NFL Nation: NFC 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 different 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 involve much longer flights. But on the bright side, the Bucs aren’t likely to face many cold-weather games, and 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 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 Eastern)
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

Arizona Cardinals schedule analysis

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
8:22
PM ET
Breakdown: The Cardinals drew two prime-time games, both against division opponents, as part of a schedule that should let them avoid a second consecutive slow start.

Arizona, which rallied to 8-8 last season after a 1-6 start, plays three of its first four games at home, beginning with Seattle's visit to University of Phoenix Stadium.

The Seahawks and Cardinals played two close games last season, including a Week 17 matchup in Arizona that went into overtime. The 2012 season picks up where the 2011 season left off, in other words. That's a welcome early development for the division as these teams seek to close ground on the defending NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers.

Playing five of the first eight games at home sounds even better for Arizona knowing two of the road games during that stretch fall against St. Louis and Minnesota, teams coming off difficult seasons. Of course, this presumes the Cardinals will put forth a more respectable effort in the Metrodome this time around.

Kevin Kolb has to be looking forward to a Week 3 home game against his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Complaint department: The Cardinals drew a division-high five games kicking off at 1 p.m. ET, the earliest possible time slot and one coach Ken Whisenhunt has lamented over the years. While the Cardinals finished strong last season in rallying to 8-8, question marks at quarterback made it tougher for Arizona to command additional prime-time games -- the surest way for a Western team to avoid the early starts. Overall, though, the Cardinals came out OK. They get a Week 10 bye between road trips to Green Bay and Atlanta, but that portion of the schedule does feature four of five games on the road.

Home sweet home: The Cardinals are opening at home for the second consecutive season and only the fourth time since the team relocated to Arizona for the 1988 season. They can thank their new stadium for providing relief from the scorching Arizona sun. More road games late in the season can be tough, but the Cardinals are home against Detroit and Chicago in Weeks 15-16, followed by their shortest road trip of the season, albeit to San Francisco, site of arguably their worst 2011 performance.

Cardinals Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, Seattle, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at New England, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, Philadelphia, 4:05 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, Miami, 4:05 PM
Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 4, at St. Louis, 8:20 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, Buffalo, 4:05 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 29, San Francisco, 8:30 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, St. Louis, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Seattle, 4:15 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, Detroit, 4:05 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, Chicago, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Breakdown: There's no easing into the NFL, but assuming Robert Griffin III is the next starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins, the opening stretch of the schedule of his first professional season offers a couple of breaks. The Redskins open with a road game in New Orleans against the Saints, who will be without several coaches and possibly several key defensive players as a result of suspensions from the NFL's investigation of their bounty program. Their second game is against the Rams in St. Louis, and after the home opener Sept. 23 against the Bengals, they go on the road to Tampa Bay. Not that the Redskins are guaranteed to beat any of those teams with a rookie quarterback, but the tougher-looking part of their schedule doesn't come until a bit later on.

The Redskins' only scheduled prime-time game to this point is the Dec. 3 "Monday Night Football" matchup at home against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants, but they will be in the spotlight at 4:15 pm ET on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 22, when they take on the division-rival Cowboys in Dallas. And if Griffin is off to a strong start, the Redskins' Nov. 4 game at home against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers is likely to generate some advance hype.

The Redskins' bye comes in Week 10, and of the seven games that follow, a whopping five are against NFC East opponents -- one at home against the Giants and both of their matchups against the Eagles and Cowboys. They finish the season with a Week 16 trip to Philadelphia and a Week 17 home game against Dallas, so if they are in contention they'll have their chances to pull something off. And Griffin can wait a while before finding himself in the heat of these NFC East rivalries.

Complaint department: If I were a Redskins fan, it would annoy be a bit that Griffin is only scheduled to play three home games prior to Nov. 4. A Dec. 16 trip to Cleveland has a chance to be pretty unpleasant, weather-wise. And having to play division games against the Eagles and Cowboys in a five-day stretch doesn't look like a lot of fun, either.

Week 2 in St. Lou: Lots of connections between the two teams that will play in St. Louis on Sept. 16. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and new Rams coach Jeff Fisher are close friends. Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett served the Rams in the same role from 2006-08 and was the team's head coach for the final 12 games of that 2008 season. And of course, the Redskins wouldn't be in position to draft Griffin if they hadn't traded three first-round picks and this year's second-rounder to St. Louis for the No. 2 pick in this year's draft. It'll be interesting to follow, over the coming years, the progress of the players the Rams take with the picks they got from the Redskins. It's possible that two of those players could play in this game.

