Ranking the NFL’s 10 best coaching matchups on the 2021 regular season schedule


When the 2021 NFL schedule was released back in May, I was pretty sure that we covered every angle here at CBSSports.com, but apparently we forgot one: Best coaching matchups. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the top 10 coaching matchups for the 2021 season. If I’ve learned one thing from watching the NFL over the years, it’s that the chess match that goes on between two coaches can be just as fascinating as the action on the field. If you want to see some expert level chess being played then the 10 games below are the ones that you should circle on your calendar right now, unless you don’t own a calendar, then I would probably just set my phone alarm or tell Siri to remind you.  

This list only has one rule and that rule is that I decided not to include any divisional coaching matchups. Am I excited to see Pete Carroll vs. Kyle Shanahan? Yes, but that game happens twice a year and if you play a team twice a year, you can’t be on this list. 

Remember, this isn’t a list of the top 10 coaches in the NFL, it’s a list of the 10 best coaching matchups of 2021. If you’d rather read a list of the top 10 coaches in the NFL, you can do that by clicking here. For everyone else, let’s get to the 10 best coaching matchups of the 2021 season.

10. Urban Meyer vs. Pete Carroll (Week 8: Jaguars at Seahawks)

When it comes to making the jump from college football to the NFL, no one has had more success than Pete Carroll. After spending nine seasons at USC, Carroll made the move to Seattle in 2010. In his first season with the Seahawks, Carroll took the team to the playoffs, which was impressive, because Seattle was coming off a 5-11 season in 2009 the year before Carroll arrived. Meyer will certainly be hoping to emulate the success that Carroll has had at the NFL level. Basically, this game matches up two of the best college coaches of the past 20 years, except we’re getting it in the NFL, and it’s going to be exciting to see how things play out. The best part of this is that it will mark the first time that Carroll and Meyer have faced off because they didn’t coach against each other at the college level. 

9. Kevin Stefanski vs. Mike Zimmer (Week 4: Browns at Vikings)

This game will be a homecoming for Stefanski, who spent 14 seasons on the Vikings coaching staff before taking the Browns coaching job in 2020. In six of those 14 seasons, Stefanski served under Mike Zimmer and he held multiple titles during that time, including tight ends coach, running backs coach, QB coach and offensive coordinator. 

Basically, if anyone can figure out how to stop the Browns’ high-powered offense, it’s probably Zimmer and that’s because the Vikings coach knows Stefansk’s offense inside and out. 

ZImmer and Stefanski have an interesting history. Not only did they coach together for six years, but back in 2018, Zimmer refused to give Stefanski permission when he wanted to interview for the Giants offensive coordinator job. 

You have to think that Stefanski would love to light up Zimmer’s defense when the Browns visit Minnesota in Week 4. 

8. Mike Tomlin vs. Sean McDermott (Week 1: Steelers at Bills)

For the most of the past decade, NFL teams have been hiring offensive-minded head coaches, but that doesn’t mean a defensive-minded coach can’t find success in the NFL and two guys two guys who have bucked the offensive trend are Mike Tomlin and Sean McDermott.

Both defensive-minded coaches have been wildly successful since being hired. For Tomlin, not only does he already have a Super Bowl win under his belt, but he’s never had a losing season during his 14 years in Pittsburgh. On McDermott’s end, he’s led the Bills to the playoffs in three of his four seasons, which is nearly impossible to believe when you consider that they had not made the postseason a single time this century before McDermott’s hiring in 2017. 

The fun twist here is that Tomlin and McDermott were once college teammates at William & Mary. 

Now, the two former teammates are two of the best coaches in the NFL. These two guys have faced each other twice with the Bills winning both times, so Tomlin will definitely be looking for some revenge in Week 1. 

7. Bruce Arians vs. Ron Rivera (Week 10: Buccaneers at Washington) 

This might seem like an odd matchup to have in the top 10, but any time you get two highly successful old-school coaches with opposite philosophies facing each other on the field, you have to put it in the top 10. In Week 10, it will be the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object when Arians and his “grip and rip it offense” face Rivera and his brick wall defense. 

These two coaches faced off against each other in the playoffs last year and Washington gave the Buccaneers all they could handle in a 31-23 loss where Rivera was forced to start his fourth-string quarterback. Arians and Rivera actually have a long history of coaching against each other in big games. Last year’s playoff game marked the third time in seven years that they coached against each other in the postseason and although it might not be a full-fledged coaching rivalry just yet, watching these two coach against each other has been unexpectedly fun in the past and I’m guessing this game won’t be any different. 

6. Andy Reid vs. Sean McDermott (Week 5: Bills at Chiefs) 

One thing that makes this matchup so fascinating is that McDermott actually got his NFL coaching start under Reid. Back in 2001 when Reid was coaching the Eagles, he hired McDermott to serve as an assistant to the head coach. After that, McDermott was steadily promoted over the next few years before being moved up to defensive coordinator in 2009. 

Overall, McDermott spent 10 years with Reid in Philadelphia, so if anyone can figure out how to stop the Chiefs’ offense, it might be the Bills head coach. That being said, being highly familiar with the Chiefs’ offense hasn’t helped McDermott over the past two years as Buffalo has lost its past two games against Kansas City by an average of 11.5 points per game. Despite that, any time you get one of the best offensive minds in football going up against one of the best defensive minds, it’s must-see TV, so I’ll definitely be watching. 

