NFC North: nfl schedule

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Now that I've had at least 10 minutes to digest ESPN's "Monday Night Football" schedule, I'm prepared to provide some instant analysis. Hashmarks attended every MNF game last season, including the one on Christmas Eve (sorry, Sando), and I think this season's schedule is much better. For starters, we're not heading to Pittsburgh or Denver every other week. Not that there's anything wrong with those cities, but we need some variety. And Heinz Field had a dreadful playing surface from November on.

This year's schedule includes nine divisional matchups, and I think that's a great thing. Who's the new MNF darling? That would be the Cleveland Browns, who will appear on ESPN three times. The Packers are the only other team to appear three times. It makes you wonder if that part of the schedule was completed before Brett Favre retired because I'm not sure if the Aaron Rodgers storyline is worthy of three games.

The Broncos had six prime-time games last season, but that total has been cut in half. They'll appear on MNF twice -- in the opener in Oakland on Sept. 8 (which you already knew about) and an Oct. 20 trip to New England. I'm sure ESPN has to be disappointed to only land one Cowboys game for the second consecutive season. And don't think this has anything to do with my living in Dallas. When it comes to ratings, the Cowboys are the surest thing in the NFL, and no one will dispute that.

OK, now let's take a week by week look at the MNF schedule:

Sept. 8 (7 ET): Minnesota at Green Bay: We open with a great NFC North matchup. It will be the first look at Brett Favre's replacement, Aaron Rodgers, in prime time. It wouldn't surprise me if Packers officials use the occasion to honor Favre. How many times will Tony Kornheiser mention Favre's name even though he's not playing? I'll set the over-under at 25.

Sept. 8 (10:15 ET): Denver at Oakland: Another storied rivalry game. It's good to get this one out of the way while both teams are still in the hunt. This is a great early test for second-year quarterback JaMarcus Russell. If the Raiders take Darren McFadden in the draft, that would certainly elevate this matchup.

Sept. 15 (8:30 ET): Philadelphia at Dallas: This will be a MNF farewell to Texas Stadium. Jerry Jones will open his new $1.1 billion stadium the following season. I'm sure my friends on the TV side are thrilled to have an early NFC East battle. Expect lots of "Bounty Bowl" references.

Sept. 22 (8:30 ET): New York Jets at Chargers: If Darren McFadden slips in the draft to the Jets, we could see him go against LaDainian Tomlinson. The Chargers may be missing starting tight end Antonio Gates (toe surgery), but I still think they'll start stronger than last season. This is an excellent early measuring stick for all that free-agency money the Jets threw around in the offseason. Last year, I would've yawned when seeing this game on the schedule. Right now, I'm only half yawning.

Sept. 29 (8:30 ET): Baltimore at Pittsburgh: Apparently this is now a MNF staple. I watched the Ravens completely fold at Heinz Field on Monday night last season. Ben Roethlisberger had a huge game, and Steelers linebacker James Harrison introduced himself to the rest of the country. The former Kent State player has been a bit distracted with some off-the-field issues, but watching Harrison and Ray Lewis on the same field will be pretty entertaining.

Oct. 6 (8:30 ET): Minnesota at New Orleans: The NFL is obviously serious about supporting post-Katrina New Orleans. This is the third consecutive season the Superdome has hosted at least one early-season MNF game. And this year, New Orleans will host two MNF games. I think Roger Goodell is serious about his commitment to the city.

Oct. 13 (8:30 ET): New York Giants at Cleveland: I know Cleveland shocked some folks with a 10-6 season, but it's still a startling to see the Browns land THREE MNF games. Pretty amazing stuff. Hosting the Super Bowl champs in a mid-October game will be huge for the franchise and the city. We'll know at this point whether the Browns are living up to all the offseason hype.

Oct. 20 (8:30 ET): Denver at New England: Our first and only look at the AFC champions on MNF. This one has potential blowout written all over it, but I'm certainly hoping that's not the case. The Patriots were involved in the best MNF game last season, and perhaps Jay Cutler and Brandon "Quarter Pounder" Marshall will make them work for this one.

Oct. 27 (8:30 ET): Indianapolis at Tennessee: Another strong divisional matchup. Last year, the Colts rolled over and played dead for the Titans in the final game of the season. That won't happen in late October. Vince Young will hopefully have improved talent around him at running back and receiver. I love the Young-Peyton Manning matchup. Put me down for this game, boss.

Nov. 3 (8:30 ET): Pittsburgh at Washington: I think the Steelers will have established themselves as the best defense in football at this point. I'm still not convinced, though, that Pittsburgh can find a suitable replacement for Alan Faneca at guard. The Steelers will have to address that issue in the draft. At this point, the Redskins will be desperate for a win. I've seen Jason Campbell play well on MNF and I think he'll do it again against the Steelers. This is the first time in 20 years the Steelers have been to Washington and the game will occur on the eve of the presidential election.

Nov. 10 (8:30 ET): San Francisco at Arizona: Another great division rivalry. OK, I tried. Well, at least we don't have to go all the way to Mexico City to watch them play. The Cardinals have a shot to challenge the Seahawks for NFC West supremacy. I think the 49ers will be an improved team, but they'll be out of the playoff race at this point.

Nov. 17 (8:30 ET): Cleveland at Buffalo: Commissioner Goodell is serious about supporting football in western New York. The Cowboys beat the Bills in a thriller last October, and now the Browns are headed to town. After a long MNF drought, MNF games in consecutive seasons in Buffalo is a huge deal for the region.

Nov. 24 (8:30 ET): Green Bay at New Orleans: We return to the Superdome for an intriguing NFC matchup. The Saints will have a much-improved defense, but we still have to see if Reggie Bush can become a consistent threat on offense. By now, we'll have a good feel for how the post-Favre era is going. Heck, he may even be back by now.

Dec. 1 (8:30 ET): Jacksonville at Houston: I like all the divisional matchups, but this one's coming a little late in the season. I have a hard time believing that an improving Texans team will still be alive in the brutal AFC South. Reliant Stadium is an excellent venue, and the city of Houston deserves the national spotlight. I just wish it was earlier in the season.

Dec. 8 (8:30 ET): Tampa Bay at Carolina: I'm hoping the Bucs and Panthers will be fighting for a division title, but my fear is that the Panthers will have bowed out of the playoff race at this point. Jake Delhomme is one of my favorites, but I'm afraid he will be long gone. Don't plan any trips in December, Vinny.

Dec. 15 (8:30 ET): Cleveland at Philadelphia: Are you sure this schedule's correct? Cleveland keeps po
pping up all over the place. Glad to see MNF return to Lincoln Financial Field. It's just a great setting for a nationally televised game. I'll try not to think about the fact that I got stranded in South Philly after the Eagles-Redskins game last season.

Dec. 22 (8:30 ET): Green Bay at Chicago: Will it mean something? I certainly hope so. I'm afraid the Bears will still be seeking answers at quarterback. But at least they have a chance to draft an excellent running back. We'll know exactly what Aaron Rodgers is all about at this point. And I think Packers fans will be pleasantly surprised.

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