Last week, the 2021 season schedule was released—including the new 17th game. (Anyone else already hate the extra game?) We had known who the Cardinals would be playing for months, but now we know the when.
Consensus seems to be that the Redbirds have a tougher-than-average schedule, given the 2020 records of our opponents and their 2021 Vegas win projections.
Now that we’ve all had some time to take in the schedule, I thought I’d go through it game-by-game and see how tough each game projects to be, on a 1-10 scale. A 1 is close to a sure win (although there are no real “1” games in the NFL) and a 10 is as tough a win as there is. A 5 is a neutral matchup. Let’s get started with Week 1.
Week 1 – Road at Tennessee Titans = 7/10
This is a road game against the defending AFC South champions—and don’t forget that this is a 10:00 a.m. East Coast kickoff as well. Derrick Henry, fresh off a 2,000-yard season, is obviously the centerpiece of the offense, but Ryan Tannehill has proven to be an above-average QB, and A.J. Brown is an exciting up-and-coming WR. The defense looks beatable, though. This is a winnable game, but the Titans will be rightly favored.
Week 2 – Home vs. Minnesota Vikings = 5/10
The Vikings are a solid team. Like the Titans, their offense is built around one of the best backs in the NFL in Dalvin Cook, and they have a capable QB in Kirk Cousins who has one of the best WR duos in the league to throw to (Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson). Their defense is a work in progress but figures to be better than it was in 2020. The Cardinals will likely be favored at home, but this isn’t a team to be overlooked.
Week 3 – Road at Jacksonville Jaguars = 3/10
Yes, this is another 10:00 a.m. East Coast kickoff, but the Jaguars are fully in rebuild mode and are the kind of team the Redbirds should beat even on the road. (Just like the Jets and Giants last year.) Trevor Lawrence is an exciting QB prospect, and the cupboard is far from bare at the skill positions, but this is a team full of young and/or anonymous players otherwise. And, of course, Urban Meyer will be coaching in just his third NFL game. Expect the Cardinals to be favored with the Jaguars still trying to find their footing in the young season.
Week 4 – Road at Los Angeles Rams = 9/10
The Titans in Week 1 will be tough, but this will be the first true test for the Cardinals in 2021. The Rams look like a Super Bowl contender after swapping Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford, and Sean McVay’s undefeated record against the Cardinals is exceedingly well documented at this point. The only reason this isn’t a 10/10 is because it’s a very short road trip and the Rams don’t figure to have any kind of notable home-field advantage even with a capacity crowd. This will be a tough one for the Redbirds, and a good early-season temperature check of the NFC West.
Week 5 – Home vs. San Francisco 49ers = 7/10 (5/10)
As opposed to the Rams, the Cardinals have had some success against the 49ers in recent seasons. Although the Niners did sweep us in 2019, we had an 8-game win streak from 2015 to 2018 and we split last year. (We should have !@#$ing swept, though.) But the Niners figure to rebound from an injury-riddled 2020 season, so this will be a tough game assuming that Kyle Shanahan has his full complement of offensive weapons available—and assuming it’s Jimmy Garoppolo under center and not rookie Trey Lance. (If the Niners unexpectedly make an early-season QB switch, this would be more like a 5/10—this is still a talented roster.) Other than the Jaguars game, this is a tough early slate—can the Redbirds come out of it over .500?
Week 6 – Road at Cleveland Browns = 8/10
The schedule makers did the Cardinals no favors this season—this is their fourth road game in the first six weeks (although at least this East Coast game isn’t a morning game). The Browns look poised to make a leap to true Super Bowl contender if Baker Mayfield plays more like he did in 2020, as opposed to his rocky 2019 sophomore season. But either way, this team has tons of talent on both sides of the ball and will be a tough test for the Redbirds—especially for the defense. This will be a real measuring stick game for Vance Joseph’s unit.
Week 7 – Home vs. Houston Texans = 2/10 (4/10)
This figures to be a winnable game no matter what, but it will be the easiest game on the schedule if Deshaun Watson isn’t the Texans’ starter as most are projecting at this point. Even if Watson somehow avoids getting suspended and/or released, this is probably the most talent-barren roster in the league thanks to ex-coach/GM (and Cardinals favorite) Bill O’Brien. The Cardinals should roll in this one if there’s no Watson—but if he’s playing, he’s one of the better QBs in the league and could win a game all by himself.
Week 8 – Home vs. Green Bay Packers = 8/10 (3/10)
Yep, another possible variable here—will Aaron Rodgers be on the Packers this season? If so, this will be a tough one, even at home. Rodgers is just that good. Imagining him picking on our thin CB corps makes me shudder. But if Rodgers is playing elsewhere in 2021? Then this becomes a very winnable game. Although there is still ample talent on this roster, the Cardinals have no reason to fear Jordan Love or *snickers* Blake Bortles. Of course, the Packers would probably have someone better under center if Rodgers does get traded, but we can’t predict that just yet. Either way, Redbirds fans should be hoping for a Rodgers trade this offseason.