Redskins Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at St. Louis, 4:05 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at Tampa Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, Minnesota, 4:15 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at NY Giants, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 22, at Dallas, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Monday, Dec. 3, NY Giants, 8:30 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Dallas, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: The Minnesota Vikings' schedule reflects low expectations for their 2012 season. They'll have one prime-time game, a Thursday night matchup in Week 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and all 13 of their other 15 games are scheduled for the early 1 p.m. ET Sunday time slot.

The good news is that the Vikings have a chance for a decent start. They'll host the Jacksonville Jaguars, led by first-year coach Mike Mularkey, in Week 1. And then they'll travel to the rebuilding Indianapolis Colts, led by another first-year coach in Chuck Pagano and presumably led by rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

Even for a team with modest goals, a 2-0 start is within reach.

Complaint department: The Vikings will play four of their final six games on the road, including potential cold-weather games in Green Bay and Chicago. That's not a schedule conducive to a young team hoping to progress as the season wears on. And while the Vikings-Packers rivalry has diminished in recent years, it would be nice to see at least one of the games take place before December. But as this schedule reads, the teams will play at Lambeau Field in Week 13 and at the Metrodome in Week 17.

Final Minnesota game? The collapse of the Vikings' stadium bill puts the focus on their long-term future and begs this question: Will the Packers-Vikings game in Week 17 be the Vikings' final game in Minnesota? In many ways, the Packers would be an appropriate opponent for that game. Minnesota was Packers country before the NFL placed the Vikings there in 1960.

Vikings Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, San Francisco, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at Washington, 4:15 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 25, Tampa Bay, 8:20 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Seattle, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Green Bay, 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 Nov. 5 in a Monday night game and they’ll be at Atlanta Nov. 29 for a Thursday night game.

That’s plenty of national attention and there will be other reasons why 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 off the season as the interim head coach. Vitt 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 Eastern)
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

Detroit Lions schedule analysis

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
8:02
PM ET
Breakdown: A 2011 playoff appearance, along with the quarterback-receiver combination of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, was enough to earn the Detroit Lions four prime-time games and a total of five nationally televised games.

The Lions will play at the San Francisco 49ers (Sunday night) in Week 2, at the Chicago Bears (Monday night) in Week 7 and at the Green Bay Packers (Sunday night) in Week 14, and will host the Atlanta Falcons (Saturday night) in Week 16. As usual, they'll also play Thanksgiving Day, hosting the Houston Texans in the early time slot (12:30 p.m. ET).

It's the first time in 14 years the Lions have had five nationally televised games and the second time in their history that four of them will come in prime time.

Complaint department: I'm not a huge fan of the Week 5 bye. Generally you would like to see it closer to the middle of the season to maximize injury rehabilitation. But it will give the Lions a chance to regroup for a difficult two-game stretch immediately after the bye. They'll play at the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 6 and then at the Bears.

Bracketing the schedule: The Lions play four of their first six games on the road, a stretch that includes the aforementioned bye. My first-blush reaction is that the Lions should be happy to be 3-3 at that point after traveling to San Francisco, Tennessee, Philadelphia and Chicago. But the payoff comes at the end of the season. A team in the playoff chase couldn't ask for anything more than to play its final two games at home. The Lions will do just that, hosting the Falcons in Week 16 and the Bears in Week 17 in a game that better be as much fun as it looks like from here.

Lions Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at San Francisco, 8:20 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Monday, Oct. 22, at Chicago, 8:30 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, Seattle, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 22, Houston, 12:30 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Green Bay, 8:20 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at Arizona, 4:05 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 22, Atlanta, 8:30 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Chicago, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: The Eagles will open on the road in the midwest for the second year in a row, beginning their 2012 season with a ho-hum matchup Sept. 9 against the Browns in Cleveland. But things get intense pretty quickly. Six of their next seven games, beginning with the Sept. 16 home opener against the Ravens, are against teams that made the postseason in 2011. The only one that's not requires a long road trip to Arizona to play the Cardinals in Week 3.

