Analysis

Overreactions to the 2021 NFL schedule: Cowboys' playoff hopes hinge on one game

NFL Media researcher Brandon Mendoza identifies several of the biggest overreactions from Wednesday's release of the 2021 NFL schedule. The storylines below are bound to play out because, after all, numbers never lie. Right?

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Tom Brady can finally complete his career résumé

It's the million-dollar question. Who was the key to the Patriots' success in the past two decades: Bill Belichick or Tom Brady? After their breakup last offseason, a subsequent Super Bowl title for Brady and sub-.500 season for Belichick's Patriots seemed to point to the future Hall of Fame QB as the answer. Now, after earning seven Super Bowl victories, three NFL MVP awards and the most QB wins in NFL history, Brady will face the Patriots in Week 4 with a chance to claim the one prize that's eluded him (for a year, anyway). With a win in his return to New England, Brady would join Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning as the only QBs in NFL history to defeat all 32 teams. Joining Favre, Manning and Joe Montana, Brady will also become the fourth QB in NFL history to win 100 or more games with one franchise and later play against the team. There's much at stake here, even for the QB who has (almost) done it all.

Packers' schedule will only add to the tension in Green Bay

Winning cures everything is what we hear so often when there is dysfunction within a team. That seems like a simple solution to repair the relationship between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, but the schedule might be a detriment to the mending process. The Packers have the fourth-toughest strength of schedule this season based on their opponents' win percentage in 2020 (.542). In Weeks 9-16, the Packers will play six playoff teams from last season in a seven-game stretch. Rodgers, the reigning MVP, will face an all-star cast of opponents in Patrick Mahomes (Week 9), Lamar Jackson (Week 15) and Russell Wilson (Week 10) during that span. Green Bay also has matchups against two of the best pass rushers in the NFL earlier in the year: the Steelers' T.J. Watt (Week 4) and Washington Football Team's Chase Young (Week 7). Rodgers led the Packers to the No. 1 scoring offense last season (31.8 PPG), but now he has to face each of 2020's top five scoring defenses. On top of that, Rodgers had his worst statistical season the year after winning the second of his three MVP awards, as he posted career-lows in completion percentage (60.7), pass YPG (238.8) and passer rating (92.7) in 2015.

Cowboys' season rests on Week 12 outcome

Dak Prescott is returning with a healed ankle, a new contract and a chance to help the Cowboys make the playoffs for the first time since 2018. The schedule sets up well for Dallas, as it enters the season with the NFL's second-easiest strength of schedule based on their opponents' win percentage in 2020 (.452). In fact, eight of their first nine games are against teams who missed the postseason in 2020, with the NFL Kickoff Game matchup against the Super Bowl champion Buccaneers serving as the lone exception. However, if you're looking for one game to be a predictor of Dallas' fate, circle Week 12 at home against the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day. Since 2015, the Cowboys' result on Thanksgiving has correlated to whether they make the playoffs that season. The Cowboys won on Thanksgiving and made the postseason in 2016 and 2018, but lost and missed the playoffs in 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2020.

At least two last-place teams from 2020 will make the playoffs

This is a PSA to the eight teams who finished in last place in their respective divisions last season: This could be your year! Get excited (if you're not already), fans of the Jets, Bengals, Jaguars, Broncos, Eagles, Lions, Falcons and 49ers.

At least one team has gone from worst to first, winning its division the season after finishing in or tied for last place in 16 of the last 18 seasons. Washington accomplished the feat in 2020. Then factor in that at least two teams have won their divisions the season after missing the playoffs in 17 of the last 18 seasons (Steelers and Washington did so in 2020). Finally, consider that since 1990 (31 straight seasons), at least four teams have made the playoffs every season after missing out on the postseason the year before.

At least five single-season records will be broken in 2021

Look away, Peyton Manning, Eric Dickerson, Calvin Johnson, Michael Strahan and any other legend who holds a single-season NFL record. The addition of the 17th game has put many records in jeopardy. Here are a handful that could fall:

Passing yards

  • Current record: 5,477 by Peyton Manning (Denver Broncos, 2013).
  • Contender: Cowboys QB Dak Prescott averaged 371.2 pass YPG in 2020 prior to suffering his season-ending injury in Week 5 (17-game pace: 6,310 pass yards).

Rushing yards

  • Current record: 2,105 by Eric Dickerson (Los Angeles Rams, 1984).
  • Contender: In 2020, Titans RB Derrick Henry became the eighth player in NFL history to post 2,000-plus rush yards in a single season (finished 79 yards away from Dickerson's record).

Receiving yards

  • Current record: 1,964 by Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions, 2012).
  • Contender: Packers WR Davante Adams averaged a league-high 98.1 receiving yards per game in 2020, finishing with a total of 1,374 yards. However, he missed two-plus games while dealing with hamstring and ankle injuries. Of course, the outlook changes here if he's not catching passes from Rodgers in 2021.

Scrimmage yards

  • Current record: 2,509 by Chris Johnson (Tennessee Titans, 2009).
  • Contender: Vikings RB Dalvin Cook averaged 137.0 scrimmage yards per game in 2020, but like Adams, missed two-plus games due to groin and ankle injuries.

Sacks

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