The NFL entered a new era on Wednesday, as the league officially released 17-game regular season schedules for all 32 teams. A national holiday, for some crazed football fans eager to dissect matchups and organize autumn weekend plans.
So, how difficult was the new schedule-making process, and how did the NFL fare in accommodating the slew of matchup requests from both teams and television networks?
Mike North, the NFL's vice president of broadcast planning and scheduling, joined the Tiki and Tierney show on Thursday to discuss the undertaking.
"It was a little good and a little bad for us, quite honestly," North said. "Obviously, it was a challenge adding a whole other game, a whole other possible landing spot. I think when I talked to you guys a couple years ago, I told you it was like finding a grain of sand on the beach. Now we're talking about finding a grain of sand in the desert. It's truly an infinite solution space, made somehow even bigger -- and not just two or three times bigger, but exponentially bigger. Searching through the entire space every night, looking for candidate schedules was definitely harder.
"And again, we all had to kind of get our minds around, 'Oh, wait a minute, there's only eight home games still for the NFC teams.' But now you've got to spread them out over 18 weeks instead of 17 weeks... But there was also a positive to it. We created a handful of extra really interesting games... Those are some of the must-see TV games of the season now that wouldn't have been there if we were on 256 [total games]. So, having a few extra really juicy apples for our network partners to bite helped us out a lot, and hopefully we've spread those 16 extra games out throughout the season and they're in good landing spots."
The 2021 regular season will open with the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers visiting the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, Sept. 9. Week 1 will also feature a meeting of AFC powerhouses in the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns, new Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold hosting his former team, the New York Jets, and the Baltimore Ravens visiting the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football.
Perhaps the most intriguing opening weekend matchup will take place in New Orleans, with the post-Drew Brees era Saints hosting the Green Bay Packers. Despite the incessant rumors surrounding Aaron Rodgers' future, the NFL elected to give Green Bay the maximum five primetime games, which indicates that the league isn't too concerned about the ratings a Rodgers-led or Jordan Love-led Packers team will generate.
"When the [Rodgers] news broke on draft day, obviously we put a pin in it, we put it in the drawer, and we said, 'All systems stop, let's see what happens here,'" North said. "Because if he goes to Denver, all of the sudden, that changes the Denver schedule -- that's two games against Pat Mahomes. If he goes to San Francisco, well that changes the 49ers' schedule. If he goes to Miami, if he goes to Tennessee, wherever he may land. But none of us know what's going to happen .So, we're treating the Packers like, he's either there and it's the same team that's won 26, 27 games the last couple years? They should be on national television 12 times.
"If he's not there, certainly the first four weeks are more interesting. Let's see if this kid can play. And if you look at these first four weeks, Green Bay is on a FOX doubleheader, ESPN Monday Night, NBC Sunday Night, and a CBS doubleheader. Everybody gets a bite out of the Jordan Love apple, right out of the gate, let's see what we've got. And if you get to December, and they're still in this thing, you look on the Sunday Night Football schedule, it's Chicago-Green Bay, it's Minnesota-Green Bay. Those sound like games that are going to have playoff implications in that division, regardless of who the Packers' quarterback is. And if it's not, you're in flexible scheduling..."
The final NFL regular season games will be played on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022. The playoffs will begin Jan. 15, 2022, and continue through Super Bowl 56 on Feb. 13, 2022, at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. The entire list of week-by-week matchups can be found here.
The entire NFL schedule conversation between North and Tiki and Tierney can be accessed in the audio player above.