Week 9 – Road at San Francisco 49ers = 8/10 (6/10)
Again, how tough this game will be depends on who is playing QB for the 49ers. If Jimmy G is healthy and playing well, this will be a difficult road contest. But there’s a decent chance it’s Trey Lance at this point in the season, which would make this game a little more manageable, although we likely still wouldn’t be favored. (And we do have a history of losing to “backup” QBs…) One point in our favor, though: we’ll be coming off a Thursday night game, so we’ll have 10 days of rest going into this game. That could be significant.
Week 10 – Home vs. Carolina Panthers = 3/10
I almost went 2/10 for this one—the Panthers starting QB is Sam Darnold, and they’re in full rebuild mode. Sure, Christian McCaffrey is a stud and they have some talent at WR, but this isn’t a very good team. But this team seems to have our number as of late—they’ve beat us 5 games in a row, all of them by double digits, including back-to-back embarrassing losses the past two years to start the Kliff and Kyler era. That has to mean something. We *should* win this game… but we *should* have won the past two games as well.
Week 11 – Road at Seattle Seahawks = 10/10
This one’s pretty self-explanatory: Seattle is one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. Sure, we’ve had some measure of success there in recent years, but this is still probably the toughest game on the Cardinals’ slate. Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson, CenturyLink… I mean, Lumen Field. ‘Nuff said.
Week 12 – Bye Week
Week 13 – Road at Chicago Bears = 5/10
This could be a deceptively tough game. The Bears roster is no great shakes, but it’s not devoid of talent, either. You have to imagine Ohio State rookie Justin Fields will be playing over either Andy Dalton or Nick Foles at this point, but you’d imagine the Cardinals would rather face either of the underwhelming veterans. This is also a December morning game in Chicago, a far cry from the sunny-and-‘70s Phoenix desert climate. Plus we might be looking ahead to a big matchup against the Rams next week. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if the Redbirds dropped this one.
Week 14 – Home vs. Los Angeles Rams = 8/10
This will be on Monday Night Football, with both teams (hopefully, in the Cardinals’ case) vying for playoff positioning. I doubt the Cardinals will be in the hunt for the NFC West division title, but the Rams figure to be right there in the picture along with the Seahawks. This game could have huge implications for both teams. Will the Cardinals be able to make a big statement at home in primetime?
Week 15 – Road at Detroit Lions = 4/10
Like the Bears game, this one screams “trap” game. We’ll be coming off a critical primetime divisional matchup and have another primetime game coming up the next week. And, like the Panthers, the Cardinals have strangely struggled against the Lions the past few years—we’re 0-3-1 against them in the past 4 matchups. Detroit doesn’t figure to be a very good team, but there are a lot of factors going against the Redbirds in this one (it’s another East Coast morning game as well, although at least this one is in a dome). I don’t *think* we’ll drop this one, but you never know.
Week 16 – Home vs. Indianapolis Colts = 7/10
The Cardinals finish the season with three straight against playoff-caliber teams (thanks, schedule makers)—although at least two of them are at home. That said, I don’t know what to make of the Colts just yet. They’ve got a potentially dominant running game and a very talented defense, but Carson Wentz is a huge question mark and they didn’t really improve their lackluster receiving corps this offseason. This could be more like a 6 or an 8 depending on how well Wentz winds up playing, so let’s split the difference for now. Note that this game is also a primetime game on Christmas Day.
Week 17 – Road at Dallas Cowboys = 8/10
This rating assumes that Dak Prescott comes back and plays at close to the MVP level he was playing at before he got hurt last season. If he can do that, Dallas will probably be leading the NFC East with a high-powered offense. (The defense is a big question mark, though.) If Prescott comes back and is merely above-average, this would be more like a 7/10. Either way, this late-season matchup would figure to have big playoff implications.
Week 18 – Home vs. Seattle Seahawks = 8/10
Week 18... this is going to take some getting used to. The Cardinals finish the season with another tough division matchup against Russell Wilson and Co. These matchups are almost always memorable, and this one will likely be as well. Will the Cardinals be playing for their playoff lives? Will the Seahawks be playing for the NFC West title or playoff positioning? It also wouldn’t surprise me if this game (or the Dallas game the previous week) was flexed into primetime.
Add it all up, and the average difficulty of the Cardinals’ games this season is right at 6.5/10 according to my very scientific system. Tougher than average, indeed. Seth has already predicted a 10-7 finish this season, which sounds about right to me and would have us right in the thick of the playoff chase. I’d take it.
Any thoughts on these matchups/ratings, Redbirds fans? What looks like the toughest game to you? The easiest? See any trap games?