“Life starts all over again,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “when it gets crisp in the fall.”
And this fall in the National Football League, that initial autumn breeze means an enhanced 18-week, 272-game regular-season schedule. Each team is playing 17 regular-season games for the first time, providing fans an extra week of action. It marks the first change to the season structure since the 1978 campaign ushered in an era of 16 regular-season and four preseason games.
Life starting all over again also means 32 clubs are tied for first place, and that means every NFL coach, player and fan has insatiable hope. Why so much hopeful optimism entering 2021?
- Currently, the average team has waited just 1.8 years since its last playoff berth. Three quarters of the league’s teams, 24 of 32, have been to the playoffs at least once in the past four seasons.
- Over the past 18 seasons (2003-20), the average number of division winners that missed the postseason the year prior is 3.3 – including 26 division champions that finished last the year before. Both the PITTSBURGH STEELERS (AFC North) and WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM (NFC East) won their divisions in 2020 after missing the postseason in 2019, and at least two teams have won their divisions the season after missing the playoffs in 17 of the past 18 years.
- Since 1990, 5.8 teams per year have qualified for the playoffs after missing the postseason the previous year. Over that stretch – a streak of 31 consecutive seasons – at least four teams every season have qualified for the playoffs after failing to make the postseason the year before. Seven teams that missed the postseason in 2019 – CHICAGO, CLEVELAND, INDIANAPOLIS, LOS ANGELES RAMS, PITTSBURGH, TAMPA BAY and WASHINGTON – accomplished the feat in 2020.
- And no team has won consecutive Super Bowls since the 2003-04 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, the longest stretch in NFL history without a repeat Super Bowl champion.
The team currently challenged with breaking that streak, the TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS, will kick off the NFL’s 102nd season on Thursday when the defending champions host the DALLAS COWBOYS (8:20 PM ET, NBC). In that game, quarterback TOM BRADY needs 300 passing yards to join DREW BREES (123 games) as the only players with at least 100 career games of 300-or-more passing yards in NFL history. Brady enters Thursday with 99 such games.
The Buccaneers, Cowboys and 30 other teams enter 2021 with one goal in mind: A trip to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles and Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13.
ROOKIE RESPECT: In 13 consecutive seasons, at least one rookie quarterback has started a Week 1 game, the longest streak in the NFL since at least 1950.
- The top two overall selections in the 2021 draft – Clemson’s TREVOR LAWRENCE (No. 1, Jacksonville) and BYU’s ZACH WILSON (No. 2, New York Jets) – are expected to extend the streak early in the afternoon on Sunday. Both signal-callers will be on the road; the Jaguars meet the Texans (1:00 PM ET, CBS) and the Jets travel to Carolina (1:00 PM ET, CBS) to play their former quarterback SAM DARNOLD, acquired by the Panthers in an offseason trade. Darnold’s new teammates include rookie cornerback JAYCEE HORN (selected No. 8 overall), expected to make his NFL debut for Carolina.
- The last two starting quarterbacks at the University of Alabama will square off in New England Sunday (4:25 PM ET, CBS) when Patriots rookie MAC JONES (No. 15 overall) opens his NFL career against the Dolphins and TUA TAGOVAILOA, the fifth overall selection in the 2020 draft. Both players joined the Alabama program in 2017 and combined to lead the Crimson Tide to a berth in three of the past four national championship games. The AFC East showdown is also expected to feature the debut of former Alabama wide receiver JAYLEN WADDLE, the sixth-overall selection in the 2021 draft.
Elsewhere this weekend:
- Steelers rookie running back NAJEE HARRIS (24th overall) is expected to make his NFL debut when Pittsburgh makes the short trip to open the season Sunday at reigning AFC East champion Buffalo (1:00 PM ET, CBS).
- Two potential offensive stars – Atlanta tight end KYLE PITTS (No. 4 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft – the highest selected tight end in the common-draft era) and Philadelphia wide receiver DEVONTA SMITH (No. 10, the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner) – will be on opposite sidelines at Mercedes-Benz Stadium when Pitts’ Falcons host the Eagles on Sunday (1:00 PM ET, FOX).
- In Cincinnati on Sunday, Bengals rookie wide receiver JA’MARR CHASE (No. 5 overall) will line up for the first time with his college quarterback, JOE BURROW (No. 1 overall in 2020), when the Bengals host former LSU teammate JUSTIN JEFFERSON and the Vikings (1:00 PM ET, FOX). The last time the trio was on the same field, the 2020 College Football Playoff National Championship, Burrow threw for 463 yards and five touchdowns while Chase had nine catches for 221 yards with two touchdowns, and Jefferson nine receptions for 106 yards.
