NFC South: 2013 NFC schedule analysis

NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: After coming up 10 yards short of the Super Bowl, the Atlanta Falcons will enter the 2013 season as a media darling. They’ll have five nationally televised games, including Sunday night games with the Patriots (Week 4) and at Green Bay (Week 14), Monday night games with the New York Jets (Week 5) and at San Francisco (Week 16), and a Thursday night game with New Orleans (Week 12). The Falcons will be under the microscope from the start, and that’s partly because they’ll open their season against the rival Saints in New Orleans in a game that will mark the official return of coach Sean Payton from a suspension. The Falcons are generally known as a dome team, and that’s a good thing. They will play 11 games indoors but could run into weather issues in late-season road games at Green Bay and San Francisco.

Complaint department: Team president Rich McKay chairs the NFL’s competition committee, but he apparently doesn’t have much influence with the schedule-makers. This will mark the fourth straight year the Falcons have opened their season on the road. The Falcons also have another quirk in their schedule. They play only one NFC South opponent after Thanksgiving, and that’s Carolina at the Georgia Dome in the regular-season finale.

Going international: The Falcons will make franchise history Dec. 1 when they play the Buffalo Bills at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. The Falcons have made preseason appearances in Tokyo, but this will be the first time they’ve played outside the United States during the regular season.

Welcome to the NFL: The Cardinals and Bills both have first-time NFL head coaches. In his five seasons in Atlanta, Mike Smith is 11-0 against first-time head coaches.

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, at Miami, 4:05 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 29, New England, 8:30 p.m.
Week 5: Monday, Oct. 7, N.Y. Jets, 8:30 p.m.
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 27, at Arizona, 4:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, Seattle, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 21, New Orleans, 8:25 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, at Buffalo, 4:05 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at Green Bay, 8:30 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, Washington, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 23, at San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, Carolina, 1 p.m.

NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: The Saints may be coming off a losing season, but they still are going to get plenty of national attention. They’ll play four games in prime time, including two at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints’ schedule is tied for the second-hardest slate in the NFL (a .539 winning percentage by opponents in 2012). But the best news might be that coach Sean Payton will make his official return to the sideline following a one-year suspension in the opener against Atlanta at home. The Saints and Falcons are one of the league’s hottest rivalries (the Saints have won 11 of 14 meetings since 2006) and Payton’s return only adds another storyline. The key to New Orleans’ season might be the four-week stretch from Nov. 10 to Dec. 2. In that span, the Saints will host Dallas and San Francisco and then travel to Atlanta and Seattle.

Complaint department: Saints fans might call it a conspiracy by the NFL and they might be right. But the schedule makers have set up an Oct. 13 game at New England that could be historic. Tom Brady currently has a streak of 48 games with at least one touchdown pass. New Orleans’ Drew Brees set the record (54). As long as Brady can keep the streak going, he’ll have a chance to tie Brees’ record against the Saints. That could give new coordinator Rob Ryan some material to motivate his defense for Brady.

Road warriors: The Saints are used to hitting the road. They’ve had to get out of New Orleans due to weather and Payton often has had his team practice elsewhere in the preseason. That experience might come in handy. The Saints have three separate times when they will have to play back-to-back games on the road. But the bright side is the Saints will play three of their first four games at home and they also will be home with Tampa Bay in the final week of the regular season.

Saints Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Tampa Bay, 4:05 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, Arizona, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Monday, Sept. 30, Miami, 8:30 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at New England, 4:25 p.m.
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 27, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, Dallas, 8:30 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, San Francisco, 4:25 p.m.
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 21, at Atlanta, 8:25 p.m.
Week 13: Monday, Dec. 2, at Seattle, 8:30 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, Carolina, 1:00 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.

NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: The Panthers have the NFL’s hardest schedule, with opponents combining for a .543 winning percentage in 2012. Six games are against opponents that went to the playoffs last season. But there’s plenty of good news that comes along with Carolina’s schedule. The Panthers will open at home against Seattle. That will mark the first time the Panthers will open at Bank of America Stadium since 2009. Plus, the Panthers, who haven’t had a winning season since 2008, will get some pretty good national exposure. They’ll appear in two prime-time games. They’ll play at Tampa Bay in a Thursday night game on Oct. 24 and they’ll host the New England Patriots on Nov. 18. The New England contest will mark the first "Monday Night Football" game from Bank of America Stadium since 2008. The way I see it, the first seven games will go a long way in setting the tone for Carolina's season. The Panthers, who have started off 2-8 in each of coach Ron Rivera's first two seasons, have to start fast because their schedule becomes much more difficult over the final nine games.

Complaint department: The bye for Carolina is coming in Week 4. That’s way too early because the Panthers will be only a month removed from training camp. The league also didn’t do the Panthers any favors by giving them back-to-back road trips to Arizona and Minnesota in the two weeks following the bye. But the biggest challenge of all may be the end of the schedule. Four of Carolina’s final five games will be against NFC South foes.

Quick turnaround: The biggest quirk on Carolina’s schedule might be the timing of the two New Orleans games. The Panthers will play in New Orleans on Dec. 8. Exactly two weeks later, the Saints will come to Bank of America Stadium. At least the scouting reports will be very fresh for the second meeting.

Panthers Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Seattle, 1:00 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Buffalo, 1:00 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, NY Giants, 1:00 p.m.
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at Minnesota, 1:00 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, St. Louis, 1:00 p.m.
Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 24, at Tampa Bay, 8:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, Atlanta, 1:00 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 18, New England, 8:30 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, at Miami, 1:00 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, Tampa Bay, 1:00 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at New Orleans, 1:00 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, NY Jets, 4:05 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, New Orleans, 1:00 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, at Atlanta, 1:00 p.m.

NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the NFC South’s easiest schedule based on the combined winning percentage (.500) of opponents in 2012, but this is no easy slate. The Bucs are going to be tested early with a trip to New England in Week 3, and other nondivision games include San Francisco and Seattle, who went to the playoffs last season. In a bit of a surprise, the Bucs will get two home games in prime time. They’ll host Carolina on Oct. 24 (a Thursday night game) and Miami on Nov. 11 (a Monday night game). That might be the NFL’s way of working with the Buccaneers to try to help get enough attendance at Raymond James Stadium to avoid local television blackouts. The Bucs also will find out how they stand compared to the rest of the NFC South early on. They'll play four of their six division games before December. The best news of all might be that the Bucs, who traditionally have struggled in cold weather, might not have to play in it this season. The only outdoor games with the potential for cold weather are at Seattle and at Carolina.

Complaint department: The Bucs caught a huge break by drawing the lengthy trip to Seattle in the week between their home Thursday and Monday games. But the league didn’t do the Bucs any favors in a few other ways. Their bye comes in Week 5. That’s much earlier than coaches and players like. The Bucs also have to play four of their last six games, including the final two, on the road. That could be a big challenge if the Bucs are in the playoff hunt.

Revis Bowl: The Bucs open their season on the road against the New York Jets. That could end up being much bigger than just a season opener. There has been speculation for weeks about a possible trade by the Bucs to get cornerback Darrelle Revis from the Jets. No deal has happened yet, but it could happen as the NFL draft gets closer. The stage is at least set for Revis to open the season playing against what could end up being his former team. This is also proof that the NFL has an eye for potential drama.

Buccaneers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, at N.Y. Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, New Orleans, 4:05 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, at New England, 1:00 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 29, Arizona, 1 p.m.
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, Philadelphia, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 24, Carolina, 8:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.
Week 10: Monday, Nov. 11, Miami, 8:40 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 17, Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, San Francisco, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, at St. Louis, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

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