The league easily could cancel those four weeks of games if needed, leaving each team with six home games and six road games in a 12-game season, or move them to the end of the season, resulting in a full 16-game season with a delayed start. A person familiar with the league’s planning said last month the schedule was being constructed with such contingencies in mind.
The schedule does not have teams playing exclusively non-division or nonconference opponents in the season’s first few weeks, as some observers had predicted. The 17-week, 256-game regular season concludes Jan. 3. The Super Bowl is slated for Feb. 7 in Tampa.
“The plan is to move forward as normal to play a full season, a full schedule, until the medical community tells us otherwise,” Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, told the league-owned NFL Network during its schedule-release show. “And that’s been our approach from Day 1. . . . Let’s just make sure we’re responsible. We’re doing proper planning. . . . Any guidelines as it pertains to what the governors’ orders are for the stay-at-home policies, let’s just make sure that we’re aligned [and] we’re following those guidelines.”
There appear to be other potential alternatives. There are no division games in Weeks 3 and 4. Each team plays one home game and one road game in Weeks 1 and 2. If a 14-game season becomes necessary, the NFL could cut Weeks 3 and 4 to keep all division games intact while leaving each team seven home and seven road games.
Also, each team shares a bye week later in the season with its Week 2 opponent. So if the league tries to get the players’ union to agree to 16 games over 16 weeks in a delayed season, Week 2 could be cut.
The NFL declined to comment on the specifics of the flexibility built into the schedule. The league previously announced that plans to play five international games this season, four in London and one in Mexico City, would be canceled and the games would be played in the United States. The Jacksonville Jaguars regained two home games that would have been played in London. The Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals regained one domestic home game each.
“In preparing to play the season as scheduled, we will continue to make our decisions based on the latest medical and public health advice, in compliance with government regulations, and with appropriate safety protocols to protect the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel, and our communities,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a written statement. “We will be prepared to make adjustments as necessary, as we have during this offseason in safely and efficiently conducting key activities such as free agency, the virtual offseason program, and the 2020 NFL Draft.”
Goodell opted to press forward with the schedule release amid so much uncertainty, just as the NFL conducted much of its earlier offseason business. The league moved ahead with free agency for veteran players in March and had a remotely conducted draft last month, with teams’ coaches and general managers working from their homes and Goodell announcing picks from his basement.
The contingencies being mulled over by the NFL include the possibilities of a delayed or shortened season, games in empty or partially filled stadiums, and games being relocated or rescheduled based on local conditions or restrictions, according to people with knowledge of the league’s planning.
The Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions, are scheduled to host the season-opening game against the Texans on a Thursday night. Tom Brady’s first game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers comes three days later on Sept. 13 at New Orleans. On that same opening Sunday of games, the New England Patriots host the Dolphins in their first game since the free agent exit of Brady, their six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
The Los Angeles Rams face the Dallas Cowboys to open their new stadium in the season’s first Sunday night game. The Raiders play their first game in their new home city, Las Vegas, with a Sept. 21 Monday night game against the Saints. The Baltimore Ravens, with reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson, play on Thanksgiving night at Pittsburgh. The Saints host the Minnesota Vikings in a Christmas Day game, the first Friday NFL game in 11 years. Brady’s Buccaneers are scheduled for five prime-time games over the course of the season.
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