NFC South: NFL Schedule Analysis 2012

Breakdown: The Bucs will make only one appearance in a nationally televised prime-time game (Oct. 25 at Minnesota) -- to be expected for a team coming off a 4-12 season. But that might be good news for new coach Greg Schiano and his squad because the Bucs won’t get a lot of attention and could sneak up on some opponents.

Tampa Bay catches an early break, opening at home for the fourth consecutive year. That game comes Sept. 9, against Carolina. The contest should give us an early indication of which NFC South team coming off a losing season could be on the rise.

The Bucs have a chance to get off to a fast start. Three of their first four games come against teams that didn’t have winning records and didn’t make the playoffs last season. The big exception is the Sept. 16 game -- on the road against the defending champion New York Giants. The Bucs have a Week 5 bye, followed by a home game with Kansas City before the schedule starts looking difficult. By then, the Bucs might be getting used to their new coaching staff and offensive and defensive schemes.

Complaint department: Unlike Atlanta, which doesn’t have to travel in back-to-back weeks all season, the Bucs face consecutive road games in two instances. One comes in September, at the Giants and at Dallas. There also are back-to-back road games at Minnesota and Oakland in the middle of the season. The first time shouldn’t be all that difficult, but the second round of trips involves much longer flights. On the bright side, the Bucs aren’t likely to face many cold-weather games. We all know Tampa Bay’s history when playing in the cold isn’t that pretty. Indeed, there are only two potential cold-weather games on the schedule. The first is Nov. 18 at Carolina; the weather in Charlotte can go either way at that time of year. The Dec. 2 game in Denver isn’t likely to be played in balmy weather, and the thought of defending against Peyton Manning doesn’t bring warm thoughts to anyone.

Raheem’s return: The Sept. 30 game with the Washington Redskins will be a homecoming for Raheem Morris. He spent three seasons coaching the Buccaneers but was fired after losing his final 10 games last season. Morris is now Washington’s defensive backs coach. That’s appropriate because Morris is at his best when he’s coaching just the secondary. He’s a nice guy, but the Bucs made him their head coach long before he was ready and it didn’t work. Morris needs to coach defensive backs for a year or two and move up to a defensive coordinator job for a bit. A few years from now, he might be seasoned enough to become a good head coach.

Buccaneers Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, Carolina, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at NY Giants, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at Dallas, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, Washington, 4:15 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 25, at Minnesota, 8:20 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Oakland, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, San Diego, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at Denver, 4:05 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: After all the punishments the NFL has placed on the Saints for their bounty program, there was some fear that would continue when the schedule came out. But that didn’t come true. The Saints got four nationally televised games. They’ll host San Diego in a Sunday night game (Oct. 7) and play at Denver (Oct. 28). They’ll host Philadelphia on Nov. 5 in a Monday night game and be at Atlanta on Nov. 29 for a Thursday night game.

That’s plenty of national attention, and there will be other reasons the Saints will be an attraction throughout the season. They’re in a very unique situation with head coach Sean Payton suspended for the entire season. General manager Mickey Loomis will be suspended for the first eight games. Loomis will return just in time for a Nov. 11 home game with Atlanta. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt will start the season as the interim head coach but won’t coach the Saints in the regular season until the Denver game.

Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer is expected to step into the top role while Vitt is out, and he might be catching a bit of a break. The first six teams the Saints will face went a combined 47-49 last season. After Vitt’s return, the Saints will face teams that went a combined 84-76 last season.

Complaint department: The Saints face a potentially brutal November schedule. From Nov. 5 through Nov. 29, they’ll play five times, and not a single one of those games looks easy. The Nov. 18 game at Oakland might appear to be the easiest in that stretch, but any time you have to travel to the West Coast, it’s a challenge. The game with the Raiders is sandwiched between home games with Philadelphia and Atlanta and a home game with San Francisco on Nov. 25 that’s followed quickly by a Thursday night game at Atlanta.

