The worst-kept secret in all of football became an official NFL announcement Tuesday when the league confirmed that it will play a 17-game regular season beginning in 2021. It ends a long-standing scheduling format, shortens the preseason, and rewards teams with the depth to withstand a season that will now be 6.25% longer.
Money is a factor in the change to a 17-game regular season
Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL owners knew for several years that they were moving toward expanding the schedule to a 17-game regular season or even 18. The league already has the most lucrative television contracts of any sport in North America, and the networks will happily pay more for extra weeks of games.
The stumbling block was the union. The issue was resolved in the last collective bargaining agreement, which contained a stipulation that the players would go along with expanding the schedule from 16 games to 17 in exchange for a larger slice of gross revenues. That became possible when the owners secured extra money from the networks for the next set of TV contracts, details of which haven’t been revealed yet.
Adding the 17th game to the 2021 schedule became a priority when the pandemic drastically cut attendance at NFL stadiums last fall. That slashed gameday revenue, which in turn reduced revenue sharing and lowered the 2021 salary cap.
Who benefits and who suffers in a 17-game regular season?
The NFL expanded its seasons from 14 games beginning in 1978 and in the process moved away from a scheduling format that created more parity. Teams within a division have been playing identical schedules for 14 of the 16 games; the other two weeks pair first-place teams from the previous season against other first-place teams, etc.
Now, three weeks of the 17-game regular season will fall under that formula. In addition, all AFC teams will play an extra home game in 2021, with NFC teams getting that ninth home contest in 2022.
Needless to say, teams with greater depth and better coaching stand to benefit from a longer schedule. Less obviously, AFC East teams all get home games against opponents from the NFC East, which has become the league’s weakest division. That probably gives the Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, and Miami Dolphins a slight advantage over the rest of the conference in the race for wild-card berths.
Injuries will certainly be a concern for all players, but one class of athletes gets hurt most of all: undrafted free agents. Adding a regular-season game requires shortening the preseason to three games. That gives undrafted players one less chance to make an opening-day roster or stick on a practice squad.
Which NFL teams posted the best and worst records in the 16-game era?
When all is said and done, Super Bowl trophies count for more than regular-season victories. Still, 43 years of 16-game seasons of data offers insight into which teams have been consistently good – or bad – over a long stretch.
And, no, the obvious choice for the NFL team with the best record during the 16-game era isn’t the right choice. The best records from 1978 to 2020, as researched by Axios Sports, belong to:
- Pittsburgh Steelers, 413-265-2, .609 winning percentage.
- New England Patriots, 410-270, .603
- Denver Broncos, 394-285-1, .580
- Green Bay Packers, 381-293-6, .565
- Baltimore Ravens, 225-174-1, .564
The bottom of the list is largely predictable:
- Detroit Lions, 268-410-2, .396
- Cleveland Browns, 251-379-2, .399
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 276-403-1, .407
- Arizona Cardinals, 276-400-4, .409
- Jacksonville Jaguars, 177-239, .425
As for the two teams square in the middle of the pack as the NFL heads off to a 17-game regular season, those would be the No. 16 New York Giants (240-338-2, .501) and the No. 17 Indianapolis Colts (338-341-1, .498).