The past few years have indoctrinated a new holiday on the NFL calendar: the schedule-release party, on which football fans start dreaming of road trips and tailgating, learning who plays whom and when. Here’s a look at 15 of the more intriguing story lines now that we know how the 2012 season is laid out:
1. We’ve known for years that the Super Bowl will cap the 2012 season in New Orleans at the Superdome, and we’ve known for weeks that the Giants will attempt to defend their crown in the season-opening game against the Cowboys, moved up a day to Wednesday, Sept. 5, because of President Obama speaking at the Democratic National Convention. But now we know what they are up against for the entire season, and they lose with a brutal closing stretch. They open with seven of their first eight games against non-playoff teams from 2011, although they include two games against Cowboys, a Thursday-nighter against Cam Newton and the Panthers, a Sunday-night game at the Eagles and a long road trip to San Francisco in Week Six. But it’s the second half that stands out: Week Nine vs. the Steelers, Week 10 at the Bengals, Week 12 vs. the Packers, Week 13 at the Redskins (who beat the Giants twice last season), Week 14 vs. the Saints, Week 15 at the Falcons, Week 16 at the Ravens and Week 17 vs. the Eagles, in what could be a division-deciding game. Just brutal. And as head coach Tom Coughlin noted, it’s not just whom the Giants play that’s tough, but also when. “We play on four different days and we have five night games,” Coughlin said. “Our first three games are Wednesday-Sunday-Thursday. We play two road night games early, come home for a week and then go to San Francisco. Our people are going to have to be really good about it.”
2. The team the Giants defeated in the Super Bowl, the Patriots, have the easiest schedule in terms of opponents’ 2011 winning percentage at .453 with four quality non-division opponents. But there are a few hurdles early on as it relates to the travel schedule. They open on the road against the Titans and then have back-to-back roadies against the Bills and Ravens (Sunday-night game) in Weeks Three and Four before coming back home to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Foxborough. And in the three weeks leading up to the Week Nine bye, the Patriots will earn their frequent flier miles: They head to Seattle, return home to face the Jets and then go to London to battle the Rams. The second half looks a little smoother on paper, but the schedule includes back-to-back home games against two surprise teams — and two excellent defenses — from 2011 in the Texans (Week 14 on Monday night) and 49ers (Week 15). Still, it’s a schedule that the Patriots could manipulate to a double-digit-win season once again. Worth noting: No Patriots opponent will be coming off a true bye before facing New England, although the Colts will have a few extra days coming off a Week 10 Thursday-nighter. Um, will it matter?
3. The Saints have been the biggest story in an offseason of huge NFL stories. Their discipline stemming from the bounty scandal has left them with head coach Sean Payton out of action until 2013 and without interim head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games. Taking into account the Saints’ Week Six bye, Vitt is scheduled to return to the team for a Week Eight prime-time game against Manning and the Broncos in Denver on Oct. 28 on NBC. The first six are no easy road, either: The Saints face the Redskins (home), Panthers (road), Chiefs (home), Packers (road), Chargers (home; Sunday-night game) and Buccaneers (road). After the Broncos game, the Saints finish up with four matchups against playoff teams in the final nine games — two against the Falcons, and one each against the 49ers (home in Week 12) and Giants (road in Week 14). The game at Atlanta comes on a Thursday night following the Niners contest, just ahead of the trip to the Meadowlands. Assuming Drew Brees has signed a new contract, he and his Saints teammates will be up against it.
4. Welcome to Denver, Peyton Manning. Now feast on this: An opening trio of playoff teams (vs. Steelers on Sunday night; at Falcons on Monday night; vs. Texans), and three more in the first half against tough opponents with top-tier quarterbacks (at New England in Week Five; at Chargers in Week Six; a Week Seven bye, just to catch their breath; and vs. the Saints after in Week Eight). The back half softens quite a bit, capped off with home games against the Browns and Chiefs in Weeks 16 and 17. But with five prime-time games and a few tough East Coast trips (including chilly Baltimore in Week 15), it’s clear that the NFL has taken advantage of Manning’s seismic shift to Denver.
5. The Packers lost two games last season, one in the regular season and one in the playoffs. This year’s schedule, although not exactly easy, sets up for more success. (Plus, you know, the Packers are still, um, pretty good in terms of talent.) But that’s not to say it doesn’t feature a few little interesting patches. The first one comes right off the bat (both at Lambeau) with the 49ers in Week One and the Bears in Week Two, on short rest in a Thursday-night game. After that, they have a quality couplet with tough games (both on the road) against the Lions in Week 11 and Giants in Week 12. The schedule also features three straight road games in Weeks Five, Six and Seven — a trio that feature the two worst teams in 2011, the Colts and Rams, sandwiched around a toughie against the upstart Texans as the meat in the middle. Not shockingly, the networks want their slice of the Panthers, too; they’ll play in five prime-time games (three on Sunday night) and two more 4:15 p.m. games early in the season.
6. The toughest opening slate might belong to the Cowboys, who start with six of nine games on the road. After the Giants opener, they’ll have nine days to gear up for a trip to Seattle in Week Two. Then it’s back home for a pair against the Buccaneers and Bears. After the Week Five bye, it’s four of five away from Dallas — at Baltimore (Week Six), Carolina (Week Seven), Atlanta (Week Nine) and Philadelphia (Week 10) — with a visit to Dallas from the defending-champion Giants in the middle. Brutal. Just brutal. The second half might feature five out of seven at home, but it includes a three-game stretch against 2011 playoff teams in the Bengals (on the road), Steelers and Saints.
