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The 17th game of 2021: Washington at Buffalo?

It may be happening...

Washington Redskins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

17 games

The rumblings on Twitter and the blogosphere indicate that the 17th regular season game is coming in 2021, though nothing is official yet. The NFL did, however, decide on the framework for a possible 17th game in negotiations between owners and the player’s union prior to the ‘20 regular season.

Peter King wrote about that yesterday. A lot of information from his article is the basis for most of what you’ll read here.

Scheduling formula

Here’s what was decided at that time: the added game will be an inter-conference matchup, and will not be played at a neutral site, but will create an imbalance in home & away games.

When the NFL was sorting through proposed options for the expanded season, the formula that prevailed was:

  • AFC versus NFC,
  • cross-conference divisional matchups to be the same as the 2019 season, but
  • with the 2021 matchups based on 2020 final standings within the division

Here’s an example:

  • The four AFC West teams played the four NFC North teams in 2019.
  • In 2020, Kansas City finished in first place in the AFC West, Green Bay first in the NFC North.
  • So in 2021, it’s AFC West against NFC North, and 1-versus-1 from ‘20 becomes Green Bay versus Kansas City.

This game alone is reason enough for the league to rush the 17th game onto the 2021 schedule (and early in the season)!

Home & Away

It’s been reported that the AFC will host all 16 newly added games in 2021, with the NFC teams hosting in 2022. Competitive equity is the key here. In other words, you don’t want three NFC East teams playing eight at home and the fourth playing nine at home, so the league will just alternate which conference is the “home” side each season. (This seems to also set the schedule up neatly to add an 18th game with the next CBA post 2030, simply slotting in another inter-conference matchup, with the “away” conference alternated in the same way).

The NFC East added games

Under this formula, the NFC East teams will travel for games against the AFC East in the coming regular season.

  1. Washington @ Buffalo
  2. NY Giants @ Miami
  3. Dallas @ New England
  4. Philadelphia @ NY Jets

Regular season & playoff schedule adjustments

There will be no second bye week, and the regular season will not start earlier. Basically, a “Week 18” will be added to the traditional schedule and the playoffs will be pushed back a week, with Super Bowl LVI likely to be played on 13 February 2022 in sunny Los Angeles, making it the latest super bowl in history, calendar-wise.

Expanded Playoffs continue for a second year

Could there be Monday night wild-card game? Well, maybe. Last year, the NFL wouldn’t consider playing one of six wild-card games on Monday night because it would have conflicted with the January 11th college football national title game. The NFL instead played three wild-card games on Saturday and three Sunday following the end of the 2020 regular season.

This time around, however, college football will play the championship game in Indianapolis on Monday night, January 10th, 2022. That leaves January 17th as a football-free Monday night to cap off the Wildcard Weekend, so the NFL could play two games on Saturday, three on Sunday, and one on Monday.

Intense bitching will, of course, commence about the Monday night winner playing a short-week game the following Sunday. These complaints will be unjustified. With three wild-card games on Saturday, six teams are assured of playing a short-week game just 6 days after the all-Sunday Week 18 end of the regular season.

On the other hand, with two wild-card games on Saturday and one on Monday, only five teams are assured of a short-week game— all four teams playing on Saturday (short week following the end of the regular season) and Monday’s winner, who would play the following Sunday.

Playoff football is money.

Monday Night Football is money.

Monday night playoff game? Golden.

Christmas football double-header?

December 25th falls on a Saturday this year, and the NFL may pay two games that day. The league was encouraged by the big ratings for last year’s Saints-Vikings game (20.1 million viewers on FOX, the highest non-Sunday rating for the network in more than two years), so expanding to two games seems like a really good idea.

Mo’ money.

Final thoughts

I’ll re-state here that this article is about “projection”, not reporting. It’s not simple wild-assed speculation, however, since the framework for the 17th game has been established via the collective bargaining process and the league has the power under the CBA to make it happen. A cash-hungry league that wants to make up for major revenue losses suffered in 2020 sees the additional week of play as perhaps the surest and quickest way to make positive inroads on revenue replacement. It also dovetails nicely with the widely-reported negotiation of broadcast rights between the league and major TV broadcasters for another decade of NFL football.

The 17th game also triggers pay increases for players — which will help make up (in part, anyway) for some of the expected depression in free agent contracts coming in March and April due to the anticipated reduction in salary cap, which most knowledgeable observers expect to be set at around $182m per team (before individual team adjustments).

Reports indicate that we’ll probably hear news on TV contracts (at least the one with Disney) prior to St. Patrick’s day. Of course, that date not only denotes drunken Irishmen in the streets; it also marks the start of the new league year, so the NFL will need to announce the 2021 salary cap before then. I expect the 17th game to be a major announcement that may come later in the off-season, with associated adjustments to both player salaries and team salary cap numbers a sort of “bonus” that should pump some added excitement into the off-season and expand the NFL presence in the news cycle.

This sort of projection of upcoming events may not be as much fun as a mock draft or free agency projection, but it is very meaningful if it happens. This off-season, with schedule expansion and TV contract negotiations seemingly imminent, will set the stage for the next decade of salary cap growth, making both owners and players wealthier.

When the next CBA is negotiated at the end of the decade, it is likely to be against a backdrop of a totally normal and accepted 17-game season, with owners pushing for the addition an 18th regular season game, and players hoping to get their fingers into the huge revenue pie that appears to be on the horizon with the expansion of legalized sports gambling that will probably dominate the decade of the ‘20s.

The NFL never sits still.