NFL Nation: 2014 NFL schedule

I fully get the premise that NFL schedules are amorphous in that the quality of opponents changes. A team that is supposed to be good has injuries or troubles. A team that was last one season goes to first the next.

Predicting the difficulty or ease of a schedule can change.

But the schedule matters. A lot. And it matters especially who a team plays and when it plays them.

Thus I can't help but shake my head at the Cleveland Browns' 2014 slate (he wrote, trying to find a new word for schedule).

It’s tough, very tough. Not because of the teams the Browns play. Their opponents won just 46.5 percent of their games a year ago.

The problem is when they play them.

Like the opener. There’s no mistaking or fudging the reality that games in Pittsburgh have been a nightmare for the Browns. Since 2000, they’ve won once there, and that was 10 years ago. Every game has its own little drama, from the Thursday night igloo embarrassment to the Colt McCoy concussion. The last place, the very last, that the Browns would want to open would be in Pittsburgh.

Bingo. Opener in Pittsburgh.

Now, it’s also true that a win in Pittsburgh would be a great momentum builder, and a great way to start the season and a coach’s tenure. But an “aging” Steelers team knows it doomed itself a year ago by starting 0-4, so it will be focusing on a fast start coming off an 8-4 finish a year ago.

Of the 16 options for the Browns, this particular opener is one of the worst.

Then, the Browns play the second week against one of the four playoff teams on the schedule -- the New Orleans Saints. This will be a tough, physical, challenging game against one of the league’s best quarterbacks.

Ouch.

The following week, it’s Baltimore. Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger are 28-2 against the Browns, and Mike Pettine gets them both in the first three weeks. And he gets them in three of the first five games, because after an early Week 4 bye, Pittsburgh comes to Cleveland in Week 6.

Three of the first five games are against division teams, a fourth against a playoff team, and the Browns haven’t even faced Cincinnati.

Ouch again.

Things do lighten up after the Steelers game. In a six-game stretch the Browns face five teams that struggled mightily last season. The sixth game is tough -- at Cincinnati on Thursday night. But the other five -- Oakland, Tampa Bay, Houston, Atlanta and Buffalo -- combined to go 20-60 in 2013. Only Buffalo won more than four games at 6-10.

If the Browns hope to get anything done this season, that stretch might be the time to do it.

The final month ... well that’s a nightmare that includes home games against the Colts and Bengals, and road games against Carolina and Baltimore.

This last month features ...

Four teams that went a combined 42-22 in 2013;

Three playoff teams and a fourth that annually knocks on the door;

Outstanding quarterbacks in Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and Flacco;

Consecutive road games to finish the season, at Carolina and at Baltimore, which means four of the final six are on the road -- because the Browns play at Atlanta and at Buffalo heading into December.

There’s no sugarcoating this schedule. It’s tough, very tough. Yes, it’s on paper and yes the games aren’t played on paper.

But if one were to draw up a challenging schedule for a team that’s learning each other and new systems, it might just be one like this.

The league did the Browns no favors.

Which of course means this, too: If the team accepts the challenge and beats it, it would be quite the season.
So we have an answer to the question we've been discussing on Twitter and here on ESPN.com during the past couple days. Yes, the NFL without question took care to boost the Thursday night package it sold to CBS this past winter.

All but one of the 16 games feature intra-division matchups, one of three criteria we established in determining the quality of a prime-time schedule. As the charts below show, that's 40 percent more than the number of divisional games played during the 2013 Thursday night schedule.

In fact, if you study the numbers, you see that the CBS portion of the schedule -- half of the 14 Thursday night games and two games to be played on Saturday in Week 16 -- is on par with ESPN's "Monday Night Football" on a pro-rated basis. The second half of the schedule, to be aired only on the NFL Network, drops off a bit from there.

Remember, we're judging these schedules based on three criteria:
  • Divisional matchups
  • Games between 2013 playoff teams
  • How many of the NFL's 10 most popular teams, as determined by the 2013 Harris Interactive poll, will make appearances.

