Hotel and airline sales people soon will feel the effects of the NFL lockout following Tuesday's announcement of the 2011 schedule.
Usually, this is the day when hardcore fans look over the schedule and make their travel plans, buying cheap tickets and reserving hotel rooms. For those who do, don't buy anything non-refundable. While it's still likely that the league and its players will work out a new deal in time for the regular season, there is certainly no guarantee. As a result, hold off for now on putting any real money down, unless you can afford it.
For those of you with a little disposable income, here's a look at some games you might want to see in-person – followed by others not worth the dough:
Ten best games
1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts, Sept. 25 – As noted by yours truly before the Super Bowl, the Steelers defense has huge problems against superior quarterbacks for teams that can spread the field. This is the ultimate way to attack any aggressive defense, even the great Pittsburgh zone blitz. Green Bay was the latest offense to expose the Steelers' flaw. If the Steelers don't bring back Ike Taylor(notes) at cornerback, this matchup could be really ugly.
2. New York Giants at New York Jets, Dec. 24 – Up to now, the rivalry between the Giants and the Jets hasn't really been that significant on the field. However, one of the things that Jets coach Rex Ryan (and, really, owner Woody Johnson) wants to do is stake claim to the Big Apple and the greater New York region. Through Ryan's first two years, which have played out in the media, the Jets have grabbed back-page headlines in the tabloids on a more regular basis than the Giants. For the first time in the Ryan era, the rivalry gets to play out on the field – and don't think Rex is going to miss a chance to talk some serious smack. Moreover, both teams bring the kind of defense to make this fun. Oh yeah, there's that whole Mark Sanchez(notes)-Eli Manning thing, too. Delicious.
3. Chicago Bears at Denver Broncos, Dec. 11 – It's really sad that Josh McDaniels got fired by Denver last year because it robbed Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) of a chance to get some really serious revenge. As it is, Cutler will have plenty of motivation for this one after the rather ugly divorce he and the Broncos had in 2009. Throw in the fact that Cutler should be plenty motivated after his embarrassing departure from the NFC championship game and this could be one serious can of whoop to be exacted. Then again, Cutler could go through a serious implosion … which could be just as entertaining depending on your perspective.
4. Eagles at Atlanta Falcons, Sept. 18 – Speaking of revenge, don't think for a moment that Vick doesn't still want to show the Falcons a few things about what he has become. Even though the teams have played each other since his return, Vick has yet to make a start against his former team. That said, Vick has only himself to blame for his ugly departure from Atlanta, where he is still deeply loved by the fans who watched him from the start of his career. In fact, it's a pretty good bet that there will be significantly more Vick jerseys than Matt Ryan(notes) uniforms in the stands for this game.
5. Baltimore Ravens at Steelers, Sept. 11 (rematch: Nov. 6) – There are plenty of great rivalries in the NFL, such as Chicago-Green Bay and San Diego-Oakland, and it would be easy to use a lot of them in the top 10. But that's sort of cheap. However, right now, nothing quite matches what Baltimore-Pittsburgh has become over the past decade. This is purist football, like arguing Beatles-Stones, Brando-McQueen or Marilyn-Angelina. The twist to this game is whether Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) is going to finally elevate his game. Flacco has yet to beat the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger(notes) has played. Worse, Flacco has a turnover in every game he has played against Pittsburgh. Flacco is good. The question is whether or not he's going to become great.
6. Dallas Cowboys at Jets, Sept. 11 – This isn't the first time the Ryan Brothers (Jets coach Rex and new Dallas defensive coordinator Rob) have faced off, so that's not really the point. However, this is the first time they have faced each other while each is coaching teams capable of making it to the Super Bowl. Sure, both teams have plenty of holes, but the talent is there for each to make a run – and just think how much fun it would be if the siblings roll into Indianapolis in February for a title showdown.
7. Colts at New England Patriots, Dec. 4 –I know there are lots of people who think the NFL rigs the schedule to make sure these teams play every year (they have met 11 times over the past eight years), but that's really not the case. It's really all part of the pre-set scheduling format the league has used for years, coupled with the fact that both teams have been really good for years. It just wouldn't be an NFL season without Peyton Manning(notes), Tom Brady(notes) and Bill Belichick colliding at least once.
8. Green Bay Packers at Bears, Sept. 25 (rematch: Dec. 25) – It is the greatest tradition in the NFL and last year it had more meaning than ever when the two met in the NFC title game. The Packers survived and Cutler got caught in one of the ugliest controversies a player will ever face when many questioned his toughness. The two games this year probably won't live up to what happened a year ago, but this is the one game in the NFL that truly comes close to the level of a college rivalry.
9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Packers, Nov. 20 – The Buccaneers took huge strides last year, coming up just short of making the playoffs in the first full season of Josh Freeman's(notes) run at quarterback. Freeman is quickly closing the gap between himself and Doug Williams as the best quarterback in Tampa Bay history. In this game, Freeman takes on the defending champions in what should be a huge test of how fast he has grown as a player. Throw in Rodgers on the other side and you have a really fun game. Then again, if the Bucs don't have Aqib Talib(notes), the Packers might stomp them.
10. Kansas City Chiefs at Patriots, Nov. 21 – Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and quarterback Matt Cassel(notes) return to the place where they got their first big chance. Now, they have to show what they really learned from old master Bill Belichick. That said, the guy who probably needs a good lesson from Belichick is Chiefs coach Todd Haley. The Chiefs are a team on the rise with a good young roster. However, they need to start beating quality teams like the Patriots to take the next step in the progression.