- Several rookie offensive linemen, including Lions tackle PENEI SEWELL (No. 7 overall), Chargers tackle RASHAWN SLATER (No. 13), Jets guard ALIJAH VERA-TUCKER (No. 14) and Las Vegas tackle ALEX LEATHERWOOD (No. 17), are expected to make their NFL debuts on Sunday.
- On the defensive side, rookie linebackers MICAH PARSONS (No. 12, Dallas), ZAVEN COLLINS (No. 16, Arizona) and JAMIN DAVIS (No. 19, Washington) are expected to anchor the middle of their respective defenses this weekend, while cornerback PAT SURTAIN (No. 9, Denver) and defensive end KWITY PAYE (No. 21, Indianapolis) will also make their first NFL appearances.
YOUTH MOVEMENT IN AFC EAST: All four quarterbacks expected to start for their AFC East teams this weekend, including TUA TAGOVAILOA (23 years old) and MAC JONES (23) in New England on Sunday (4:25 PM ET, CBS), are under the age of 26 to open the season. If JOSH ALLEN (25) starts for Buffalo and ZACH WILSON (22) opens for the Jets, it will mark the first time in 36 years that four starting quarterbacks in the same NFL division were under the age of 26 at the start of a season. In 1985, TONY EASON (25) of New England, Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO (23) of Miami, KEN O’BRIEN (24) of the Jets and ART SCHLICHTER (25) of Indianapolis began the year under center in the AFC East. The Dolphins, Jets and Patriots reached the playoffs that season, and New England earned a berth in Super Bowl XX.
CONSISTENTLY PRODUCTIVE: When Green Bay meets New Orleans for a Sunday showdown between 2020 NFC division winners (4:25 PM ET, FOX, in Jacksonville), two of the NFL’s most consistently productive players will be in action. Only six individuals have rushed for at least 700 yards in each of the past three seasons (2018-20), including the Packers’ AARON JONES and the Saints’ ALVIN KAMARA.
PLAYOFF TEAMS FACE OFF: That Packers-Saints contest is one of five games on the Week 1 docket featuring two teams that qualified for the 2020 playoffs.
- Included in that group is a rematch of an AFC Divisional game between the CLEVELAND BROWNS and KANSAS CITY CHIEFS on Sunday (4:25 PM, CBS). Including the postseason, Chiefs head coach ANDY REID is 8-0 against the Browns, 4-0 with Philadelphia and 4-0 with Kansas City. Kansas City defeated Cleveland, 22-17, last postseason and became the first team since Reid’s 2002-04 PHILADELPHIA EAGLES to host three consecutive championship games.
- Both the Packers and Chiefs will be looking to extend the league’s longest active winning streak on Kickoff Weekend. Each club has won its first game in six consecutive seasons.
- Another tilt on the Kickoff Weekend card features the SEATTLE SEAHAWKS at INDIANAPOLIS COLTS on Sunday (1:00 PM ET, FOX). Including the playoffs, Seattle in the Eastern Time Zone has won 12 of its past 13 games. Quarterback RUSSELL WILSON in those 13 games is 12-1 with a 117.9 passer rating, 3,598 passing yards, 26 touchdown passes and five interceptions.
- In a marquee early game Sunday (1:00 PM ET, CBS), the PITTSBURGH STEELERS – who ranked third in the NFL last year in total defense (305.8 yards per game) and finished second in scoring defense (19.5 points per game) – face the BUFFALO BILLS, whose offense was second in the league in both yards per game (396.4) and points per game (31.3).
- The LOS ANGELES RAMS will welcome fans to SoFi Stadium for the first time when the CHICAGO BEARS pay a visit on Sunday Night Football (8:20 PM ET, NBC). Chicago has 55 wins on Kickoff Weekend, the second-most in NFL history, while the Rams have won four consecutive Week 1 games.
REIGNING ROOKIES OF THE YEAR: For the second straight season and fourth time in NFL history, the defending Associated Press rookies of the year will clash on Kickoff Weekend. At FedExField on Sunday (1:00 PM ET, CBS), 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year JUSTIN HERBERT will lead the Chargers against 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year CHASE YOUNG and Washington. Last season, Herbert recorded the most touchdown passes (31) and most completions (396), and second-most passing yards (4,336) by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. Young, meanwhile, led all rookies with 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss, and tied for the lead among rookies with four forced fumbles.
