The NFL schedule will be fully revealed on Wednesday night, but thanks to various sources, the entire Week 1 slate broke this morning, per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler:
With the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicking off the 2021 campaign, that’s a hard matchup to top, yet there are plenty of quality contests on tap thereafter.
Prime-time games on Sunday night and Monday respectively feature the Chicago Bears visiting the Los Angeles Rams, and the Las Vegas Raiders hosting the Baltimore Ravens. Those are pretty dandy as well.
But what are the very best Week 1 matchups on the NFL schedule? Let’s rank the top showdowns that officially begin the new football year.
5. Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Houston Texans
The dumpster fire that is the Texans right now is going to be a sight to behold. Just how bad is Houston? We’ll find out on the first NFL Sunday in a home game against the new-look Jaguars.
Trevor Lawrence was the first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and gives Jacksonville instant hope of contending at least for the AFC South title in a division that feels wide-open. It would’ve been rough for Lawrence and Urban Meyer to open with a tough adversary, but that won’t be the case.
Lawrence should put on an absolute show, which will stir up plenty of excitement around the league and apply immediate pressure on the rest of the Jags’ division. There aren’t lofty expectations for Jacksonville, so Lawrence and Meyer are essentially playing with house money in Year 1. That could be dangerous for everyone else.
4. Chicago Bears vs. Los Angeles Rams
Well that’s the dream scenario for Bears fans at least. In all likelihood, it’ll be the Rams who control this one from the start. They have a new QB in Matthew Stafford who’s such a massive upgrade from his predecessor, Jared Goff. Stafford running Sean McVay’s offense against Chicago’s stout defense is going to be so exciting to witness.
The question is, can the Bears make enough plays to stay in this one? That likely boils down to whether or not Fields is ready to roll atop the depth chart.
Because opponents won’t have any film on him, and thanks to his electrifying, game-breaking speed, Fields has the tools to shock LA and evade the Rams’ pass rush led by superstar Aaron Donald.
If Chicago wants to win, despite the inexperience factor, Fields may be the team’s best hope.
3. New York Jets vs. Carolina Panthers
The Sam Darnold Revenge Game. This may not be the highest-quality matchup or a clash of two NFL titans, but the underlying narrative elements are so juicy.
Darnold gets to host the team that just dumped him and drafted his replacement, Zach Wilson.
Some prominent analysts believe the talent level between Darnold and Wilson is similar and advocated for Gang Green to keep the former and build around him. Instead, the Jets opted for Wilson, and rightly so.
This notion that Darnold and Wilson are close in skill level is baffling. At least from an upside perspective, even before Darnold entered the NFL, in the opinion of this author, it seems like Wilson is far and away the superior talent.
Now, that doesn’t mean Wilson will light it up in his NFL debut enough to earn New York a victory. The Jets’ defensive talent is inferior to Carolina’s, and Darnold has a little more help at the skill positions, particularly in the backfield with Christian McCaffrey.
If Darnold flops in Week 1, though, that will not bode well for his future as the Panthers’ starter.
2. Dallas Cowboys vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Let’s be honest: Unless the Cowboys get a massive contribution from their defense-heavy rookie class led by linebacker Micah Parsons, they’re not going to take a huge step forward. Prescott and the offense can produce all they want. If Dallas can’t stop anybody, it’s bad news for America’s Team.
Prescott is also coming off a major injury, and while he should be fully healthy, getting thrown back into the fire against a championship defense that returns all 11 starters isn’t the easiest of circumstances.
If the Bucs jump out to an early lead, there’s a chance Prescott could catalyze a rally if Tampa Bay starts loosening its coverage. However, it probably won’t be enough for the Cowboys to avoid a 0-1 start to the 2021 season.
1. Cleveland Browns vs. Kansas City Chiefs
An AFC Divisional Round rematch that seems like it’s easily the best matchup of Week 1 on the NFL schedule.
The Chiefs topped the Browns 22-17 in the playoffs, and after losing Super Bowl LV to Tampa Bay, it’s imperative for Kansas City to get off on the right foot to avoid a next-season hangover.
Overhauling the offensive line in front of Patrick Mahomes was the Chiefs’ top priority this offseason, and they did that with immense success. That unit better come together quickly, though, because Cleveland’s front, led by Myles Garrett and new addition Jadeveon Clowney, will be getting after it.
If the Browns can win time of possession with Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and their running game, and their new defensive backs headlined by John Johnson III, Troy Hill and Greg Newsome II provide necessary upgrades on the back end, this has the makings of an upset.
Then again, it’s never wise to doubt Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, no matter the opponent.