The 2021 NFL regular season has finally come to a conclusion and it was one for the record books. Aaron Rodgers returned to the Green Bay Packers and finished the year as the No. 1 seed in the NFC for the second straight season, Odell Beckham Jr. forced his way out of Cleveland and joined the Los Angeles Rams and then the Las Vegas Raiders overcame a whole heap of adversity to make the playoffs with an interim head coach. If there's one thing that will define the 2021 season, however, it's that this was the first season with 17 games and 18 weeks.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL was able to pull off its first 17-game regular season -- and soon we will have even more games! Sure, an 8-9 record looks very weird compared to the 8-8 .500 teams we have come to know and love, but more football is more football, and that's something we can all get behind.
Below, we will look at some key takeaways from 2021 and see what we got with another extra regular-season game.
Star players were against adding more games
Two years ago, the NFL and NFLPA were negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. One of the main sticking points was the option for the league to expand the regular season from 16 to 17 games. In March of 2020, players voted to ratify the new CBA. For the proposed deal to go through, a simple majority of the players needed to vote "yes." The final vote was 1,019 to 959. While the deal passed, many NFL stars were against it.
Leonard Fournette, Richard Sherman, Emmanuel Sanders, Alvin Kamara, Adrian Amos, Darius Slay, David Johnson among others publicly voiced their displeasure with the prospect of adding an extra regular-season game, and were not happy that the new CBA passed. The 2020 season was the final season with just 16 regular-season games, as the NFL decided to bump up to 17 the following year.
A record-breaking season
With an extra regular-season game, it's only fair to expect that single-season records could be set. We even put together a list of records we thought could be broken, including most passing yards in a season (5,477 by Peyton Manning in 2013), passing touchdowns in a season (again Manning with 55 in 2013) and rushing yards (2,105 by Eric Dickerson in 1984.) While none of those were surpassed, we saw a handful of records broken. For example, Tom Brady broke Drew Brees' record for most completions in a season with 485, and Jaylen Waddle broke Anquan Boldin's single-season record for most receptions made by a rookie with 104. Justin Jefferson also broke the record for most receptions made in a player's first two seasons with 196. There was another single-season record that was tied -- although it was controversial.
T.J. Watt ties Michael Strahan's sack record
In Week 18, Pittsburgh Steelers star pass-rusher T.J. Watt tied Michael Strahan's 20-year-old record for most sacks in a single season with 22.5. Before his tying sack, Watt and Cam Heyward brought down quarterback Tyler Huntley, but Heyward was flagged for unnecessary roughness which negated the sack. Earlier in the first quarter, Watt also appeared to sack Huntley and force a fumble, but he was credited with just a forced fumble. It was an all-time "Come on!" moment for fans.
Watt signed a four-year extension worth $112 million in September, and certainly lived up to it this season. He recorded a combined 64 tackles, seven passes defensed, five forced fumbles, 39 QB hits and of course the 22.5 sacks -- in just 15 games played! He's one of the best in the game, and may get a chance to break the record next season.
Cooper Kupp's triple crown
The Los Angeles Rams star wideout had an incredible season, but did not break any NFL records. Kupp came 18 yards short of breaking Calvin Johnson's single-season receiving yards record, five receptions short from breaking Michael Thomas' receptions record set in 2019 and eight touchdowns short of breaking Randy Moss' receiving touchdowns record. However, Kupp did get the triple crown!
According to NFL.com, Kupp became the first player since 2005 to lead the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. He's just the fourth player since 1970 to achieve this, joining Jerry Rice (1990), Sterling Sharpe (1992) and Steve Smith (2005). Whether it was making the most of a bubble screen or beating his defender deep, Kupp shined with new quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2021.
How the playoff picture changed
When the NFL made the decision to expand the playoffs, it wasn't the most popular decision. If they had allowed an extra wild card spot in each conference in 2019, we would have been forced to watch an 8-8 Steelers team and a 9-7 Rams team. No one wanted that, but it seemed to work out last year. Yes, we had to watch an 8-8 Mitchell Trubisky-led Chicago Bears team on Nickelodeon in the NFC, but a double-digit win Miami Dolphins team missed the playoffs in the AFC! It appears more people are now accepting of the new playoff format.
The extra regular-season game fits well with the extra playoff spot. If the season ended in Week 17 this year, we would have had a very different playoff picture. The Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Chargers sure wish the season ended after 16 games this year. Speaking of the Chargers, they and the Raiders gave us what could go down as the most dramatic ending to a season and playoff picture that we may ever see.
The NFL's ridiculous regular-season finale
With the Colts' choke job against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Steelers' overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Chargers and Raiders' "Sunday Night Football" regular-season finale would decide the final playoff team. Unless ... they tied. If Vegas and L.A. tied on Sunday night, both teams would advance to the postseason while kicking the Steelers out. Many were hoping for a kneel-off in primetime, but obviously the Chargers and Raiders had too much pride for that. What's wild is that the Raiders were put in the situation to choose a tie if they so desired.
Following an incredible Chargers comeback after being down by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter, the game was tied 32-32 late in overtime. With the clock slowly ticking down under 40 seconds, the Raiders were facing a third-and-4 from the Chargers' 39-yard line. Then, Chargers first-year head coach Brandon Staley decided to call a timeout. It was a decision that left commentators, journalists and fans alike baffled.
The Raiders then had a chance to talk over their play call, and on the ensuing play, Josh Jacobs ran left for 10 yards and a first down. The very next play, Daniel Carlson knocked through a 47-yard game-winner to send the Raiders to the playoffs and the Chargers home. After the game, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr admitted that Staley's timeout changed their mindset on that final drive. Yes, the Raiders ran the ball and would have run the ball if the Chargers did not call timeout, but if L.A. stopped the initial play before the timeout, the Chargers would be headed to the postseason. Staley claimed he called the controversial timeout because he wanted different personnel on the field. Either way, gifting your opponent another second to think about a pivotal play call with the clock and play clock dripping down was not smart.
Hollywood could not have come up with a more unbelievable script than how the NFL regular season ended. Expanding the playoffs and the regular season worked and provided us with incredible entertainment, and should do the same in the future.