5. Bill Belichick vs. Mike Vrabel (Week 12: Titans at Patriots)

Bill Belichick is arguably the greatest coach in NFL history and one reason he’s so good is because no coach in the NFL exploits the rule book as well he does. As a matter of fact, whenever I’m watching the Patriots play, I spend half the game wondering if any opposing coach will ever be able to out-Belichick Belichick. The twist here is that one coach did out-Belichick Belichick one time and that coach was Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel, who did it during a Titans playoff win over the Patriots in January 2020, which is also known as Tom Brady’s last game with the Patriots. 

That alone brings some spice to this matchup, but that’s not the only thing that makes this game fun. The other attractive part of this coaching matchup is the fact that Vrabel spent eight seasons PLAYING for Belichick in New England (2001-08), so he had a front row seat to everything the Patriots coach did during that period. There aren’t many coaches who can out-maneuver and out-strategize Belichick, but Vrabel is definitely one of them.  

4. Frank Reich vs. Kyle Shanahan (Week 7: Colts at 49ers)

Shanahan and Reich actually have a lot in common: Both coaches made a huge trade this offseason to land their quarterback of the future and both coaches ended up trading for a former North Dakota State QB. Both coaches also have high expectations this year and as long as neither team goes into a tailspin, this is definitely going to be one of the top coaching matchups of the year. 

As a matter of fact, if there’s one matchup on this list that feels like it has the best chance of turning into a Super Bowl preview, it’s probably this one, which is fitting, because both of these guys have recently coached in a Super Bowl. On one side, you have Shanahan, who’s one of the best offensive coaches in the game and is just two years removed from leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl, where he lost to the Chiefs. On the other side, you have Reich, who has quietly won almost as many games in three seasons (28) as Shanahan has won in FOUR years as a head coach (29) and unlike Shanahan, Reich actually has a Super Bowl ring from his time as an offensive coordinator after winning one with the Eagles in 2017. 

If the NFL ever realigns its divisions, I vote to put the Colts and 49ers together so that these two always have to coach against each other. That’s how excited I am to see Shanahan vs. Reich. 

3. Matt LaFleur vs. Sean McVay (Week 12: Rams at Packers)

If you like offensive fireworks, then you better go ahead and cancel all your plans for Nov. 28, because that’s when these two offensive masterminds will be going up against each other. Not only are McVay and LaFleur best friends, but they’ve also been two of the most successful coaches in the NFL since entering the league. 

Since being hired in 2017, McVay has won 43 games, which is the fifth-most of any coach in the NFL over that span. As for LaFleur, since being hired by the Packers in 2019, he’s won 26 games, which is tied with Andy Reid for the most in the NFL over that span. 

Both coaches have been nearly unstoppable during their time in the league. One thing that will make this game interesting to watch is the quarterback situation for both teams. LaFleur might not have Aaron Rodgers this season and if that happens, it’s really going to test his coaching ability. After two straight 13-3 seasons, it’s highly unlikely he’ll hit the 13-win mark again if he doesn’t have the future Hall of Famer at QB. As for McVay, he’s getting an upgrade at QB in the form of Matthew Stafford, who will be taking over for Jared Goff. 

These two actually coached against each other in the playoffs last year with the packers winning 32-18 in a game where McVay was forced to start a QB (Goff) who was coming off a serious thumb injury. Things should be even more interesting — and more exciting — this time around. Let’s just hope LaFleur doesn’t call for a field goal in the final minute with his team trailing by eight. 

2. Reid vs. John Harbaugh (Week 2: Chiefs at Ravens)

You could make the argument that this matchup should be at the top of the list, but we’re not going to put it there until John Harbaugh can figure out how to beat Andy Reid. The Ravens and Chiefs have met a total of four times since Reid was hired by the Chiefs in 2013 and Harbaugh has come out on the losing end in each of those games. Having Lamar Jackson as his quarterback hasn’t even helped Harbaugh, who’s 0-3 against the Chiefs WITH Jackson. Harbaugh is absolutely one of the best coaches in the league, but Baltimore is going to have a tough time getting back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2012 if Harbaugh can’t figure out a way to beat the Chiefs. This matchup is especially juicy because Harbaugh actually coached for nine years under Reid. During Reid’s time in Philadelphia, Harbaugh served as the special teams coordinator from 1999 until 2007. Harbaugh finally left in 2008 when he was hired to become coach of the Ravens. 

1. Belichick vs. Sean Payton (Week 3: Saints at Patriots)

It’s not often that we get one of the greatest defensive minds in NFL history going up against one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history, but that’s exactly what we’ll be getting in this game. Belichick and Payton have been so successful for so long that they’re currently the two longest tenured head coaches in the NFL (Belichick has been in New England since 2000 while Payton has been in New Orleans since 2006).

The game will mark just the fourth time that Belichick and Payton have coached against each other with Belichick holding a 2-1 advantage. The most fascinating aspect of this game is that there’s a good chance it’s going to come down to coaching. When these teams met in the past, Belichick could count on Tom Brady to make a big play or Payton could count on Drew Brees. With Brady no longer in New England and Brees now retired, the Saints against the Patriots is going to be a true coaching battle that’s going to involve two of the best coaches in NFL history.





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