If the ultimate goal is a world championship and not just great games and intriguing story lines, the NFL's annual schedule release should leave the Pittsburgh Steelers beaming only slightly less than the Super Bowl rings they earned in February.
While analysts fawned over the sexy prime-time matchups, the Steelers won the schedule-release trophy – if there ever was such a thing – in a silent slaughter. The defending Super Bowl champions will enter next season with what stacks up as the fourth-easiest schedule in the league. And it might be even cushier than that when you consider the three teams with easier slates (the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers) had the winning percentage of their 2009 opponents thrown out of whack by the fact they each count Detroit's 0-16 record twice in this year's calculations.
While Pittsburgh will see Detroit once this season, it also has both the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns – hapless in their own right last year – a combined four times in 2009. In all, the Steelers have eight games on the ledger against teams that had at least 10 losses in 2008. Conversely, they have only six games against playoff teams from last season, and only two of those will be on the road.
Add it up, and the franchise with the most Super Bowl trophies in league history – six – has been blessed with a generous path to number seven. The rest of the league can file its complaints with the NFL's office in New York. They'll likely be filed in the incinerator right along with the Spygate tapes confiscated from the New England Patriots.
Here's a look at some of the other winners and losers from the league's 2009 schedule. …
• Tom Brady and Terrell Owens. I can't imagine two guys who want the 2009 season to start more than these two, and they land the first Monday-night game of the schedule on Sept. 14. Owens is in one of those "prove it" years that typically turn out to be statistically gaudy, and he gets to go against a secondary that gave up its share of big plays early last season. Meanwhile, Brady steps back into his legacy as the league's best quarterback, and we finally get to see him in new photos that don't include Gisele and a dog that fits in a purse. Brady also gets to start the season against one of the worst pass-rushing teams of 2008, which should theoretically allow him to ease into the season with his surgically repaired knee.
• The Miami Dolphins. Four prime-time games? The NFL is wagering that Miami will have some staying power after a surprising 2008. The two home games on Monday nights form a pretty confident investment, too – particularly when Miami has drawn the toughest strength of schedule for 2009. The Dolphins have been given a big piece of the valuable stage, and they have plenty of tests to prove they were worth it.
• Jake Delhomme. He has spent the offseason trying to forget that playoff debacle against the Arizona Cardinals, and he'll get his shot at redemption when the Carolina Panthers travel to face Arizona in Week 8. Think this one could be a major springboard into the second half of the season for the winner?
• Chad Pennington. Week 5, when the Dolphins host the Jets, will be sweet for Pennington if only because he can look at New York's sideline and not see Eric Mangini and Brett Favre. There could be no sweeter revenge than knowing you delivered the staggering blow that cast off the coach who pushed you out and the guy who replaced you.
• Jay Cutler. It's only a preseason game, but you can bet new Bears QB Cutler will want nothing more than to drop five touchdowns on Josh McDaniels and the Denver Broncos on Aug. 30. Expect a game that is hyped ridiculously and then fails to live up to even half the publicity. Even though the third preseason game usually provides extended time for starters, this one still counts for nothing. But at least Cutler and McDaniels won't have to wait long to take one last shot at becoming "besties".
• The New Orleans Saints. The Saints dropped 42 points on the Detroit Lions in three quarters last season and then essentially took the rest of the game off. With a pretty tough schedule in 2009, they have to get off to a fast start – and they couldn't have drawn a better season opener than a home game against those Lions. Maybe Detroit will be better under its new regime and maybe it won't, but starting the year in the Superdome is brutal – especially when your No. 1 pick could be a rookie quarterback who is sitting on the bench.
• Late-arriving fans. If you don't get fully entrenched in the NFL until after baseball season ends, you'll arrive just in time for several division-deciding matchups. November and December will feature both the home and away games of some of the league's biggest division rivalries, including the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Baltimore Ravens (Nov. 29 and Dec. 27); the Chicago Bears vs. the Minnesota Vikings (Nov. 29 and Dec. 28); and the New York Giants vs. the Philadelphia Eagles (Nov. 1 and Dec. 13) – not to mention the annual intrigue of the Indianapolis Colts vs. the New England Patriots (Nov. 15) and the rematch of Eli Manning vs. Philip Rivers when the San Diego Chargers travel to the Giants (Nov. 8).
