USA TODAY US Edition
Breaks can go both lucky, tough for teams
Dropping its annual regular-season schedule is the latest aspect of the NFL calendar that the league has managed to turn into an event – including five hours of live programming on NFL Network and a two-hour show on ESPN2 (competing directly against an NBA playoff doubleheader on ESPN). It all follows a week-plus when portions of the slate were steadily leaked while team social media departments geared up for a day when so many shine.
Given all the effort invested – to roll out a schedule of all things – it’s only fitting that we respond in kind by anointing the winners and declaring the losers of this year’s big reveal.
The opener: What a three-game stretch of home games at SoFi Stadium for the Rams. First, a win in the NFC championship game over the 49ers, followed by that Super Bowl 56 triumph against the Bengals. Next? Quite possibly a Super Bowl 57 preview against the Bills on Thursday, Sept. 8, as the NFL begins its 103rd season. Definitely must-see TV on NBC.
AFC West: The NFL’s new power division will make 19 appearances in prime-time games, second most for one division in any season in the Super Bowl era (since 1966).
Civic pride: For the first time, the Rams and Chargers will meet in a regular-season game at SoFi, their shared venue in the Los Angeles area. It will also be on NBC, a Sunday night affair on Jan. 1 with the Bolts serving as the home team. Can’t wait to see who’s running Tinseltown by the end of Week 17. But that’s not all. In other rare intrastate showdowns, the Steelers will play at Philadelphia on Oct. 30, and the Cowboys will host the Texans on Dec. 11.
Browns: We’re still waiting to learn if (and how long) Cleveland QB Deshaun Watson will be suspended. However, his new team appears set up to weather the early portion of the season with the Panthers, Jets and Falcons – all nonplayoff teams in 2021 and decisively so – among the Browns’ first four opponents. Even with the archrival Steelers visiting for a Thursday night date on Sept. 22, it seems Cleveland has a very good chance to at least break even through four weeks.
Mike North: The NFL vice president of broadcast planning, who drives the very complex construction of the 272game schedule pretty much from the moment the Super Bowl ends – with plenty of work devoted even before that – will finally get some sleep ... but not before my mother and godmother – separately – told me to watch a “CBS Mornings” feature detailing how North and Co. make the sausage. I haven’t watched it yet, but I have checked in with Mike, who’s already taught me quite a bit about what goes into a surprisingly arduous process.
Who dey vs. Who dat: BengalsSaints, Oct. 16 in New Orleans. Let’s settle this.
Seahawks’ frequent flier miles: Well, the players don’t really get miles for going to work. But if they did ... Seattle’s roster would be racking them up, set to travel 29,446 miles and cross 34 time zones, per Bookies.com’s Bill Speros. (Conversely, barring a postseason trip out west, the Pittsburgh Steelers won’t leave the Eastern time zone this season.)
Seahawks’ social media department: Cruel – but funny – to punk your players with a fake schedule.
Seahawks playing in Germany: Sticking with the Seattle theme, the first regular-season contest staged in Deutschland will occur Nov. 13 between the ’Hawks and Buccaneers. Munich’s latitude and weather is pretty comparable to Seattle’s. Advantage: Seahawks.
Troy Aikman and Joe Buck: ESPN’s new “Monday Night Football” broadcast duo arrives just in time for a historic season for the Worldwide Leader. Aikman and Buck will debut for their new employer with a showcase Week 1 game as Russell Wilson returns to Seattle, where he played for a decade, to make his Broncos debut against the Seahawks. Buck and Aikman will call the bulk of ESPN’s 23-game menu – a record number for the network, which includes a wild-card game and the Pro Bowl. The “MNF” rundown will include all eight division champions from 2021, all 14 of last season’s playoff clubs, a Week 2 doubleheader split with ABC and every league MVP going back to the 2016 campaign. Among the choicest matchups: Rams-49ers on Oct. 3 in that NFC title game rematch, Saints-Buccaneers on Dec. 5 and Rams-Packers on Dec. 19.
Lambeau Field faithful: If you’re a Packers season ticket holder, you’re in for quite a treat with the Patriots, Cowboys, Rams, Titans and even new-look Jets headed to Wisconsin this season as part of Green Bay’s non-divisional schedule. Facing LA will mark the 30th consecutive season the Pack will appear on “Monday Night Football.”
Lambeau Field faithful: If you’re a Packers season ticket holder, you’re a little bit bummed since – for the first time – your team will play a game in London and at the expense of a home date. Worse, it’s the Giants, a historical rival of the Pack who won’t be making the pilgrimage to Green Bay in 2022.
Troy Aikman and Joe Buck: Still not sure you guys can successfully go toeto-toe with the ManningCast, Peyton and Eli scheduled to shoot the (bleep) for 10 games this season as an “MNF” alternative.
Seahawks playing in Germany: The first regular-season contest staged in Deutschland will occur Nov. 13 between the ’Hawks and Buccaneers. The time difference between Munich and Seattle is nine hours. Advantage: Bucs.
NBA: Such is modern life for “The Association.” First, that ESPN audience for a pair of conference semifinal Game 6s (Heat-76ers and Suns-Mavericks) was at least partially cannibalized by the NFL’s schedule release ... which arrived with a Christmas Day tripleheader, historically a day the NBA has tried to own. Good luck with that this year, hoopers: Aaron Rodgers’ Packers (vs. Dolphins), Wilson’s annual visit to LA to play the Rams – though this time as the Broncos’ QB1 – and a Christmas Night present of Tom Brady’s Buccaneers headed to the desert to face Kyler Murray and the Cardinals means a trio of treats sure to relegate the NBA to stocking stuffer status.
Santa Claus: Three games on Christmas? How is Saint Nick supposed to post for more than 10 hours of football after flying all over the world the previous night? Pretty cruel, Commissioner Roger Goodell – especially that 1 p.m. ET kickoff with the North Pole’s official team, the Packers, playing at Miami.
Chiefs: Kansas City’s first eight games are against teams that had winning records in 2021. Oof.
Buccaneers, Colts, Patriots: The playoff aspirants open with consecutive road games – though, luckily for them, North ensures no team initiates its season with three straight roadies. Still, not necessarily ideal ... even if it’s worth noting TB12 has never started 0-2. The Pats might be more disrupted by their four consecutive prime-time appearances from Weeks 12-15, a stretch that includes dates with the Vikings, Bills, Cardinals and Raiders.
Non-cord cutters: If you haven’t accepted streaming ... welp. Prime Video has become the exclusive domain of the league’s Thursday night package – a 15game haul – and ESPN+ will carry the Broncos-Jaguars game in London on Oct. 30. If you haven’t embraced the future yet – or refuse to subscribe for every streaming service out there – be prepared to miss a good chunk of live football.