Enough suspense already, let's mark your calendars!
Early this morning, we learned that the Patriots and Dolphins would meet in the regular season opener for the second consecutive year. And that game will certainly be significant to many, as it will likely represent the first meaningful football game played in front of fans at Gillette Stadium since the Patriots hosted the 2019 Wild Card Game against Tennessee.
But with all due respect to the opener, the game everyone around the football world has been anticipating most is the return of Tom Brady to Foxborough. And now we finally know when that will be. So, without further ado, let's put this 2021 Patriots schedule under the microscope.
Not only will New England begin its regular season at home for the fifth consecutive campaign, the Patriots also get the benefit of playing three of their first four games this year in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium. They haven't enjoyed that luxury since the 2016 and '17 seasons.
Following a short road trip to the New York Jets in Week 2, Bill Belichick's bunch returns to Foxborough for consecutive home games. First up, the New Orleans Saints, who'll be without Drew Brees for the first time in what seems like forever, and then… drumroll please… Brady and the reigning Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Given the magnitude of this matchup, the league has seen fit to place it in the marquee position of Sunday Night Football on NBC. Flex scheduling does not come into play for Sunday night games until the following week, meaning the entire football-viewing audience will be treated to Bucs-Patriots in prime time the first weekend of October.
Two AFC East Division rivalries, followed by a pair of difficult NFC South opponents won't be an easy way to get things started for New England, but at least they'll have the homefield advantage in three of those meetings.
FALL-ING INTO PLACE
Autumn leaves start to reach their peak foliage color here in New England just as the Patriots leave for their next road trip, a date with the Texans in Houston. A week later, the "other" team from the Lone Star State comes back to Gillette for the second time in three years. That matchup between two of the league's most high-profile franchises – New England and the Dallas Cowboys – will be a doubleheader feature for CBS, meaning most of the U.S. will get to see it.
The Patriots then renew acquaintances with the Jets back here in the Bay State before closing out the month of October will a trick-or-treat visit to the L.A. Chargers on Halloween. With New England's thumping of the Chargers at SoFi Stadium last season so fresh on their minds, L.A. and their electrifying second-year QB Justin Herbert will no doubt be eager to put up more of a fight in this rematch.
Whatever the outcome, New England will hit the road again from there, albeit staying here on the East Coast, with a visit to the Carolina Panthers the first weekend of November. They're barely home long enough to host QB Baker Mayfield's Cleveland Browns, a 2020 playoff team, before another quick turnaround road trip to Atlanta the Thursday prior to Thanksgiving.
The Patriots come home for the start of the holiday season with a November-ending meeting with head coach Mike Vrabel and his Tennessee Titans at Gillette.
WINTER IS COMING
A Monday Night Football visit to Buffalo starts up the Patriots' December slate, after which New England gets to enjoy its latest bye week since 2001. The team's final four regular season games come thereafter, although it's as yet unclear if they'll be playing the Colts in Indianapolis on Saturday or Sunday of Week 15. That date is being left open by the league as part of its recent addition of tripleheader Saturdays in December.
Regardless, just 20 days after traveling to Western New York, New England will host the Bills on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas, for those of us non-U.K. residents) in what could be a pair of pivotal meetings for the AFC East standings.
What better way to celebrate the New Year than by welcoming this year's No. 1 overall draft choice, QB Trevor Lawrence and his Jacksonville Jaguars. Finally, it's going to take some getting used to saying this, but the Week 18 – yes 18! – regular season finale sees the Patriots taking a trip to sunny South Florida to face the team with whom they'll open this year's proceedings, the Miami Dolphins. Perhaps another game with postseason consequences on the line.
Over the past 20 years, 1 o'clock kickoffs for the Patriots have been limited, as the broadcast networks have wanted to showcase New England in many of the prime time or nationally-televised 4 o'clock slots. This year, though, the Patriots currently have 10 games scheduled to start at 1, with the potential for an 11th if that aforementioned Week 15 Indy tilt gets shifted to Sunday or early that Saturday.
At the moment, there are only three prime time dates for the Patriots and as many in the 4 o'clock window. Again, either of those slots could increase to four if the Indy game gets Saturday billing. We'll have to wait a while before that becomes clear, but what's virtually certain is that the Patriots will be playing a majority of their games earlier, rather than later in the day, for the first time in years.
The toughest stretch could come mid-season, when the Patriots have those three road games in three-and-a-half weeks. Any road wins could be consequential to New England's hopes of staying competitive for a playoff spot in what's becoming an increasingly competitive AFC East.
Meanwhile, there was a 20-percent chance that New England could have played a game in England this fall, but instead, the Patriots will visit Atlanta, as already noted, to play the Falcons. New England was one of five teams on the Falcons' schedule who were eligible to face them in London, but the New York Jets were ultimately chosen for that International Series contest in October.
Also, that Thursday game is a rarity for the Patriots, who almost never go on the road for games on that night of the week. Last one came in 2017, a win over the Bucs in Tampa. And with the addition of the 17th regular season game in 2021, we bid farewell to one of the previously four preseason contests that traditionally accompany the schedule.
LEST WE FORGET… THE PRESEASON
Ah, yes, the preseason. Of course, none of the regular season festivities get going before the preseason, and we learned who the Patriots will face in August as well today.
Turns out, they'll be seeing the entire NFC East in 2021 – the Cowboys in that regular season date we discussed already, as well as the remaining three clubs in consecutive weeks of the preseason, starting with the Washington Football Team in Preseason Week 1. Road trips to the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants follow in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, with a weekend off from football games in between that and the opener on September 12.
For the moment, exact preseason dates and times have not been finalized. However, with the hope of pandemic restrictions being lifted on the horizon, there's a good chance the Patriots could attempt to conduct joint training camp practice sessions with at least a couple of their three opponents – a summertime tradition that's become as popular with the coaches here in Foxborough as it has with fans, but that couldn't take place last year due to the pandemic.
If that were to occur, it would make for an even livelier buildup to the 2021 regular season, one that's already teeming with excitement at the prospect of fans being back to witness these intriguing matchups in person. Once we have confirmation of any such details, we'll post them here on patriots.com.
Till then, for a more thorough look at the entire 2021 Patriots schedule, along with the rest of the NFL teams' schedules, tune in just a few minutes from now to the televised Schedule Release broadcast on NFL Network tonight, May 12, at 8 p.m. Eastern.