimony with Rodgers and remember the Packers have been on the brink for two years. A team with back-to-back 13-win seasons and NFC title game appearances returns its core, and it might be a contract extension away from another spite season from Rodgers. Buffalo has made a jump in each year with quarterback Josh Allen, coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane together. Here’s to another.

Graziano: Bills over Rams. I have no idea who to pick in the NFC, but I don’t want to pick the Bucs because I don’t believe in repeats in this league. The Rams look good, and we’ll go with them — until the next time I’m asked for a pick. But the headline here is the first Super Bowl title in Bills history and a statue for Sean McDermott in Buffalo.

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Peyton Manning goes through all the teams he has beaten on the Broncos’ schedule.

Seifert: Chiefs over Buccaneers. It’s a boring repeat, but it’s an early pick. The Chiefs have crushed the offseason by overhauling their offensive line, and the Buccaneers have their entire starting lineup and all of their key coaches back from the team that caught fire in the 2020 playoffs.

Walder: Browns over Rams. Cleveland’s roster is just overflowing with talent. From Myles Garrett to Odell Beckham Jr. to Denzel Ward to a strong offensive line, the Browns are just stacked to the point where they should be able to win — even without an elite-tier QB. The Rams have incredible upside with stars on defense and potential improvement on offense with Stafford now under center.

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‘I just knew it wasn’t my time’ Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham recounts serious spring car accident

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham admitted on Tuesday that he was fortunate to avoid serious injury after being involved in a single-vehicle rollover crash in Miami back in early March.

Prior to the start of Chicago’s mandatory three-day minicamp, Graham calmly recanted the harrowing story of how, on the day of the accident, he had to swerve to avoid a disabled car in the center lane of the highway as he and his dog, Ginger, were taking an early morning drive to the airport.

“I was on the turnpike and I saw a cop going kind of down this off-ramp with his lights off, he was reversing, so I got over two lanes and the sun is kind of coming up,” Graham said on Zoom. “So as I’m going over [a] hill I look up and there is a disabled vehicle in the center lane, and I’m going about 90 MPH. Probably about 15 yards away [from the disabled car], I swerved to the left and barely missed him but I was headed for a bridge so I kind of had to make a last-minute decision so I decided to turn right, and flip it to avoid jumping that [bridge].

“I ended up rolling – the cop said four times – and skidded on the roof for about 100 yards. It was a wild one.”

Both Graham and Ginger walked away from the wreck unscathed, but the end result could have been much worse.

“I was talking to the cop, right after the accident, and talking to my mechanic, and it really felt like a game. Everything was really slow. I can remember making every decision. I can actually remember my phone floating up in the air – I could see the time. I just knew it wasn’t my time. I was like there is no way I’m going die over something this stupid.

“But obviously I was extremely lucky.”

Graham, who was not found to be at fault, expressed gratitude to the police officers and first responders who arrived quickly on the scene.

Graham, 34, had 50 catches for 456 yards and eight touchdowns for the Bears last year. The five-time Pro Bowl selection is entering his second season with Chicago.

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Atlanta Falcons WR Calvin Ridley says he feels no pressure to replace traded Julio Jones

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Calvin Ridley is the Atlanta Falcons‘ No. 1 receiver now, and even though he’ll be replacing a franchise legend in traded-to-Tennessee Julio Jones, Ridley said Tuesday that he feels “no pressure” stepping into the role once held by a likely future Hall of Famer.

Part of the reason is Ridley’s confidence in his own play, something harnessed over the past three years playing alongside Jones with Atlanta. And some of it comes from playing without Jones for half of last season, when hamstring injuries sidelined the former Falcons star.

“I played with Julio, Mohamed Sanu, since Day 1, those guys, I feel like I’ve been moving toward that way of I can do it by myself,” Ridley said. “Obviously I’m not by myself, we have other players who are really good, but I feel like I’ve been ready and I just needed an opportunity to get in those positions.”

Ridley, who was drafted at No. 26 by the Falcons in the 2018 draft, blossomed last season with career highs in targets (143), receptions (90) and yards (1,374). He also had nine touchdowns, one off the 10 he had in his rookie season.