Ten worst games
1. Carolina Panthers vs. Anybody, Sept. 11-Jan. 1 – The only thing that could possibly make the Panthers interesting this season is if they draft either one of the top quarterbacks, Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert, with the No. 1 overall pick. Then again, that's not going to be enough to make Carolina any good, especially if the lockout lasts for another month or so and neither quarterback can work with the new coaching staff led by Ron Rivera. The Panthers have a really good chance to go back-to-back years with the No. 1 overall pick. It's probably almost a lock, with their game against Tennessee looking like a showdown for the top pick right now. There also will be horrendously dull games against Arizona, Chicago and Jacksonville. As uncompetitive as the team was last year, it could be worse this year. And Panthers fans, save your emails. You sent them last year when I ripped this team before it was awful.
2. Broncos at Buffalo Bills, Dec. 24 – At the end of last season, Tim Tebow(notes) showed some potential, which is nice to see. However, I'm still not buying the hype and I think this is going to be another year of struggle for the Broncos, especially if they cling to the idea that Kyle Orton(notes) is anything close to being the answer. Assuming they make the logical move to Tebow, this season is going to be a huge challenge. While the Bills are far from the toughest test, playing in Buffalo could be a huge problem for his skittish arm. The wind off Lake Erie plays havoc with passers at Ralph Wilson Stadium at this time of year.
3. Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans, Nov. 6 – This could be the Stupor Bowl of Bad Ownership as Mike Brown of the Bengals faces Bud Adams of the Titans. There is a reason that neither of these guys has ever won a Super Bowl, despite being in charge of their teams for a combined 75,000 years. These guys are the definition of insanity, two men who continue to do the same stupid things despite always failing. Right now, both have their teams headed south again. Carson Palmer(notes) is so sick of Brown and the Bengals that he has demanded out. Adams flubbed the Vince Young(notes)-Jeff Fisher situation so badly that now he may not have either. Brilliant, just brilliant.
4. Miami Dolphins at Chiefs, Nov. 6 – The Dolphins might be the most boring team in the NFL with an offensive philosophy straight out of 1985. At a time when the rest of the NFL understands that you have to throw the ball, the Dolphins and coach Tony Sparano want to play little ball. Shockingly, the Dolphins have failed to develop quarterback Chad Henne(notes), neglecting him so badly that he is nearly a lost cause at this point. The result is a team that is almost unwatchable. While the Chiefs are interesting, they also are the type of team that will play down to the level of their opponent. In this case, the Chiefs will probably play close to the vest, which means the final score could be 10-7 and completely lacking in end-game drama, which is the definition of a bad game.
5. Arizona Cardinals at Ravens, Oct. 30 – One thing that could make this game intriguing is if Marc Bulger(notes), who was the backup with the Ravens last season, moves to the Cardinals to become the starter (one of the many prayers that Larry Fitzgerald(notes) and Ken Whisenhunt are making this offseason). Bulger might know enough about the Ravens defense to make this game challenging for Baltimore. Unlikely, but possible. Traditionally, the Cardinals are terrible when going to the East Coast. Don't expect that to change. The only thing that figures to keep this game close is the Ravens' inconsistent offense, which could feature an unhappy Anquan Boldin(notes) if he doesn't get enough opportunities against his former club.
6. Seattle Seahawks at Browns, Oct. 23 – This is not so much a bad game as it one of those games where the networks will try to create some trivial hype. The Seahawks, formerly coached by Mike Holmgren, square off against a Browns team currently run by Holmgren. There are plenty of other connections, but the reality is that Holmgren isn't coaching. Watching somebody sitting in a luxury suite during a game doesn't make for great tension.
7. San Francisco 49ers at Bengals, Sept. 25 – Here's the storyline: The 49ers are desperately trying to bring back their mediocre quarterback (Alex Smith) while the Bengals could be stuck with Jordan Palmer(notes) at the helm instead of his brother, Carson. What do you mean you're not really intrigued? OK, I'm not, either.
8. Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders, Dec. 18 – I beseech fans to be patient with Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who has the right ideas but hasn't been lucky enough to keep quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) healthy. This is probably going to be another tough season, but the foundation is there. Likewise, I hope Raiders owner Al Davis can stick with Hue Jackson for more than a season or two because Jackson has all the confidence in the world. However, this is a matchup of two teams that both have a lot of interesting skill-position players, but also a lot of gaping holes. It's the kind of game that tends to get dominated by outrageous mistakes.
9. Minnesota Vikings at Washington Redskins, Dec. 24 – Brett Favre(notes) goes to the nation's cap … oh, never mind, that's out. Donovan McNabb(notes) faces … oh, that's not it. Actually McNabb could be a factor in this game, but only if he's playing for the Vikings because he's definitely not going to be a Redskin this season. These two proud franchises are in the midst of serious transition and neither is likely going to have a dependable quarterback in place for this game.
10. Bengals at Jacksonville Jaguars, Oct. 9 – Yes, Bengals fans, this is the third time your team has made the list of 10 worst games. It's not so much that the Bengals are going to be that horrendous, but they're definitely not going to be good. The bigger problem is that they're going to be really boring. Moreover, they have no following and if the Jaguars are as dull as I think they're going to be (competitive, but dull), then this game could set a record for the most empty seats ever at a game purported to be sold out. Simply put, there is nothing compelling about this matchup. It's a marketing nightmare.