NFL Nation: 2011 schedule

Breakdown: Can an appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks’’ really be far behind? The Tampa Bay Buccaneers suddenly seem to be the NFL’s new darling.

Aside from the London game against Chicago on Oct. 23, the Bucs will get plenty more big-time exposure. They’ll play two prime-time games after owning the 1 p.m. ET time slot on Sundays last season. What’s more surprising than that is that the two prime-time games are at home.

Considering the fact Raymond James Stadium didn’t sell out a single time last season, it would have been easy for the league to make sure the Bucs were on the road for any prime-time games. But the NFL might be looking to help the Bucs boost attendance.

Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts are going to help fill up any stadium. Although their reputation as “America’s Team’’ may have taken a hit over the last season, the Dallas Cowboys still draw people wherever they go. By the way, this is the first time the Bucs have had two prime-time home games in a season since 2003, the season after they won their only Super Bowl.

Complaint department: The Bucs get their bye week after the London game, which is nice. It’s also standard procedure. But they get their sendoff and welcome-back games both against the Saints. That’s not so nice.

Grudge match: When you think of heated rivalries and attempts to sell out Raymond James Stadium, you don’t exactly think about the Bucs and Lions. But the Lions are who the league has given the Bucs for their home opener and this game has a little more significance than you’d think if you just looked at it on the surface. Tampa Bay went 10-6 last season and just missed the playoffs. The game that everyone points to as the one that got away was a 23-20 overtime loss to Detroit in Week 15. If the Bucs won that, they would have been in the playoffs. The matchup might not be all that exciting for fans, but it should provide plenty of motivation for the Bucs.

Buccaneers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Atlanta, 4:15 PM
Week 4: Monday, Oct. 3, Indianapolis, 8:30 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at San Francisco, 4:05 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, New Orleans, 4:15 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 8: BYE
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Saturday, Dec. 17, Dallas, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: The Saints not only get the national stage in the season opener at Green Bay, but they get it three more times. Prime time games with the Colts, Giants and Falcons also highlight the schedule of a team that went 11-6 last season and won the Super Bowl the season before that.

You know the storyline on the opener – the past two Super Bowl champions facing off. But the plots for the other prime-time games are just as good. The Oct. 23 game against Indianapolis will bring Peyton Manning back to his hometown and put his father, Archie, in a very tough spot.

The Nov. 28 “Monday Night Football’’ game in the Super Dome also will bring home Peyton Manning’s brother, Eli. That game also has the subplot of Sean Payton facing the New York Giants, the team with which his coaching reputation really took off. Of course, New Orleans’ other home Monday night game might be the biggest of all. That’s Dec. 26 against the Atlanta Falcons. These teams don’t like each other and anytime they play late in the season, it’s likely to have huge implications on the NFC South standings.

Complaint department: Success comes with a price and we’ve known for months the Saints would have to face two very good NFC North teams, Green Bay and Chicago. But, despite the great spotlight that comes with the opener, the league didn’t do the Saints any favors by making their first two games against the Packers and Bears. The Saints also got hit with one of the NFL’s rare three-game road trips. They’ve got to travel to Jacksonville, Carolina and Tampa Bay in consecutive weeks in October.

Monday night madness: The two Monday night games might be a good sign. Since Payton’s arrival in 2006, the Saints are 7-2 on Monday nights and they’ve also won their past five Monday night contests.

Saints Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Thursday, Sep. 8, at Green Bay, 8:30 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, at Tampa Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, Indianapolis, 8:20 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 28, NY Giants, 8:30 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 26, Atlanta, 8:30 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Carolina, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: The Panthers might be catching a bit of a break with a season-opening game against an Arizona team that also had a rough time in 2010. But things get tough right after that, as the Panthers host the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in Week 2.

Four of Carolina’s first six opponents were in the playoffs last season and the Panthers have to face division powers New Orleans (Oct. 9) and Atlanta (Oct. 16) in back to back weeks. That could make for a challenging start for the Panthers if they draft quarterback Cam Newton and decide to play him from the start. In fact, after looking at the schedule and assuming the Panthers do draft Newton, they might want to take a path similar to what the Buccaneers did with Josh Freeman in 2009 and sit the rookie for basically the first half of the season.

There is a bright side to the difficult start to the schedule. The Panthers get to play six of their first nine games in the friendly surroundings of Bank of America Stadium.

Complaint department: Here’s what a 2-14 season will do for you. It will get you absolutely no run in prime time. Fifteen of Carolina’s games are scheduled to start at 1 p.m. ET. The only exception is the opener and that’s only because they don’t start games at 10 a.m. in the Pacific time zone.