Bounty Bowl: Gregg Williams is gone. First, the former New Orleans defensive coordinator left for the same job in St. Louis. Then, he got suspended indefinitely for his role as the ringleader in the bounty program. But you know Williams’ name, or at least audio tapes of his voice, are going to come up when the Saints play San Francisco. That will be a rematch of the January playoff game that was won by the 49ers. That also is the game that has become the most tangible example to most people of the bounty program. The night before that game, Williams spoke to his defenders and urged them to injure specific members of the 49ers. There’s no doubt those San Francisco players and their teammates will remember Williams’ words. That audio tape likely will get constant play that week -- in the media and in the 49ers' locker room.

Saints Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at Green Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, San Diego, 8:20 PM
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Denver, 8:20 PM
Week 9: Monday, Nov. 5, Philadelphia, 8:30 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, at Oakland, 4:05 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 29, at Atlanta, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at NY Giants, 4:15 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Dallas, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: The Falcons might as well go ahead and appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ during training camp because they’re going to be regulars on national television. They’ll play two Monday night games (Week 2 against Denver and Week 16 at Detroit), once on Sunday night (against Dallas in Week 9) and a Thursday night game against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13.

This will be the second consecutive season the Falcons have been featured in four prime-time games. This gives Atlanta a chance to really raise its national profile to the highest level in franchise history. That brings pressure, but it also brings a world of opportunity for a franchise that’s trying to get over the hump and win a playoff game for the first time since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have been around.

You’ve got to like the fact the Falcons don’t play the New York Giants until Dec. 16. That will be a rematch of last season’s playoff disaster. By that point, we should have a pretty good idea whether the Falcons are legitimate contenders, and facing the Giants should be a reminder of where they’ve been and where they might be going.

Complaint department: The Falcons play at New Orleans on Nov. 11 and host the Saints on Nov. 29. That’s two games against the Falcons’ biggest rival in 18 days. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see at least one of those games being played in the last week or two of the season.

Back and forth: The people who made the schedule played it right down the middle on the Falcons. Amazingly, the Falcons don’t play back-to-back home games or consecutive road games all season. They alternate between home and road games all through the season.

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Monday, Sept. 17, Denver, 8:30 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at San Diego, 4:05 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, at Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, Oakland, 1:00 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, Dallas, 8:20 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, at New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Thursday, Nov. 29, New Orleans, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, NY Giants, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 22, at Detroit, 8:30 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: The Panthers haven’t played a prime-time game since playing Pittsburgh in a dismal 2010 season. But the days of flying under the radar are over. The Panthers will appear in two nationally televised games this season, and they’re both good ones. They’ll host the Super Bowl champion New York Giants in a Thursday night game Sept. 20, and they’ll play a Monday night game at Philadelphia on Nov. 26.

That can be traced to the star power that comes with second-year quarterback Cam Newton. Pitting him against Eli Manning and Michael Vick should attract lots of attention. We already know Newton and the Carolina offense are good. If the Panthers can just play a little defense, that Philadelphia game and the December contests could be very meaningful.

The NFL is giving the Panthers a good opportunity to get off to a fast start. Four of their first six games will be played at Bank of America Stadium.

Complaint department: The Panthers open their season with two NFC South opponents -- on the road at Tampa Bay and at home with New Orleans. They also have a Sept. 30 game at Atlanta, meaning three of their first four games will be against divisional opponents. I don’t mind seeing a divisional game in the first month of the season. But three in the first four weeks? Seems a little excessive. But, hey, at least we’ll find out pretty quickly whether the Panthers have any chance to win the NFC South.

Fox’s return: The Nov. 11 game against Denver has lots of storylines. Peyton Manning will be coming to town, and the matchup between him and Newton is a good one. But there’s one thing that could overshadow even Manning and Newton that week. That’s the return of Denver coach John Fox. He was the best coach in Carolina history, but his tenure didn’t end well. That will give Fox motivation to have the Broncos ready, and the Panthers will have plenty to motivate them because Fox didn’t part on the best of terms with everyone in the building, including some people in very high places.

Panthers Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Tampa Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Thursday, Sept. 20, N.Y. Giants, 8:20 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, Seattle, 4:05 PM
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, Dallas, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, Denver, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 26, at Philadelphia, 8:30 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at San Diego, 4:05 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, Oakland, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at New Orleans, 1:00 PM

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