Last year's disappointing record didn't keep the Eagles from being a target of the networks that put games in prime time. They'll appear twice on ESPN's Monday Night Football -- Nov. 5 at New Orleans and Nov. 26 at home against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. They have two games (so far) scheduled for Sunday nights on NBC -- Sept. 30 against the Giants and Dec. 2 in Dallas. And their turn on Thursday night on the NFL Network comes Dec. 13, with a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

If they're in a race with the Giants for the NFC East title, the Eagles will get to play the defending champs head-to-head to possibly decide it. Their final regular-season game of the year is against the Giants at MetLife Stadium. The Eagles have beaten the Giants in seven of their past eight tries, and they haven't lost at the Meadowlands since 2007.

Complaint department: Not a whole lot to complain about here. There's a stretch from Weeks 11-14 in which they play three road games, but their longest road trips are spaced out and nestled between home games. They don't go anywhere in December that's likely to be any colder that Philadelphia is. They have to play 10 games after the bye week as opposed to six before it, and that's not ideal, but even that could be worse. And the teams they play back-to-back on their short week are Tampa Bay and Cincinnati, which doesn't sound overly intimidating.

Annual victim: As every Eagles fan and many posts on this blog will spend the middle part of October pointing out, the Eagles are 13-0 in games immediately following bye weeks with Andy Reid as their head coach. This year's bye is Week 7, and the opponent who will come into Philadelphia to try and break that streak in Week 8 is the Atlanta Falcons.

Eagles Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at Arizona, 4:05 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, NY Giants, 8:20 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, at Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Monday, Nov. 5, at New Orleans, 8:30 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, Dallas, 4:15 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, at Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 26, Carolina, 8:30 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at Dallas, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Thursday, Dec. 13, Cincinnati, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at NY Giants, 1:00 PM

Seattle Seahawks schedule analysis

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
7:56
PM ET
Breakdown: Matt Flynn's addition from Green Bay in free agency has paid off already, helping the Seahawks secure a Monday night home game against the Packers on Sept. 24. But Seattle drew only a cautious prime-time commitment overall, with an Oct. 18 game at San Francisco standing as the only other game scheduled for under the lights.

Sending the Week 15 game against Buffalo to Toronto could remove a cold-weather game from the schedule (the Bills play at the Rogers Centre, formerly the SkyDome, and the roof has been closed for three of the Bills' four games there). A Week 13 game against Chicago, scheduled for Dec. 2 at 1 p.m. ET, stands as the only likely deep-freeze opportunity. The Seahawks won at Chicago in each of the past two seasons, however, so they should welcome another opportunity.

Opening at Arizona feels right. The Seahawks and Cardinals played into overtime in Week 17 last season, with Arizona prevailing. Both teams were getting better late in the year. We've debated on the blog whether the Seahawks or Cardinals are best positioned to challenge San Francisco in the NFC West. This matchup will give us an early read.

Finishing with three of the final four games at home, all against division opponents, gives the Seahawks control over their divisional destiny late in the season.

Complaint department: The Seahawks play four road games during a five-game stretch beginning in Week 4, and the home game is against AFC champion New England. Time to buckle up, in other words, because the ride could get a little bumpy. The run begins with a trip to St. Louis, where the Seahawks have won consistently in recent years. But their defense faces tough tests at Carolina (Cam Newton), against the Patriots and at Detroit. Oh, and a trip to San Francisco on Oct. 18 falls four days after the New England game.

Favorable bye placement: The Seahawks' cross-country trip to Miami in Week 12 falls after a three-week stretch featuring two home games and a bye. That is a favorable arrangement for the Seahawks, who usually challenge for the most air miles from year to year. They should be rested, relatively speaking, heading into road games against the Dolphins and Bears in consecutive weeks.

Seahawks Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, Dallas, 4:05 PM
Week 3: Monday, Sept. 24, Green Bay, 8:30 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, at Carolina, 4:05 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, New England, 4:05 PM
Week 7: Thursday, Oct. 18, at San Francisco, 8:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, Minnesota, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, NY Jets, 4:05 PM
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at Buffalo, 4:05 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, St. Louis, 4:15 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 if 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 these 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 Eastern)
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 Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl two years ago and were 15-1 last year, but believe it not, 2012 will mark the first year they have had five prime-time games in one regular season.

They'll host the Chicago Bears (Thursday night) and play at the Seattle Seahawks (Monday night) in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively. In Week 6, they'll play at the Houston Texans (Sunday night), at the New York Giants (Sunday night) in Week 12 and host the Detroit Lions (Sunday night) in Week 14.