The 26-year-old showed he can handle being Atlanta’s top option. He showed he can handle double-teams — he said he’s seen them since the 2019 season — as he started to display his abilities as one of the top receivers in the NFL.

He did it last season playing at least partially hurt. Ridley had “minor” foot surgery this offseason stemming from an injury he suffered during the 2020 season. He’s been at the team’s facility rehabbing, working out and going through walkthroughs — essentially everything except practicing — and said he believes “I’m pretty sure I’ll be ready” for the start of Atlanta’s training camp in July.

When he does return to the field, he’ll bring with him lessons learned from playing with Jones. Every week they played together, Ridley tried to outdo Jones. He used it as motivation and a way to improve just by looking within his own position group.

With Jones gone, Ridley is looking for someone else to give him that kind of motivation — he suggested, maybe joking, maybe not, he might use quarterback Matt Ryan as that — and knows he might provide similar motivation to Atlanta’s other receivers as well.

But for him, it’s about confidence. It’s why Ridley is able to play the way he does. He believes in his game, in his skill and in his ability to beat defenders. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s also something he received from Jones.

“Just the confidence [Jones] has every week and being the No. 1 receiver and going out to work every day, I feel like you have to believe in yourself,” Ridley said. “And by my second year, that’s when I realized that’s what he’s all about, confidence.

“So when I realized that, I just started to think that, I didn’t think that I’m better than him, but I just believed in myself and I really think that made me a better player. I really believe in myself.”

One question will be how Ridley is used in first-year head coach Arthur Smith’s offense. Ridley said he’s still figuring that out — the Falcons haven’t put on pads yet — but he likes what he has seen thus far from Smith and what could happen with the offense.

Smith said that once Ridley starts to practice, he’ll have a better idea of where he’ll use the receiver in the offense but that he’s been pleased with how Ridley has picked things up so far — even though he hasn’t been able to actually practice.

The Falcons liked Ridley enough to pick up his fifth-year option for 2022 in May, a sign of how integral they might view him over at least the next two seasons.

“He had a really productive year. Calvin has been a really good player here so far,” Smith said. “Best days are hopefully ahead of him. I’ve been impressed with Calvin, both the person and the player. I’m excited to get to work with him.”

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Cleveland Browns RB Nick Chubb says he wants to stay with team when NFL rookie contract ends

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BEREA, Ohio — Heading into the final season of his rookie contract, Browns Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb said Tuesday that his desire is to remain in Cleveland long-term.

“It would mean a lot,” said Chubb, who said that his agent and the team have already discussed a potential extension this offseason. “Cleveland drafted me and trusted me and put their faith in me to help build this culture and this team I’m a part of. Cleveland is where I want to be. Hopefully everything can work out in that direction.”

Chubb, a second-round pick in 2018, has been the backbone of the Browns’ offense the past two seasons, averaging 5.25 yards per carry during that span.

In 2019, he came within 47 yards of besting Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry for the rushing title. Last season, Chubb missed four games because of a knee injury but still finished seventh in the league with 1,070 yards on the ground, as Cleveland made the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Chubb has been especially efficient late in games. Last season, he led the NFL with an average of more than 10 yards per carry in the fourth quarter.

Chubb said that his supporting cast — which includes one of the top offensive lines in the league — as well as coach Kevin Stefanski’s run-heavy offense are among the reasons he prefers to stay in Cleveland.

“I don’t like uncertainty,” Chubb said. “I know here in Cleveland what I have, the players and coaches and the city of Cleveland. Cleveland is where I want to be. That’s my main focus.”

Last summer, the Browns extended Chubb’s backfield sidekick Kareem Hunt to a two-year extension worth $13.25 million, keeping Hunt under contract in Cleveland through the 2022 season.

The Browns, who are holding their mandatory minicamp this week, have two other key players they drafted in 2018 who are extension-eligible this summer in quarterback Baker Mayfield and cornerback Denzel Ward. Cleveland has already picked up the fifth-year options on Mayfield and Ward, which will keep them under contract at least through the 2022 season.

Ward, a Pro Bowl performer in 2018, said Tuesday that his agent and the Browns have begun talking about an extension as well.

“In a perfect world,” Ward said, “I’d definitely want to be a Brown for the rest of my career.”

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