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NFL officially expands to 17 regular-season games; Broncos get 9 home games in 2021

Add the Lions to the Broncos' schedule by virtue of last-place finishes. NFL had played 16-game schedule since 1978.

DENVER — Tampa Bay played 20 games for keeps last season. As the Buccaneers’ star quarterback was throwing the Lombardi Trophy from boat to boat, it didn’t seem like they played too many games.

NFL owners formally increased its regular season from 16 games to 17 on Tuesday and yes, even with the preseason schedule dropping from four games to three, the battle of attrition will magnify. An extra game of high-speed, super-human collisions will increase the chance of injury in a sport that already loses too many of its star players from year to year.

But with preseason games becoming increasingly insignificant and dropping far below the NFL standard of entertainment, commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners believed an adjustment to its 20-game block was necessary.

Besides, think of the extra millions one extra regular season game will bring, especially after the pandemic season in which the NFL played most of its games before empty stands and lost considerable revenue.

Several veterans stated their displeasure, including Broncos’ safety Kareem Jackson, who tweeted: “17 games is complete BS … no other way to put it.”

As a collective body, though, the players did narrowly approve a new collective bargaining agreement last March knowing a 17-game schedule was likely to start in 2021, no later than 2022. The players’ vote on the CBA was close – 1,019 to 959. And the voting deadline came three days after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world.

While many veterans objected, younger players who had not yet been paid big money reached the conclusion that 17 games was better than a work stoppage. Had the players’ vote came a week earlier, would a CBA with 17 games have passed? Maybe not.

Adding a regular-season game meant the NFL had to try to balance the awkwardness of an odd-number schedule. For 2021, all AFC teams will get the extra 9th home game while NFC teams will play an extra 9th game on the road. It will then rotate each year with NFC teams getting the 9th home game in 2022.

For further competitive balance, the schedulers assigned the Matthew Stafford-less Detroit Lions, who finished last in the NFC North with a 5-11 record last year, to the Broncos, who finished last in the AFC West with a 5-11 record, as one set of the league’s extra week of games.

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Empower Field at Mile High, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020.

Dates and times will be assigned later but the Broncos’ 17 opponents schedule in 2021:

Home: Ravens, Bengals, Eagles, Jets, Lions, Washington, Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders

Road: Browns, Cowboys, Jaguars, Steelers, Giants, Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders

A 17th game with just one bye week for losing teams may seem onerous. But there was a time when the Broncos were regular postseason participants and were accustomed to playing 17, 18, 19 – and in 1997, 20 – games that counted in a singular season. Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Bucs finished as an 11-5 wild card last season, then went 4-0 in the postseason to win Super Bowl LV.

Not including the strike seasons of 1982 (9 games) and 1987 (15 games), it’s the first time the NFL has gone with an odd-number of regular-season games since the pre- and post-World War II years of 1937-42 and 1946, when it played 11 games. The NFL employed a 12-game schedule from 1947-60, then, as nearly all U.S. households added television sets, expanded to 14 games in 1961.

The league went to 16 games in 1978, a schedule that lasted 42 years.

It might have stayed at 16 games, too, had preseason games not become such a poor product. In recent years, most teams only played their starters in two of the four preseason games – the first quarter of game 2 and one half of game 3. The Los Angeles Rams haven’t played a starter during the preseason since Sean McVay became their head coach four years ago.

It was becoming increasingly difficult for NFL management to sell what amounted to an exhibition game of backups to its season-ticket holders. The regular-season schedule will remain at 17 games through the 2030 season. At that point, there is expectation the league and owners will push for an 18-and-2 regular season/preseason schedule.

Goodell and the owners have tried to compensate for the added regular-season game by implementing increased safety measures. The number of contact practices during training camp and the regular season have been drastically reduced while off days have increased. Within the game, officials have greatly increased penalties on any hit from the neck up and a “late” hit on quarterbacks and receivers has seemingly closed to less than a second.

Many players, though, say nothing matches the physical and emotional intensity of a regular-season game and adding a 17th regular season puts them at greater health risk.

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