GREEN BAY — The Green Bay Packers will open the 2021 season in New Orleans on Sept. 12, host the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Day and are slated to make five prime-time appearances as part of the NFL’s inaugural 17-game schedule.
Whether or not they’ll play those games with three-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers at quarterback is something the Packers — and, frankly, the NFL — cannot guarantee at this point.
But even with the organization and the reigning MVP at odds — and with Rodgers having yet to speak publicly after his unhappiness with the organization and desire to play elsewhere came to light shortly before the NFL draft kicked off — the league’s schedule-makers appear to have put together the Packers’ slate hoping Rodgers will be under center.
The league did leave itself a couple of late-season scheduling escape hatches if Rodgers isn’t the Packers’ quarterback this season and a Jordan Love-directed offense doesn’t make them the must-see TV the team has been for the better part of the past three decades with Rodgers and Brett Favre.
But three of their five prime-time tilts are locked in and will come during the first half of the season, which would indicate the NFL has faith in the Packers’ ability to get Rodgers to return.
Those five total prime-time games as of now are a Week 2 “Monday Night Football” matchup at home with the Detroit Lions on Sept. 20 on ESPN; a Week 3 “Sunday Night Football” tilt at San Francisco on Sept. 26 on NBC; a Week 8 “Thursday Night Football” visit to the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 28 on FOX, the NFL Network and Amazon; and two late-season home dates on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” — in Week 14 against the Chicago Bears on Dec. 12 and in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 2.
That’s once again the league’s maximum of five prime-time games, just as the Packers received last season. In fact, this marks the eighth straight year that the Packers have gotten the maximum five prime-time games on the initial schedule.
Those prime-time Bears and Vikings matchups can be flexed out of the nighttime schedule, but the Lions, 49ers and Cardinals games are set.
Meanwhile, the Packers’ much-anticipated matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs — in their additional game as part of the new 17-game schedule — is set for Nov. 7 at Arrowhead Stadium at 3:25 p.m. on FOX. Billed as a showdown between Rodgers and Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes in NFL-produced ads for the league’s schedule unveiling on the NFL Network, those commercials were re-edited in the wake of Rodgers’ displeasure becoming public.
That Chiefs game is one of 10 games the Packers will play against playoff teams from a year ago. In addition to their annual home-and-home series with the Bears (the Soldier Field matchup is set for Oct. 10 at noon), the Packers also face the Saints, the Browns, the Chiefs, the Seattle Seahawks, the Los Angeles Rams, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Washington Football Team.
The holiday matchup with the Browns, set for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff, will mark only the third time the Packers have played on Christmas Day, with their previous games having come against the Bears: a 24-17 loss at home in 2005, and a 35-21 victory in 2011.
Those marquee games certainly would take on a different tone if Rodgers were to hold out or retire, or if the Packers did indeed trade him despite general manager Brian Gutekunst saying in no uncertain terms following the draft that the team would not trade Rodgers.
The opener is a prime example. The Saints are already moving on from their own future Pro Football Hall of Famer, as Drew Brees retired after the season. They’re set to start either Jameis Winston, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick by Tampa Bay who spent last year as a backup in New Orleans, or Taysom Hill, the ex-Packers camp quarterback who found a home with the Saints as a multi-dimensional player after the Packers cut him in 2017.
A matchup between either of those quarterbacks and Love, whom Gutekunst traded up in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft to select at No. 26, wouldn’t have the same cache as Rodgers vs. Brees. The Packers and Saints squared off last year in a near-empty Mercedes-Benz Superdome in a thrilling “Sunday Night Football” matchup that the Packers won 37-30. Rodgers (21 of 32, 283 yards, three touchdowns, 124.9 rating) and Brees (29 of 36, 288 yards, three touchdowns, 127.8 rating) went head-to-head that night, with Rodgers icing the victory with his third TD pass with 2 minutes to play.
The Packers’ Sept. 27 matchup at San Francisco also is against a familiar opponent. They’ll face a 49ers team that beat them in the 2019 NFC Championship Game before missing the playoffs last year when head coach Kyle Shanahan’s team was devastated by injuries. The Packers beat the undermanned 49ers 34-17 last Nov. 5 at Levi’s Stadium.
That the 49ers were among the teams to call to inquire about Rodgers’ availability via trade should add a new layer to the rivalry between Shanahan and Packers head coach Matt LaFleur, who worked with or for Shanahan at three different NFL stops.
LaFleur will face off with another of his close coaching friends in the Rams’ Sean McVay, whose team returns to Lambeau Field on Sunday, Nov. 28 for a 3:25 p.m. game that will be a rematch of the Packers’ 32-18 NFC Divisional playoff victory at Lambeau Field on Jan. 16.
That game is one of five home games are clustered in an eight-week span, along with a Nov. 14 matchup with the Seahawks (3:25 p.m. start) and the aforementioned Christmas Day game against Cleveland and the slated Sunday night games against Chicago and Minnesota.
The Packers’ other home games are the Monday nighter against the Lions, an Oct. 3 game against the Steelers and an Oct. 24 game against Washington.
The Packers’ remaining road games are at the Cincinnati Bengals on Oct. 10, at Minnesota on Nov. 21, and at Baltimore on Dec. 19 before they close the season on Jan. 9 at Detroit.
This marks the fourth time in the last six years that the Packers finished regular-season play in Detroit, having closed the 2016, 2017 and 2019 seasons there, too.
With the expanded schedule, the Packers will play 12 consecutive games before their bye week arrives in Week 13, following the matchup with the Rams. It’s the latest bye week in Packers history, and it’s only the fourth time since 1990 that the Packers have had a bye in Week 10 or later.
With a 17-game regular season with nine road games, two of the Packers’ three preseason games will be at home: Against the Houston Texans on Aug. 14, against the New York Jets on Aug. 21, and at the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 28. Last year’s preseason was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photos: Packers’ 2020 season in pictures