As we've discussed, the NFL has substantial incentive to upgrade the quality of its Thursday product. CBS reportedly paid between $250 million and $275 million for a one-year deal. The agreement requires it to allow a simulcast on the NFL Network, and even when the games shift exclusively to the NFL Network, CBS must still produce them.

Given those terms, it's fair to imagine how many multiples of $250 million the league could fetch for a full and exclusive Thursday schedule. (For context, recall that ESPN is paying the NFL $1.9 billion annually for "Monday Night Football" and other considerations.)

Before putting the full Thursday night package up for bidding, of course, the NFL would be well served to raise the profile of what is usually an also-ran schedule of games. Pitting divisional teams against each other, given the natural rivalries that exist, is a good start. It also is the most logical workaround to a league stipulation that all 32 teams play on Thursday at least once during the season.

The numbers in the chart suggest that, at first glance, the elevated Thursday night schedule didn't come at the expense of either the Sunday night or Monday night schedules. NBC actually got eight more appearances by "popular teams" in its schedule and ESPN got six. Changes elsewhere were negligible, and NBC got a big gift that allows it to flex two additional games between Weeks 5-10. (Weekly flex rules pick up beginning in Week 11.)

What is the long-term future of the Thursday night package? I'm not sure we can answer that. But its 2014 schedule suggests the NFL is bullish on it, and if nothing else, fans seeking a midweek slate of football should get some better options this season.

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The NFL releases its schedule Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. In the hours leading up to the announcement, here are some questions to ponder about the Baltimore Ravens' 2014 schedule:

What are the chances of the Ravens opening at home? Since the Orioles are out of town on the NFL's kickoff weekend (Sunday, Sept. 7, and Monday, Sept. 8), the schedule is open for the Ravens to start the season at home. By my estimation, the chances of this happening are high, especially after what occurred last season. In 2013, the Ravens became the first defending Super Bowl champions to open on the road since 2003.

Will the Ravens host the Pittsburgh Steelers in prime time? This would follow the NFL's trend. Since 2007, the Ravens and Steelers have hosted night games in two-year intervals. The Ravens played night games at Heinz Field in 2007 and 2008, as well as in 2011 and 2012. Likewise, the Ravens have had prime-time games against the Steelers in Baltimore in 2009 and 2010. So, with the Ravens and Steelers playing on Thanksgiving night last year, the odds say the Steelers are playing a nationally televised game at M&T Bank Stadium this year.

Are the Ravens expected to play on Thanksgiving again? Ravens coach John Harbaugh wants the Thanksgiving night game to become a tradition in Baltimore. The Ravens have hosted that game in two of the past three seasons. But owner Steve Bisciotti indicated other teams are interested in hosting this game, too. My guess is the Ravens will be enjoying a turkey dinner with their families that night.

Will the Ravens end the season in Cincinnati? This unofficial tradition has to end. The Ravens have played the regular-season finale at Paul Brown Stadium for the past three seasons. I understand the heightened drama that comes with closing the season against a division opponent, but let's mix it up a little bit. Since coach John Harbaugh took over as coach in 2008, the Ravens have finished the regular season at home only twice (2008 and 2010).

Here are the Ravens' home and away opponents for the 2014 season:

HOME: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.

AWAY: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Random thoughts as we await the release of the regular-season schedule:

1. Grand opening: The New York Jets have opened at home for the last four years, so they're due for a road opener. Just taking a guess here, but I'm going to say they'll open at the Kansas City Chiefs. That, of course, would be a tough way to open.

2. Prime-time games: The Jets played only two prime-time games last season, the TV honchos' way of saying, "We don't think you're a hot team anymore." With Chris Johnson and Michael Vick on board, that number figures to increase.

3. New coaches: The Jets face three teams with new head coaches -- the Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings and Tennessee Titans. From a strategic standpoint, they'd probably like to face those opponents as early as possible, figuring they'll still be getting comfortable in new schemes.

4. Grudge matches: The Jets faced Darrelle Revis last season as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the reunion will contain more intensity this time now that he's playing for the New England Patriots. Don't be surprised if there's a prime-time Revis Bowl early in the season. Johnson's return to Tennessee also will be a marquee game.

