|Duration||September 6 – December 21, 1981|
|Start date||December 27, 1981|
|AFC Champions||Cincinnati Bengals|
|NFC Champions||San Francisco 49ers|
|Super Bowl XVI|
|Date||January 24, 1982|
|Site||Pontiac Silverdome, Pontiac, Michigan|
|Champions||San Francisco 49ers|
|Date||January 31, 1982|
The 1981 NFL season was the 62nd regular season of the National Football League. The season ended with Super Bowl XVI when the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 26–21 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan.
The 1981 NFL Draft was held from April 28 to 29, 1981 at New York City’s Sheraton Hotel. With the first pick, the New Orleans Saints selected running back George Rogers from the University of South Carolina.
Cal Lepore, the line judge for Super Bowl III and referee for the Miracle at the Meadowlands, retired prior to the 1980 season. He would later become supervisor of officials in the United States Football League. Tom Dooley, who was assigned Super Bowl XV as line judge at the end of the 1981 season, was promoted to referee to replace Lepore.
Major rule changes
- It is illegal for any player to put adhesive or slippery substances such as the product “stickum” on his body, equipment or uniform. This rule is known as both the “Lester Hayes Rule” and the “Fred Biletnikoff Rule” since both players were notorious for using sticky substances to make it easier for them to intercept/catch passes.
- An offensive player who comes into the game wearing an illegal number for the position he takes must report to the referee before the start of the next play.
- The penalty for an ineligible receiver who touches a forward pass is a loss of down.
- The penalty for illegal use of hands, arms, or body (including holding) is reduced from 15 yards to 10 yards.
- The penalty for intentional grounding is modified: loss of down and 10 yards penalty from the previous spot, or if the foul occurs more than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage, loss of down at the spot of the foul.
- Officials began wearing numbers 21 through 25 within their position groups after going no higher than number 20 in 1979 and 1980.
W = Wins, L = Losses, T = Ties, PCT = Winning Percentage, PF= Points For, PA = Points Against
- Baltimore finished ahead of New England in the AFC East based on head-to-head sweep (2–0).
- San Diego finished ahead of Denver in the AFC West based on better division record (6–2 to Broncos’ 5–3).
- Buffalo was the second AFC Wild Card based on head-to-head victory over Denver (1–0).
- Detroit finished ahead of Green Bay in the NFC Central based on better record against common opponents (4–4 to Packers’ 3–5).
|Jan. 2 – Texas Stadium|
|NFC Wild Card Game||NFC Championship|
|Dec. 27 – Veterans Stadium||Jan. 10 – Candlestick Park|
|Jan. 3 – Candlestick Park|
|4||Philadelphia||21||��1||San Francisco||28||Super Bowl XVI|
|Jan. 24 – Pontiac Silverdome|
|Jan. 2 – Miami Orange Bowl|
|AFC Wild Card Game||AFC Championship||A1||Cincinnati||21|
|Dec. 27 – Shea Stadium||Jan. 10 – Riverfront Stadium|
|Jan. 3 – Riverfront Stadium|
- * Indicates overtime victory
Records, milestones, and notable statistics
- Most Passes Attempted, Season, 709
- Most Punts, Season, 114
- Most Yards, Punt Returns, Both Teams, Game, 282
- Most Touchdowns, Passing, Single Team, Game, 7
- Most Touchdowns, Punt Returns, Single Team, Game, 2
Baltimore Colts Defense
- Most Points Allowed, Season, 533
- Most Touchdowns Allowed, Season, 68
- Most First Downs Allowed Season, 406
- Most Yards Allowed, Season, 6,793
- Fewest Punt Returns, Season, 12
|Points scored||San Diego Chargers (478)|
|Total yards gained||San Diego Chargers (6,744)|
|Yards rushing||Detroit Lions (2,795)|
|Yards passing||San Diego Chargers (4,739)|
|Fewest points allowed||Philadelphia Eagles (221)|
|Fewest total yards allowed||Philadelphia Eagles (4,447)|
|Fewest rushing yards allowed||Detroit Lions (1,623)|
|Fewest passing yards allowed||Philadelphia Eagles (2,696)|
|Most Valuable Player||Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati|
|Coach of the Year||Bill Walsh, San Francisco|
|Offensive Player of the Year||Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati|
|Defensive Player of the Year||Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker, NY Giants|
|Offensive Rookie of the Year||George Rogers, Running back, New Orleans|
|Defensive Rookie of the Year||Lawrence Taylor, Linebacker, NY Giants|
|Man of the Year||Lynn Swann, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh|
|Comeback Player of the Year||Ken Anderson, Quarterback, Cincinnati|
|Super Bowl Most Valuable Player||Joe Montana, Quarterback, San Francisco|
- Denver Broncos: Dan Reeves replaced the fired Red Miller.
- Houston Oilers: Bum Phillips was fired and replaced by Ed Biles.
- New Orleans Saints: Bum Phillips joined the Saints after being fired by the Oilers. Dick Nolan was fired after a 0–12 start in 1980, and Dick Stanfel took over as interim.
- Washington Redskins: Joe Gibbs replaced Jack Pardee.
- The Cincinnati Bengals made significant modifications to their uniforms for the first time since the team's debut in 1968, discontinuing the design similar to the Cleveland Browns' jerseys. Orange and black tiger stripes were added to the jerseys and pants. Black tiger stripes were also added to the orange helmets.
- The Dallas Cowboys adopted a new blue jersey which was darker than its predecessors and featured silver numbers. The Cowboys wore this blue jersey through 1994.
- The Houston Oilers resumed wearing blue pants with their white jerseys.
Regular season game not broadcast by Network TV
|September 5, 1981||8:00 PM EDT||Minnesota @ Tampa Bay||KSTP-TV (Minnesota)
WTOG-TV (Tampa Bay)