It’s not al­ways who you play, but when you play them

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Barry Wil­ner

To­day’s Pa­tri­ots-Steel­ers matchup sure looked like a Game of the Year can­di­date.

Then all of the air went out of it when Steel­ers quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger dam­aged his knee.

Don’t get us wrong, it still could be a ter­rific meet­ing of the AFC’s two best teams. It also could be a ma­jor dud: Tom Brady vs. Landry Jones doesn’t have much spice.

The Steel­ers can talk bravely as much as they want, and they should.

As line­backer Arthur Moats says, “Re­spond­ing to ad­ver­sity, that’s what we do. Yeah, we know Ben isn’t play­ing, but we have con­fi­dence in Landry. You know he’s go­ing to go out there and let it fly.”

But the re­al­ity in the NFL is that of­ten it’s when you play a team that mat­ters as much as who the op­po­nent is. Fac­ing the Steel­ers in Heinz Field is daunt­ing for most any­one when Big Ben is on the field. Pa­tri­ots luck pre­vails this week.

The ob­vi­ous cases of when over who tend to come in the heat of Septem­ber — any­one re­ally ea­ger to play out­doors in Florida or Nashville then? — or in the bit­ter cold of winter. Tun­dra is a dirty word to folks out­side of Green Bay, Buf­falo and New Eng­land.

For years, re­porters cov­er­ing the Jets im­me­di­ately looked for two games when the sched­ule came out: when the team was in Mi­ami (hope­fully late in the year) and when it was in Buf­falo (Septem­ber, please).

Then there’s the chore of fac­ing a well-rested team coming off a bye. Rarely are both op­po­nents in a spe­cific game in that sit­u­a­tion: It hap­pens only once in 2016, when Pitts­burgh is at Baltimore on Nov. 6.

In­deed, the Ea­gles play three op­po­nents who had a bye the pre­vi­ous week, in­clud­ing the Vik­ings on Sun­day . The Pan­thers, Giants, 49ers, Car­di­nals, Jaguars, Ben­gals and Tex­ans each play two op­po­nents who were idle the week be­fore. Fair? Per­haps even less fair is that nine clubs never take on a team coming off a bye: Dal­las, Wash­ing­ton, Green Bay, Los An­ge­les, Cleve­land, Mi­ami, Buf­falo, In­di­anapo­lis and San Diego.

At least the Rams get a break there. Few teams have had more po­ten­tial to be plagued by the when than the Rams.

Aside from their no­madic ex­is­tence as they moved from St. Louis to Los An­ge­les, then had three dif­fer­ent South­ern Cal­i­for­nia lo­cales to work out of, they had a road game in Detroit in Week 6.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter the loss to the Lions, they headed to London for their an­nual (un­til they get their new palace in In­gle­wood, Cal­i­for­nia) host­ing ven­ture.

Mean­while, the Giants were win­ning last Sun­day at home against Baltimore.

Plus, the Giants-Rams mid-af­ter­noon kick­off in London trans­lates to 6:30 a.m. on the West Coast.

“Let me go back. Clearly, coming off a dif­fi­cult loss in Detroit, and then leav­ing al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter the game for here was a chal­lenge for us,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher says. “But, they knew well ahead of time, and they ac­cepted it.

“We got here, they set­tled down. We tried to keep them awake, but we weren’t as suc­cess­ful as we thought, but they got rested up.

“Yeah, it was dif­fer­ent in that we came over on Mon­day fol­low­ing a home game (last sea­son) ... in the Na­tional Foot­ball League, it’s an in­her­ent chal­lenge to go from the West Coast, and then play a 1 p.m. (ET) game, which is in essence a 10 a.m. game on the West Coast.

“That in it­self was a chal­lenge for us that we dealt with last week.”

Of­ten not ap­par­ent when de­ci­pher­ing the sched­ule are ad­van­tages that crop up.

Fac­ing a team in tur­moil should pro­vide an edge, some­thing the Jets got in Week 2 at Buf­falo, when they won for the only time so far. Or what the Bills ex­pe­ri­enced last Sun­day when the Nin­ers’ cir­cus came to town with Colin Kaeper­nick mak­ing his first start.

Rex Ryan’s club, which has turned around its for­tunes since that Jets loss, romped past San Fran­cisco.

There are al­ways con­trasts, though.

Star run­ning back Adrian Peter­son might be back with the Vik­ings for the fi­nal six or so games, so op­po­nents would want to get Min­nesota while he is re­hab­bing his knee in­jury. Prob­lem is, the Vik­ings are 5-0 anyway.

And Dal­las is 5-1 with­out Tony Romo, so tak­ing on Dak Prescott has been any­thing but an edge for the op­po­si­tion.

Still, tim­ing is a tremen­dous fac­tor in the out­come of NFL games. If you are banged up and your bye isn’t un­til Week 10 or 11, your play­off chances might be gone by then.

LYNNE SLADKY — AP FILE

Steel­ers quar­ter­back Ben Roeth­lis­berger sits on the side­lines dur­ing the sec­ond half of game against Dol­phins. Backup QB Landry Jones is set to guide the Steel­ers against the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, while Roeth­lis­berger re­cov­ers from left knee surgery.

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