7. As division favorites for the first time since their inception, the Texans suddenly find themselves in demand for prime time with four games: Week Five at the Jets on Monday night; Week Six vs. the Packers on Sunday night; Week 10 at the Bears on Sunday night; and Week 14 at the Patriots on Monday night. They also get a tough one in heading to Detroit for a short week on Thanksgiving. But if there’s something that pops off the page, it’s that the Texans finish with a trio of games against teams that combined for seven victories, with two games against the Colts (Weeks 15 and 17) and one against the Vikings (Week 16). The opening twosome isn’t so daunting, either: Dolphins in Week One in Houston and at Jacksonville in Week Two. Depending on what the Dolphins do in the draft, the Texans could be facing first- or second-year quarterbacks in the first two and final three games. Wade Phillips might have let out a little “woo hoo” when he saw that Tuesday night. Or maybe not.
8. So Joe Flacco thinks he’s the best quarterback in the NFL? He’ll get a chance to prove it against a gauntlet of a slate, especially late. It’s no joke early, either, not with a division game against the Bengals (in Baltimore) in Week One, a bus ride to Philadelphia (just under 100 miles up Route 95) in Week Two and a rematch on Sunday night against the Patriots (this one’s in Baltimore) in Week Three. But check out the games every Ravens fan circles when the schedule comes out — the two against the Steelers. This year, there’s barely a break as the teams meet in Week 11 (at Pittsburgh on Sunday night) and again in Week 13 at home. On top of that, the Ravens get a double dose of Manning in consecutive weeks with Peyton and the Broncos coming to Baltimore in Week 15 and Eli and the Giants descending into town the following week. Maybe Joe and Eli can compare notes at that point and work out their definitions of “elite.”
9. It seems a little late in this edition of “The First Fifteen” to do a Week One analysis, but we’re all about going against the grain in this space. It’s a pretty good appetizer, but maybe not quite the whopper everyone expected. No Patriots-Ravens. No Patriots-Broncos. No Niners or Packers in prime time (they play against each other earlier in the afternoon on Sunday). The Jets and Tim Tebow are relegated to an early game against the Bills (hey, at least it’s at New York). Once you sift through a few snoozer games, you actually do find a few gems. First, let’s look at the rookies — assuming Colts owner Jim Irsay doesn’t lose his mind and veer from picking Andrew Luck, he and the Colts will get to face a pretty good defense in the Bears in Chicago. Have fun, rook. And though the Saints have incurred sanctions from the bounty, their fans have not. You can bet that the rowdy New Orleanians will be greeting the Redskins and rookie QB Robert Griffin III with an ear-thumping welcome. Griffin was born in Japan, but he went to high school in Copperas Cove, Texas, which is about a half-day’s drive from the Big Easy.
10. The holidays also are big attractions for the NFL. Week 12 is Thanksgiving, and the three games look mighty tasty on the plate. As we mentioned above, the Texans will play in their first-ever turkey game, at Detroit, in the early contest. Nice start. Then it’s down to Dallas for Redskins-Cowboys in the afternoon contest. Also nice. And the capper: A night game between the Jets and Patriots in New York. Tebow. Tom Brady. Rex Ryan. Bill Belichick. Maybe Joe Namath will have his lip balm on. Fast-forward to Christmas week, and it’s 15 Sunday games with Falcons-Lions on Saturday, Dec. 22. There is no Monday-night game that week. The Sunday highlights include Giants-Ravens in Baltimore, Saints-Cowboys in Dallas, and Chargers-Jets in New York.
11. And, hey, while we’re at it, Week Two looks like it might be even better than the opening week. Bears-Packers on Thursday night in Green Bay to kick things off. The Saints in Carolina. The Ravens at the Eagles. The Cowboys at Seattle, with Tony Romo hopefully free of extra-point duty. The Jets at Pittsburgh. Luck (home against the Vikings) and Griffin (at the Rams) could be looking for their first professional victories. The Lions at San Fran (postgame handshake included!) on Sunday night. And the weekend capper — the Broncos (and, yes, Peyton Manning) visiting the Falcons.
12. The teams most likely to go 2-0: the Texans (vs. Miami; at Jacksonville), Patriots (at Tennessee; vs. Arizona) and Chargers (at Oakland; vs. Tennessee). Most likely to go 0-2: the Browns (vs. Philadelphia; at Cincinnati), Buccaneers (vs. Carolina; at Giants) and Rams (at Detroit; vs. Washington).
13. The sexiest prime-time weeks appear to be Week Two (see No. 11), Week Nine (Chiefs at Chargers, Cowboys at Falcons, Eagles at Saints), Week 12 (Patriots at Jets, Packers at Giants, Panthers at Eagles), Week 13 (Saints at Falcons, Eagles at Cowboys, Giants at Redskins) and Week 14 (Broncos at Raiders, Lions at Packers, Texans at Patriots), although flex scheduling could affect those last three weeks.
14. As for the lightest prime-time week, Week Eight stands out with Bucs at Vikings (Thursday) and 49ers at Arizona (Monday), although the Saints-Broncos game on Sunday night (which could be Vitt’s first game as head coach) looms large. Basically, the NFL appears to have done a really good job spreading out the big contests, even if a lot of what we believe now will be undone by the time the games are actually played.
15. Week 17 games now rightfully feature divisional contests, and there will be some doozies on Sunday, Dec. 30 (when all 16 games will be played) with the playoffs on tap. Ravens-Bengals in Cincy could be big. Bears-Lions in Detroit looks big. Eagles-Giants in New York is almost always big. Same with Cowboys-Redskins in D.C. But based on the way the other games are laid out, you could see some contenders facing last-place teams and waiting for the results of the other game in the division to play out. Basically, what we’re saying is that speculating in April on games that will happen the day before New Year’s Eve is a bit silly. But it’s also terribly fun, isn’t it?