Rivera’s return: Perhaps the best storyline on Carolina’s schedule is the Oct. 2 game at Chicago. That’s where new Carolina coach Ron Rivera once played for the Bears and later worked as an assistant coach. Also, the Panthers will get a chance to spend some quality time with their old friend Julius Peppers.

Panthers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at New Orleans, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: The Atlanta Falcons are suddenly getting a high national profile. They’ve got four prime-time games on national television, three at home where the Falcons have been dominant since coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan have been around, and each of them comes with a great storyline.

The home opener in Week 2 comes against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Falcons will see their former quarterback, Michael Vick. The Oct. 9 game with Green Bay is a rematch of Atlanta’s disappointing playoff loss last season. The Dec. 15 matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars will be a game in which Smith has to go against his previous employer, as well as mentor and friend, Jack Del Rio.

But the best game of all might be the day after Christmas when the Falcons play their prime-time road game on "Monday Night Football." They travel to New Orleans to play the Saints and these two clubs have become fierce NFC South rivals. The teams play in Atlanta in November, but the Dec. 26 contest likely will have playoff implications. It also will come with bragging rights. When the Saints won last season in the Georgia Dome, some New Orleans players posed for post-game pictures on the Falcons’ logo. The Saints said they wanted the pictures as a memento of a significant victory. A lot of the Falcons viewed it differently and weren’t very happy with that scene.

Complaint department: It looks like the folks who made the schedule want to test the Falcons early. They have to open the season with five straight games against teams that either made the playoffs or won at least 10 games last season.

Ryan’s test: Take a look at the two-game stretch following Atlanta’s Week 8 bye. The Falcons travel to Indianapolis and then host the Saints. Many people like to debate whether Ryan really is an elite quarterback. If he can lead his team to consecutive victories against Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, that might put him firmly in the elite category.

Falcons Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Philadelphia, 8:20 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, at Tampa Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Seattle, 4:05 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, Green Bay, 8:20 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 8: BYE
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Thursday, Dec. 15, Jacksonville, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Monday, Dec. 26, at New Orleans, 8:30 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM

The National Football League is releasing its regular-season schedule Tuesday night, but we already know the Carolina Panthers will play the league’s toughest schedule.

That, of course, is based on strength of schedule, which is the combined 2010 win-loss record for all 2011 opponents. So how does a 2-14 team end up with the league’s toughest schedule?

Well, you can put a big part of the blame on the rest of the NFC South. Take the 2010 win totals for the Falcons (13), Saints (11) and Buccaneers (10) and double them. Right there, you’ve got a combined 68 victories and that’s a big part of the reason why Carolina’s 2011 opponents were a combined 142-114 (.555 win percentage) last season.

The Buffalo Bills who will face opponents with a combined .535 percentage have the league’s second most difficult schedule.

The Saints are tied for No. 13 on the list of hardest schedules. Their opponents were a combined 130-126 (.508) last season. The Buccaneers and Falcons face opponents who combined to go less than .500 last season.

Tampa Bay comes in at No. 18 with opponents who went 127-129 (.496). Atlanta is tied for No. 19 with opponents who went 126-130 (.492) last season.

2011 NFL preseason schedule

April, 12, 2011
4/12/11
4:44
PM ET
TV Games | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4

No matter what happens with the labor situation, the NFL plans to announce its 2011 regular-season schedule in the same way and at the same time we’re used to.

In a media conference call to advance next week’s league meeting Wednesday morning, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league will release the schedule sometime in mid-April. An exact date hasn’t been set.

But there’s one thing about this that could be very interesting from an NFC South perspective and we may not have to wait until April for an answer. At times, the NFL has gone ahead and announced the prime-time games for the opening week at the spring meeting. If that happens again, we could have some excitement in what’s been an otherwise dull offseason.

The Green Bay Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions, which means they’ll get the Thursday night season opener at Lambeau Field. If you look at Green Bay’s list of home opponents, there really are only two, maybe three, marquee games.

The New Orleans Saints are scheduled to play in Green Bay this year. It would be more than logical to pair the last two Super Bowl champions to open the season. The only other real strong competitor for this game would be the Chicago Bears and that would be a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship Game.

We’ll throw in one long shot. That’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who also are slated to play at Lambeau this year. The Bucs were 10-6 last season and have some promising young stars like Josh Freeman, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount. I’m thinking Tampa Bay will get at least one prime-time game this year and it will probably be on the road because the league probably doesn’t want to showcase a half-empty Raymond James Stadium.

The Bucs would provide a decent opening opponent for the Packers, but money and television ratings talk and the Saints or Bears probably would be a more logical fit for this game.

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