• The Eagles faithful. They get a chance to applaud one of the city's most beloved players when Brian Dawkins returns with Denver in Week 16. Philly fans are often hammered as nasty and vitriolic, but it would be shock if they didn't give Dawkins a warm welcome back.
• The Chicago Bears. They are right there with the Cowboys and the Giants with five potential prime-time games this season. It's probably no surprise, considering Chicago is one of the league's crown jewels in terms of market size and television exposure. Now that the Bears finally have a franchise quarterback who promises star power, it makes sense the NFL would try to seize on it. Now the Bears have to make good on the gesture of faith, and keep from being this year's horrible prime-time bet, a la the Cleveland Browns in 2008.
• Wade Phillips and Tony Romo. The NFL isn't doing them any favors. The two guys who are most often identified with Dallas' meltdowns in the second half of the season and playoffs got no help this year. A manageable first seven games is followed by a brutal final nine, including five divisional games (two against Washington and Philadelphia and one against the Giants), a crisp November road game in Green Bay, and visits from offensive powerhouses San Diego and New Orleans. At least they've got Oakland at home on Thanksgiving.
• Fans itching for an awkward regular-season grudge game. We get Bill Belichick and New England vs. Josh McDaniels and Denver on Oct. 11, but what we really want to see is McDaniels and the Broncos vs. Jay Cutler and the Bears in a game that actually matters (no, the preseason game doesn't count). Think: prime time on a Monday night (hint to the 2010 schedulers). In fact, now is when we realize how much we'll miss those Cutler/Broncos vs. Rivers/Chargers divisional fiascos. There won't be a Buffalo and Terrell Owens vs. Dallas, or even a Rex Ryan/Bart Scott and the Jets vs. the Baltimore Ravens. Ah, well, we always have Joey Porter. Here's hoping Pittsburgh at Miami on Jan. 3 really means something significant.
• New England Patriots. It's the third year in a row the Patriots will have to go to Indianapolis. But New England fans should keep their beaks shut on this one – it's payback for the three straight seasons the Colts went to Foxboro from 2004 to 2006.
• The Atlanta Falcons. Just two – two! – games against teams that finished below .500 last season. Ouch. And those are against San Francisco – which got better as 2008 went along – and the Buffalo Bills/Terrell Owens show. It's amazing Atlanta has only the fourth-toughest strength of schedule this season. And did we mention that Carolina and New Orleans look even better in the NFC South?
• Tom Coughlin and Jim Mora Jr.. They are the only coaches whose teams have to go on the road three straight weeks. Seattle definitely got the worst of it. At least Coughlin and the Giants face two teams in rebuilding mode during the stretch – Kansas City and Tampa Bay – and make the run in weeks 2, 3 and 4, when the Giants' roster should still have fresh legs and be injury free. Mora and the Seahawks make their run in weeks 10, 11 and 12 and face a pair of teams – Arizona and Minnesota – that should be in the thick of the postseason hunt.
• Highly acclaimed backup quarterbacks. The Cardinals and Tennessee Titans meet in Week 12. In their fourth seasons since becoming top-10 picks in the draft, neither Matt Leinart nor Vince Young is likely to start. Salary-cap managers everywhere can rejoice by slapping their foreheads.
• The Chicago Bears. Yeah, they supposedly have the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL next season, but I'm not buying it. Aside from Detroit, teams such as Cincinnati and Seattle are going to be getting back Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks, making a world of difference. And that offense isn't going to get a lot of time to adjust with Cutler at the helm. The Bears must travel to Green Bay, which has proven it can ring up points like a pinball machine, for the season opener. Then the Bears will host defending Super Bowl champ Pittsburgh in Week 2. Even the road trip to Seattle in Week 3 doesn't look easy with the Seahawks boasting a healthy Matt Hasselbeck and Deion Branch to go along with T.J. Houshmandzadeh. It will only get tougher if Michael Crabtree is drafted into that mix. Forget what the percentages say; the Bears are going to have to hit the ground running.
• ESPN. OK, so the Detroit Lions went 0-16 last season and absolutely deserve most of the flak they get over it. But the network's duo of Trey Wingo and Merril Hoge verbally flushed the Lions down the toilet every chance they got during ESPN's schedule-release special. After awhile, it just came off as crass and unfunny. For what it's worth, ESPN's analysts chalked up losses for most of Miami's games in the network's 2008 schedule show, too.