Making sense of the NFL’s move to a 17-game season — and what it means for the Chicago Bears and the rest of the league

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Colleen Kane and Dan Wiederer, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read
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The NFL will expand its regular season to 17 games in 2021 after team owners approved that expected move during virtual league meetings Tuesday. —

The expansion is the first since the league moved from 14 to 16 games in 1978. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called it “a monumental moment in NFL history.”

The 2021 regular season will begin with the league’s annual “Kickoff” game on Thursday, Sept. 9, and conclude Sunday, Jan. 9. The Super Bowl will be played at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on Feb. 13.

Here’s what else you need to know about the expanded schedule for the NFL and the Chicago Bears.

Who will the Bears play in their 17th game?

The Bears are slated to play the Raiders for their additional game, a contest that presumably will be played in Las Vegas unless it is picked to be moved to an international site. It will be the Bears’ first game against the Raiders since the franchise moved to Las Vegas and opened Allegiant Stadium in 2020.

Across the league, each team’s 17th game will feature an interconference matchup based on where teams finished in the regular season in 2020. The NFC North is paired with the AFC West, and AFC teams are hosting the 17th game in 2021.

Also in the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers play at the Kansas City Chiefs, the Minnesota Vikings play at the Los Angeles Chargers and the Detroit Lions travel to play the Denver Broncos.

The NFC East will play the AFC East, he NFC South will play the AFC South and the NFC West will play the AFC North.

What does the rest of the 2021 Bears schedule look like?

We’ve known the opponents for the Bears’ other 16 games since the 2020 regular season ended. In addition to six NFC North games, the Bears will have home contests against the Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals while making trips to play the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That means six of the Bears’ nine road games will come against opponents who qualified for the playoffs last season. They will play eight games overall against 2020 playoff teams.

For those wondering when the dates and times for the 2021 season will be revealed, traditionally the NFL schedule release is in late April, shortly before the draft. But last year, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed that schedule announcement into early May. The current buzz around league circles is that the NFL will again feature a May schedule launch, a nugget first reported by the Sports Business Journal. The addition of the 17th game adds a few more pieces to the logistics puzzle that schedule makers must put together. Additionally the league is working to identify whether full stadiums will be allowed leaguewide beginning in Week 1.

So what do we know about fan attendance for the 2021 season?

Commissioner Roger Goodell struck an optimistic tone Tuesday afternoon, anticipating that many of the obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic presented would be in the league’s rearview mirror when the regular season starts. Translation: The league is hopeful that NFL stadiums will again look and feel like NFL stadiums on game days — loud and packed and filled with passion.

“All of us in the NFL want to see every one of our fans back,” Goodell said. “Football is simply not the same without fans. And we expect to have full stadiums for the upcoming season.”

The Bears were one of 14 teams that posted an attendance figure of zero for the 2020 season with COVID-19-related restrictions in Chicago and Illinois prohibiting fans from attending the team’s eight home games. The leaguewide attendance figure for the 2020 regular season surpassed 1.2 million fans. That was still a massive dip from the more than 17 million who attended regular-season games in 2019.

(Last season’s Super Bowl was limited to 24,835 fans at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.)

Goodell didn’t directly answer a question Tuesday about whether the NFL might consider a vaccine mandate for fans interested in attending games. But he emphasized that the league continues to work with the NFL Players Association to encourage all players and club personnel to get vaccinated as soon as possible and to understand the importance of vaccination.

“It does help protect you from obtaining COVID but also (helps prevent you) from spreading COVID,” Goodell said. “It’s an important element of what we’re working on. … We will also be working publicly to use our platforms to be able to talk about the importance of vaccinations and the health consequences and the positive impact of having our communities vaccinated.”

The NFL’s hope for full stadiums, of course, still will revolve around the rules and regulations put in place by local and state authorities across the country. The league said that in studies done by teams and communities that hosted games last season, there was no direct evidence that connected the spread of the virus to fans attending games.

What has been the players’ reaction to the 17th game?

The NFLPA approved a new CBA by a tight margin of 1,019-959 last spring, and included in that agreement was the option to expand the regular season to 17 games. The players, in turn, will now receive a bump in their revenue share with the league.

Not all players were in favor of the added game, with the extended wear on their bodies an obvious concern. Former Bears and current Packers safety Adrian Amos tweeted his disapproval this week.

When asked about how the extra game affects players’ health, Goodell noted that with the elimination of a fourth preseason game the league still is maintaining a 20-game slate.

He also pointed to data that indicate the highest rate of injury comes in preseason games. However, NFL starters sit out the majority of the preseason, especially the fourth game, while often less-experienced players try to make the roster.

NFLPA representatives are expected to speak on a call Wednesday afternoon about the news. But the union issued an explainer for players on Twitter on Tuesday evening, noting the benefits that came with the approval of the new CBA.

How does the new schedule affect the NFL’s international presence?

The NFL announced that beginning in 2022 all 32 teams will play internationally at least once every eight years.

The league will look to schedule up to four neutral-site games per season, focusing on the United Kingdom and Europe, Mexico, South America and Canada.

The NFL noted that teams also can volunteer to play other home games internationally.

The Bears last played internationally in 2019, when they faced the Raiders at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The Raiders won 24-21.

What does the regular season expansion mean for the preseason?

In conjunction with a 17-game regular season, the NFL is contracting the preseason to three games. NFC teams, which all will be playing nine regular-season road games this season, will host two of their three preseason contests. That means the Bears will have a traditional 10-game slate of games at Soldier Field — two preseason games plus their eight regular-season contests.

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