FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The 2020 calendar year is finally over, and with it, the NFL season… at least for New England. With the Patriots not having made the playoffs, along with everything else that happened over the past 12 months, perhaps one of the best things we can do now is look forward to 2021 and the fresh slate of opponents that this New Year brings.
And there's a new twist to the schedule starting this coming season. We'll address that in a moment, but first, let's take a look at some of the more familiar foes who'll be on the Patriots' calendar.
FAMILIAR FOES: SIX AFC EAST FIXTURES
As is the case each year, NFL intra-division foes face one another twice a year during the regular season: once at home, another on the road. In New England's case, the Patriots will host their three AFC East rivals – the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets – and travel to their respective home cities of Buffalo, Miami, and New York.
This accounts annually for six of the 16 Patriots games. Eight of the other 10 are subject to the aforementioned rotating schedule formula, designed to ensure that every NFL club in both the AFC and NFC conferences plays one another at least once every four years, with the venues alternating between home and road games.
SOUTH-BOUND: BRADY'S BUCS COME TO TOWN
By virtue of the aforementioned rotating schedule formula, we already knew long before today that New England will be facing the four teams of the NFC South in 2021. What makes the timing particularly intriguing is the fact that former Patriots QB Tom Brady and his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, are slated to visit Foxborough sometime this fall.
Four years ago, when the Patriots last faced all four NFC South squads, New England visited Tampa, as well as New Orleans. This year in the rotation, those venues flip-flop. So, both the Bucs and Saints will come to Gillette, while the Patriots will make trips to North Carolina and Georgia to meet the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, both of whom came to New England in 2017.
The rotating schedule also applies to the American Football Conference, and it just so happens the Patriots will face the four teams in the AFC South Division in 2021. The Jaguars and Titans will journey to Massachusetts this year, because New England paid both of them visits three years ago.
Many observers expect Jacksonville, which owns the top overall choice in this year's NFL Draft, to select the premier QB prospect, Trevor Lawrence of Clemson, which could add some excitement to this latest meeting between the Jaguars and Patriots.
Because they hosted the Texans and Colts in 2018, the Patriots must now travel to Houston and Indianapolis to play those clubs at their places in 2021. This will mark the third consecutive season that New England will visit Houston – a quirk of the NFL scheduling system that happens more frequently than you might imagine.
Two of the final Patriots foes next season are determined based on the 2020 final standings in each of the remaining two AFC divisions, the North and West.
New England, which made its first trip to Los Angeles in a generation this past December, will have a return engagement in the City of Angels when it plays the Chargers again at SoFi Stadium. L.A. finished third in the AFC West in 2020, the same slot that New England wound up in the AFC East. Just last month, the Patriots had their most eye-popping performance of the season against the Chargers at SoFi, a 45-0 drubbing of the Bolts, led by talented rookie QB Justin Herbert.
In addition, New England will host their third-place counterparts in the AFC North, playoff-bound Baker Mayfield and his Cleveland Browns sometime this coming fall.
Three years ago, New England hosted their AFC West equivalent (the Chiefs at that time) and visited Pittsburgh, who was the AFC North opponent. Because the rotation calls for a reversal of venues, the Patriots travel to the West in 2021 and host the North finisher.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!
Yes, the rumors that have been circulating for the past several months were confirmed by the NFL during the league's 2021 Annual Meeting: There will be a 17th regular season game beginning this season. An extra game was known to be under consideration as far back as last March, when the league and its players agreed to a new, long-term collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
The new CBA included a window for adding a 17th game to the regular season from as early as 2021 to as late as 2023. During the meetings that are taking place remotely during this last week of March, NFL clubs approved moving forward with the new slate, which also includes a reduction in preseason contests from four to three.
As was also rumored for some time, New England's opponent in this new 17th game will be the Dallas Cowboys, whom the Patriots will host at Gillette Stadium sometime this fall.
That, of course, will be determined at a later date this offseason, as will the exact dates and times of the entire Patriots schedule. Like last season, the league is expected to reveal the 2021 schedule in its entirety in early May, following the NFL Draft.