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Analysis: What NFL's new schedule format means for Patriots from now on

The updated rules mean New England will play more inter-conference and international games in the future


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Are you ready for some MORE football? Good, because for the first time in decades, you'll get it. And that's not the only change to the revamped National Football League schedule formula announced today that will impact the Patriots.

Starting this coming season, every club will play a 17th game that counts in the standings, and it will feature an opponent from the opposing conference. So, in New England's case, the AFC-based Patriots will take on an NFC team that, under the old formula, they normally wouldn't see for at least four years.

In 2021, they'll host the Dallas Cowboys, who last paid a visit to Foxborough just two seasons ago in 2019. Were the previous format still in place, the Patriots would not have seen the Cowboys again (outside of a Super Bowl matchup, of course) until New England travels to Big D in 2023. That meeting remains on the future schedule for both teams as part of the rotating inter-conference division formula that's been in use the past 20 years.

So, the Patriots will face the Cowboys this year and again in two years' time, down in Texas. Dallas became the chosen opponent this season because the AFC East teams are hosting NFC East clubs and the Patriots and Cowboys finished in third place in their respective divisions last season. That's how the matchups are determined.

In 2022, New England is scheduled to play all four teams in the NFC North. They'll also travel to a to-be-determined NFC opponent, likely from either the South or West and based on where they finish in the 2021 standings. Come the 2023 season, the Patriots will play host again to an NFC foe in a 17th game, and so on and so forth.

This new format also curtails the preseason by a game. Every team will now play just three exhibition contests, as opposed to four. During seasons like 2021 when the Patriots play nine regular season home games, they'll host just one preseason game. In 2022, they'll host two preseason games, but have just eight regular season games at Gillette. So, each club will have 10 games at their home stadiums each season, with the exception of those teams taking part in the International Series.

Speaking of which… The enhanced schedule also calls for every team in the league to play at least one game overseas every eight years, starting next season.

New England is no stranger to the International Series, having completed wildly successful trips to London in 2009 and 2012 (beating the Buccaneers and Rams, respectively) and Mexico City in 2017 (vanquishing the Raiders). The Patriots' popularity outside the United States has skyrocketed over the past two decades, and today's revelation means foreign-based fans will have more opportunities to see their favorite team in person in the years to come. In addition to England and Mexico, the league is looking to expand the International Series to venues in Canada, South America, and other parts of Europe and the United Kingdom.

With the world still struggling to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was quoted today as saying the league expects "full stadiums in the coming season." Of course, he expressed similar sentiments in 2020 and conditions on the ground forced every sports league to change its plans. Hopefully, the NFL can begin filling up seats again come autumn, as it started to for Super Bowl LV this past February. Today's news only adds to the anticipation of so many pro football fans for the return of capacity crowds at NFL games.


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