5. That's brrrisk, baby: With the NFC North on the schedule, the Jets are looking at the possibility of two very cold games -- at Green Bay and at Minnesota. Remember, the Vikings are playing outdoors this season at the University of Minnesota.
The schedule is coming.

We know which teams the Tennessee Titans will play this fall. We find out tonight at 8 ET/7 CT when they will play those teams.

Strength of schedule can be a very inaccurate indicator. But based on how Tennessee’s opponents fared in 2013 – a collective .438 winning percentage -- the Titans have the second-easiest schedule in the NFL.

Here are the games that will be put in order for us this evening:

Home: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants

Away: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins

The Titans and every team in the league are assured of one Thursday night game. It won’t be a surprise if they don’t draw another primetime game, though a "Monday Night Football" appearance is certainly possible.

We'll deliver reaction and analysis tonight right as the schedule is unveiled.
CINCINNATI -- The countdown clock is ticking.

Exactly nine hours from the time this post went live, the Cincinnati Bengals and the other 31 teams will know where and when they will be playing their already announced opponents. At 8 p.m. ET, the league will release its 2014 schedule, complete with kickoff times and pertinent television information for certain games.

Based on their recent scheduling history and the general success they have had in the past three years in particular, it stands to reason the Bengals will be on "Monday Night Football" at least once this year, and will appear -- like the rest of the league -- on Thursday night football. A Sunday night game also is a strong possibility. The Bengals have played seven of those since 2002, including two in the past two seasons. Both of those games came against the Steelers.

While on the subject of nationally-televised, primetime games, it's worth mentioning the Bengals have played in nine Sunday, Monday or Thursday night games since 2009.

They are 2-7 in those contests.

Among the wins was a Thursday night victory over the Eagles in 2012. The other came in the home-opening Monday night win against Pittsburgh last year. Like they did in 2012, the Bengals played games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights last season.

Why are such games pertinent for the Bengals? Because part of the knock on the team overall -- but quarterback Andy Dalton in particular -- is that it doesn't play well under the glare of the league's brightest nationally-televised lights. Just look at the night-game record since 2009 for evidence. The fact the Bengals have gone 0-4 in playoff games since 2009 also is an indication they don't perform well on the big stage.

To get you ready for the big schedule release, here is a primer of things to expect when the season begins:

Weak schedule. The Bengals, like the rest of the AFC North, will end up having one of the league's weakest schedules when it gets released. Games against the AFC South -- a division that featured only one team with a winning 2013 record, and two with four or fewer wins -- dot the schedule. The Bengals' overall strength of schedule ranks 23rd, tied with the Saints and Steelers. They enter the year playing teams that had a combined winning percentage of .469 last year. Below the Steelers and Bengals, the Browns rank 26th and the Ravens 28th.

Weak schedules 2. The teams with the league's easiest schedules have advanced to the AFC Championship Game in each of the past two seasons. The Patriots made it there in 2012 before losing to the Ravens. The Broncos made it there last year, beating the Patriots and advancing to the Super Bowl. This year, the Colts have the league's weakest schedule.

Other crossover. In addition to playing the AFC South in this year's intra-conference crossover, the Bengals also will be playing the NFC South in the inter-conference crossover.

More opponets. Along with the standard six home-and-away games with AFC North foes, the Bengals will play four against the AFC South, four against the NFC South and two against the remaining 2013 AFC division champions. Since the Bengals won the AFC North, they are slated to take on AFC West champ Denver and the AFC East-winning Patriots. Cincinnati hosts Denver and travels to New England.

An anniversary? If the Bengals are given a Thursday night game on Oct. 2, they would be playing on the same night as a unique anniversary. Twenty years ago that same day, Don Shula's Miami Dolphins and Dave Shula's Bengals met in a Sunday night game at the old Riverfront Stadium. It marked the first meeting between father and son coaches in major North American sports. In front of more than 55,000, Don's Dolphins beat Dave's Bengals, 23-7. The Bengals ended the 1994 season going 3-13 for a second straight year under the younger Shula.

