How will post-Brees Saints get treated by NFL schedule makers?
Only the National Football League can make an event as mundane as the announcement of next season’s schedule appointment television.
We’ve known now for nearly two weeks that the league’s 2021 schedule will be announced Wednesday night. TV broadcasts on NFL Network and ESPN2 will do the unveiling, though teams can reportedly jump the gun by 15 minutes prior to the 7 p.m. CDT reveal.
Just as Saints fans are getting ready for 2021 with a new quarterback for the first time in a decade and a half, so is the group of NFL employees charged with compiling the 272-game league schedule.
The Saints without Drew Brees will certainly get treated differently than the Saints with No. 9 behind center. If we know nothing else about how the schedule-making process works, the marquee positions go to the star names, be they franchises or quarterbacks.
So as we count the hours until we see this fall’s slate, here is our annual ranking of the games most likely to get one of those marquee positions on the first-ever 17-game schedule in NFL history:
1-2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (home/away)
There are some that think the Saints and defending Super Bowl champion Bucs could meet in the NFL Kickoff game on Sept. 9 at Raymond James Stadium.
Don’t count me in that group.
The Super Bowl champ, which traditionally gets to play host to the first game of the season on the Thursday after Labor Day, has not opened against a division opponent since 2012, when the New York Giants played the Dallas Cowboys (In 2019, as part of the league’s 100th season, the Thursday opener was the league’s oldest rivalry – the Green Bay Packers at the Chicago Bears – while the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots played host to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night).
I think it’s more likely Tom Brady and the Bucs open against either the Cowboys or Buffalo Bills.
Still, the two meetings between the Saints and Bucs offer intrigue, even without Brees. If Jameis Winston is the starter in 2021, it’s his first time to start against his former team. And even though the Lombardi Trophy currently resides in Tampa, the Saints are still the four-time defending NFC South champions.
My guess is similar to last year: One meeting is a main doubleheader game, the other in prime time (perhaps on Thursday night this year instead of Sunday).
3. Dallas Cowboys (home)
The Cowboys attract more eyeballs than any team in the NFL, and over the last 15 years, Saints-Cowboys has been in a primetime slot more often than not.
Between 2013-19, the teams met five times. Every one of them was in primetime (four on Sunday night, one on the Thursday night after Thanksgiving).
I think this is the most likely opponent for a Saints Sunday night game this year.
4. Seattle Seahawks (away)
The last three times New Orleans headed to the Pacific Northwest in the regular season, its matchup with the Seahawks got featured treatment – Sunday night, Monday night, and lead doubleheader game on Sunday.
By virtue of being in the Pacific time zone, the game can only be played in the late slot on Sunday or in primetime, this matchup again stands a better-than-average chance to be in a featured position. If it hits the primetime schedule, it might be on Monday night, as it was in 2013.
5. Green Bay Packers (home)
This is another matchup that has traditionally gotten high-profile slots, and even with no Brees and the questions of late surrounding Aaron Rodgers’ future in Green Bay, it could remain that way in 2021.
The last three times the Packers have visited the Dome, it was a primetime game – Monday night in 2008, Sunday night in 2014 and again last year.
At worst, this lands in the featured doubleheader slot.
6. Buffalo Bills (home)
The Bills and Saints only meet once every four years, and unlike the other games listed above, this series has zero history of landing in prime positions on the schedule.
Buffalo made a run to the AFC title game a year ago, and clearly the Bills’ stock is rising. This is a strong candidate for a doubleheader main game or Monday Night Football.
7. Miami Dolphins (home)
For some reason, the NFL has liked putting interconference matchups in New Orleans in prime slots over the years, even when the opponent wasn’t as good as the Saints.
Last year, for instance, the Saints hosted the Los Angeles Chargers on Monday Night Football. Two years ago, both AFC teams to come to the Dome, the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts, played on Monday night.
The Dolphins’ last visit to New Orleans, back in 2013, was a Monday night game. Could it happen again? With a team on the rise like Miami, it wouldn’t be all that surprising.
8. Washington Football Team (away)
You’ll notice a trend in these next few spots in the rankings. The networks love the NFC East, even when the entire division has a down year like in 2020.
The last meeting between New Orleans and Washington landed on Monday Night Football. Since the NFL has moved away from exclusively divisional games on Thursday night, this could be a candidate for Thursday as well.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (away)
See above. This game was a doubleheader game in 2019 and could end up there again.
10. New York Giants (home)
See the last two teams. Over the years, Saints-Giants has not moved out of the noon slot often, but it was a lead doubleheader game the last time these teams met in 2018 in New Jersey.
11. New England Patriots (away)
If this were 2019 instead of 2021, it would be one of the most attractive games on the schedule. And while this could still end up in a premier spot on the schedule, it still has a noon feel to it.
12. Tennessee Titans (away)
Thanks to the change to play 17 games for the first time in 2021, this game gets added to the schedule.
According to NBC Sports’ Peter King, the 16 additional games are being treated as “orphans,” meaning they are not tied to traditional packages, especially since the NFC teams are on the road in all 16 of these additional games for 2021 (Next year, the schedule reverses and the NFC teams will be at home for the added game).
Even though these are two division champs facing off, I just have no feel for where this lands. It doesn’t have the power to be a lead doubleheader game. Best case might be a Monday or Thursday night slot.
13. New York Jets (away)
If it’s Taysom Hill vs. Zach Wilson, this game will be of interest in Provo, Utah. Beyond that, however, this shouldn’t land on the national radar.
14-15. Atlanta Falcons (home/away)
For the better part of a decade and a half, one of these two matchups inevitably landed in primetime, either on Monday or Thursday night. Last year, though, both were noon Sunday games. Don’t see that changing for 2021.
16-17. Carolina Panthers (home/away)
Both of these matchups have the smell of noon Sunday as well.
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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…