What does the just-released 2021 NFL schedule tell us about the Los Angeles Rams?
That they're expected to be good – maybe even great – while fighting their way out of the toughest division in football.
Five initial prime time assignments are a telling indicator. And just about every game after the bye has flex potential. Plus, the majority of contests that aren't in prime time are in a Sunday national window: Tampa Bay, at Green Bay, Jacksonville, Seattle, at Baltimore, and San Francisco.
So the eyes of the NFL will be on SoFi Stadium and the Rams throughout this Super Bowl LVI campaign.
As for what the schedule deals the Rams in terms of competitive pros and cons?
Let's put ourselves in Sean McVay's shoes. Here's where he and the coaching staff likely looked at first.
Where's the Bye?
Especially in the new 17-game format, this is of utmost concern.
For the Rams, the open date is Week 11, splitting the slate almost right down the middle.
Plus, the bye precedes a challenging trip to Green Bay, which is helpful. And, it follows a Monday Night Football opportunity at San Francisco, which could provide a massive shot of momentum going into the off week.
Where's Thursday Night Football?
Amazon, hadn’t you heard? (But also NFL Network and Fox this season.)
We know McVay and the players prefer to have their short week early in the schedule, which is exactly where it lands in 2021: Week 5 at Seattle.
Two years ago on Thursday Night Football in Week 5, a 44-yard Greg Zuerlein attempt missed wide right in Seattle. Here's an opportunity to purge that memory (or at least dull it).
Any Consecutive Road Trips?
There are two such instances, in fact, although the first is fairly mild.
That trip to Seattle on a Thursday is followed by a Sunday in New York in Week 6. The extra days between games take some of the strain out.
The only true back-to-back arrives in the stretch run, at Minnesota and at Baltimore in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively. We'll see if McVay opts to keep the team on the road for the New Year or uses the pandemic travel plan as a precedent for letting the airplanes do all the heavy lifting.
For a schedule that features nine away contests (next season, it will come around with nine at home), that's close to the best the Rams could have expected.
Any Weather Worries?
Green Bay on Thanksgiving weekend won't be warm.
Minneapolis at Christmas will be frigid, but indoors, at least. (Unless the glass doors are open.)
Baltimore in the New Year would be the other concern – especially having to contend with Lamar Jackson on a natural grass surface in January conditions.
How About the Alarm Clock Kickoffs?
There are plenty of early-window road games: Indianapolis, New York, Houston, and Minnesota.
The Rams had been phenomenal in that traditionally grueling time slot under McVay, before splitting 2-2 last year (would've been 3-1 if not for that pass interference in the end zone in Buffalo).
Sundays at SoFi
Both of the Rams Sunday Night contests are in Inglewood. All their other prime time kicks are on the road.
Said another way: For the first season with fans in attendance at SoFi Stadium, the entire home schedule will be played on Sundays.
I think that's wonderful for a majority of fans – both local and out-of-town – to be able to plan to visit the world's greatest sports and entertainment venue without altering work or school schedules too much, not to mention contending with Los Angeles traffic on a weeknight.
Pacific Time is Prime Time
The Rams will play each division opponent in prime time at least once, and if they hold up their end of the bargain, you could see a December home game against Seattle or San Francisco flexed, as well.
The schedule-makers are strongly hinting that they expect the NFC West to be decided by the Rams and Niners, and even that the division could be decided on January 9th in Inglewood.
The last couple of years, the NFL had Seattle and San Francisco in this spot.
Will We See Lance a Lot?
The regular season meetings with San Francisco are Weeks 10 and 18.
Will Trey Lance have taken over the starting job by mid-November? Will the Rams face the third overall selection once or twice as a starter, in specific packages as a complement to Jimmy Garoppolo, or not at all as a rookie?
I'll have an eye out for where the 49ers bye lands as a potential week to watch for the changing of the guard.
Would Matt Nagy start Justin Fields on Sunday Night Football Week 1 against Aaron Donald and the top defense in the NFL from a season ago?
Can he afford not to?
While the Detroit and Los Angeles fan bases have a vested interest, former top picks Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff facing the franchises that drafted them for the first time didn't command a national audience.
At least not at the outset here in May.
Stressful Stretch Run
After the bye, every opponent figures to be in contention, perhaps with the exception of Jacksonville.
You could even look at the schedule's "back nine," starting with the Titans to open the month of November. From that point forward, the Rams strength of opponent might be the toughest in the NFL. Taking a set of power rankings at random, the Jags are the only foe in the final nine games projected outside the top 17.
On the whole, and pending a review of the competition's slates, it appears to be a fair schedule that sets the Rams up for success.
Tune in to the NFL Network at 5 pm PT to see the full NFL schedule.