Bengals' 2014 home schedule: Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Denver, Atlanta, Carolina

Bengals' 2014 away schedule: Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Houston, Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, Tampa Bay

Information from ESPN Stats & Information used in this report.
The NFL will release its regular-season schedule tonight at 8 ET.

The Buffalo Bills' opponents have already been determined by the NFL's rotating schedule formula, so Wednesday night's announcement will simply add times and dates to those games.

Some burning questions: Will the Bills make their first "Monday Night Football" appearance since 2009? Will they play on Sunday night for the first time since 2007? Will they play the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving?

Those questions will be answered by tonight.

Meanwhile, here's a refresher of the Bills' 2014 opponents:

Home: Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings

Away: Dolphins, Patriots, Jets, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions

A potential twist has the attention of broadcast and league insiders as the NFL prepares to announce its 2014 schedule. The league's work to elevate its new Thursday night package -- and eventually sell it for billions of dollars -- could have some intriguing ripple effects.

Namely: Will it steer better games to Thursday nights? And if so, at whose expense will that shift occur?

Since 2006, NBC's "Sunday Night Football" has been the NFL's premium prime-time event. It traditionally gets the best collection of games and is the only package that can "flex" uncompetitive late-season matchups for more interesting ones. ESPN broadcasts "Monday Night Football" and, until this year, the NFL Network has handled Thursday nights.

In February, however, CBS reportedly paid the league between $250 million and $275 million for the right to simulcast eight Thursday night games along with the NFL Network. (The rest of the 16-game package will air only on the NFL Network, although CBS will continue producing it.) The Thursday night deal is for one year, although the league has an option for 2015. Its short tenure suggests that 2014 is a product trial that could fetch a much more lucrative annual fee in future years. (For context, consider that ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion annually for "Monday Night Football" and other considerations.)

How best to generate more Thursday night interest? One place to start would be sliding more prominent games into that slot, a possibility that John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reported on this month. According to Ourand, media executives believe the Thursday night schedule will be closer in quality to the traditional Sunday night slate and could well supersede what is assigned to Monday night.

There is no standard formula for determining the quality of a schedule from a broadcast perspective. So in the chart, I measured the three 2013 prime-time schedules by three strength-based criteria:
When you look at the 2013 prime-time schedule from that perspective, you see how skewed it was toward "Sunday Night Football" -- even before it flexed three games and moved its Week 17 matchup from TBA to Eagles-Cowboys. "Sunday Night Football" also received a number of "storyline games," from the NFL's 2013 Kickoff Game to the heated 49ers-Seattle Seahawks rivalry to Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis.

If the league in fact seeks to strengthen its Thursday night schedule, you could see movement in those numbers. You also wonder if Thursday night will get one of receiver DeSean Jackson's games against the Eagles, who released him this offseason. Or perhaps it will broadcast receiver Steve Smith's reunion with the Carolina Panthers, or one of cornerback Darrelle Revis' games against the New York Jets.

There are some complicating factors, of course. Most notably, the NFL schedule formula remains the same, so there can be no increase in the inventory of "good games." Also, league parity makes it vulnerable to unexpected competitive slips. (Hello, last season's "Monday Night Football" matchup of the Vikings and Giants.) The NFL must also comply with a requirement to schedule all 32 teams to play at least one Thursday game, and it also must respect the Sunday afternoon games aired on CBS and Fox.

There is little doubt that Howard Katz, the NFL's schedule czar, can pull it all off if so instructed. Wednesday's news that the NFL had exercised an option to move a wild-card playoff game to ESPN added an additional level of anticipation. Was it a coincidence of timing a concession? In either event, I'll focus on this angle when the announcement comes at 8 p.m. ET, and I'll follow up in an Inside Slant post no later than Friday morning. Until then, enjoy our newest national holiday.

NFL schedule to be announced Wednesday

April, 22, 2014
4/22/14
6:05
PM ET

The NFL schedule for the 2014 season will be released at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. ESPN2 will have coverage from 8-10 p.m. Here is the strength of schedule and list of opponents for every team:

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2014 OPPONENTS

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