- Last season, 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year KYLER MURRAY guided the Cardinals to a season-opening win at San Francisco against defending Defensive Rookie of the Year NICK BOSA.
- Prior to 2020, the last time defending rookies of the year met in Week 1 was Sept. 10, 1989, when the Patriots and running back JOHN STEPHENS defeated the Jets and defensive back ERIK MCMILLAN, 27-24, at Giants Stadium. The first time it happened was Sept. 21, 1975, when San Diego Chargers running back DON WOODS and Pittsburgh Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker JACK LAMBERT met at Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Steelers won, 37-0, en route to a Super Bowl X championship.
THE FOUNTAIN OF BRADY: Tampa Bay quarterback TOM BRADY, who will be 44 years and 37 days old on Thursday when the Buccaneers host Dallas in the league’s annual kickoff contest (8:20 PM ET, NBC), is expected to become the fourth-oldest individual on record (since 1932) to play in a season-opening game.
- Brady also enters 2021 more than four years older than the next-oldest player on an active NFL roster, Rams tackle ANDREW WHITWORTH, who will be 39 years and 274 days old when his club hosts Chicago on Sunday Night Football (8:20 PM ET, NBC).
RAVING ABOUT THE RAVENS: The LAS VEGAS RAIDERS also welcome fans to their home, Allegiant Stadium, for the first time, hosting the BALTIMORE RAVENS on Monday Night Football (8:15 PM ET, ESPN/ABC). Since 2016 in Week 1 games, Baltimore is 5-0 and has outscored its opponents 177-26. The Ravens haven’t allowed more than 10 points in any of those five Kickoff Weekend games.
OPTIMISTIC STATE OF MIND: New leaders and new outlooks will dot the NFL’s landscape this weekend.
- Seven new head coaches enter the 2021 season – DAN CAMPBELL in Detroit, DAVID CULLEY in Houston, URBAN MEYER in Jacksonville, ROBERT SALEH with the New York Jets, NICK SIRIANNI with Philadelphia, ARTHUR SMITH with Atlanta and BRANDON STALEY with the Los Angeles Chargers.
- Over the last four seasons, seven head coaches in their first year with a new club have led their teams to the playoffs: RON RIVERA (Washington) and KEVIN STEFANSKI (Cleveland) in 2020, MATT LAFLEUR (Green Bay) in 2019, MATT NAGY (Chicago) and FRANK REICH (Indianapolis) in 2018, and SEAN MCVAY (Los Angeles Rams) and SEAN MCDERMOTT (Buffalo) in 2017.
- Two games this weekend will feature first-year head coaches on opposite sidelines: Meyer and Culley (1:00 PM ET, CBS) will meet in Houston on Sunday while Sirianni and Smith will battle in Atlanta (1:00 PM ET, FOX). Coaches in their first year at the reins of an NFL team have played a Week 1 game only five times over the past 38 seasons, and never twice in the same opening weekend.
SAME FACES, NEW PLACES: Several notable players were on the move since the end of the 2020 season, including quarterbacks TEDDY BRIDGEWATER (Denver), ANDY DALTON (Chicago), RYAN FITZPATRICK (Washington), JARED GOFF (Detroit), MATTHEW STAFFORD (Los Angeles Rams), TYROD TAYLOR (Houston) and CARSON WENTZ (Indianapolis); running backs JAMES CONNER (Arizona), MIKE DAVIS (Atlanta), KENYAN DRAKE (Las Vegas), PHILLIP LINDSAY (Houston) and SONY MICHEL (Los Angeles Rams); wide receivers COREY DAVIS (New York Jets), A.J. GREEN (Arizona), JULIO JONES (Tennessee) and KENNY GOLLADAY (New York Giants); tight ends HUNTER HENRY (New England) and JONNU SMITH (New England); offensive linemen ORLANDO BROWN (Kansas City), TRENT BROWN (New England), COREY LINSLEY (L.A. Chargers), ALEX MACK (San Francisco) and JOE THUNEY (Kansas City); defensive linemen TREY HENDRICKSON (Cincinnati), YANNICK NGAKOUE (Las Vegas) and J.J. WATT (Arizona); linebackers BUD DUPREE (Tennessee), JUSTIN HOUSTON (Baltimore) and HAASON REDDICK (Carolina); and defensive backs KYLE FULLER (Denver), MIKE HILTON (Cincinnati), JOHN JOHNSON (Cleveland) and PATRICK PETERSON (Minnesota).