The Packers are also scheduled for the late Sunday national time slot (4:15 p.m. ET) in Weeks 1 and 4, and their first 1 p.m. ET kickoff isn't scheduled until the second month of the season.

Complaint department: From an outside perspective, the Packers' schedule looks pretty boring in the middle. After hosting the New Orleans Saints in Week 4 -- look out, Aaron Rodgers -- the Packers will play five consecutive games against the Indianapolis Colts, Texans, St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and Arizona Cardinals. Yuck. But the payoff is having five NFC North games among their final seven, including both against the Lions.

For openers: The Packers play their first two games in five days to open the season. Both are at Lambeau Field, but that's an interesting early grind that will probably influence their training camp schedule and preseason playing time. After opening on Sept. 9 against the San Francisco 49ers, they'll host the Bears on the NFL Network's "Thursday Night Football" on Sept. 13. Another way to look at it: The Packers will have six home games between Sept. 14 and Dec. 30.

Packers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Thursday, Sept. 13, Chicago, 8:20 PM
Week 3: Monday, Sept. 24, at Seattle, 8:30 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, New Orleans, 4:15 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at Houston, 8:20 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at NY Giants, 8:20 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Detroit, 8:20 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at Chicago, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM

Chicago Bears schedule analysis

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
7:41
PM ET
Breakdown: The NFL gave the Chicago Bears the maximum allowable number of prime-time games. Amazingly, all five will come in the first 10 games of the season. (Full schedule here.)

They include a Week 2 trip to the Green Bay Packers (Thursday night), a Week 4 trip to the Dallas Cowboys (Monday night), a Week 6 game hosting the Detroit Lions (Monday night), a Week 10 game hosting the Houston Texans (Sunday night) and another the following week, at the San Francisco 49ers (Monday night).

That should leave no doubt about the entertainment value, if not competitiveness, the NFL is expecting from the Bears after the reunion of receiver Brandon Marshall and quarterback Jay Cutler, along with other offseason improvements.

Complaint department: Soldier Field is a great advantage in the second half of the season, but the Bears will play three of their final four games on the road. They'll no doubt appreciate hosting the Packers in Week 14, but they'll conclude the season with a long trip to the Arizona Cardinals followed by a season finale at the Lions, a game that figures to carry heavy playoff implications.

For openers: Like the Packers, the Bears play their first two games in five days. Unlike the Packers, however, the Bears don't get both of them at home. After hosting the Indianapolis Colts in the Sept. 9 opener, they'll travel to Lambeau Field on Sept. 13. But as quick road turnarounds go, it doesn't get any easier than the quick trip trip between Chicago and Green Bay.

Bears Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Thursday, Sept. 13, at Green Bay, 8:20 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Monday, Oct. 1, at Dallas, 8:30 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, at Jacksonville, 4:05 PM
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Monday, Oct. 22, Detroit, 8:30 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, Houston, 8:20 PM
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 19, at San Francisco, 8:30 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, Seattle, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: The 49ers open the season against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, a marquee matchup reflecting San Francisco's improved standing following a 13-3 season. A Sunday night home game against Detroit in Week 2 follows, putting the 49ers in the national spotlight right away.

The 49ers drew five prime-time games overall, leaving them only three games kicking off at 10 a.m. PT, a lower number than usual. They're home against Seattle in an Oct. 18 game on NFL Network. Monday night games against Arizona on the road (Oct. 29) and against Chicago at home (Nov. 19) also jump out from the schedule. The final prime-time game, at New England in Week 15, falls on a Sunday night.

San Francisco plays five of six games at home in the middle of the season, with a Week 9 bye falling between games against Arizona (road) and St. Louis (home).

The 49ers made a statement last season by winning back-to-back matchups in the Eastern time zone and remaining in Ohio between those games. They will not have a similar opportunity in 2012, it appears, because their road games against the New York Jets (Week 4) and New England Patriots (Week 15) do not fall in consecutive weeks. Update: The team could conceivably stay on the road for games against Minnesota and the Jets, but no decision has been made, according to the team.

Complaint department: The 49ers played three of their final five games on the road every season from 2008-2011. The trend continues and actually gets worse this year. The 49ers play four of their final six games on the road, including games against New Orleans (Week 12), New England (Week 15) and Seattle (Week 16). That was one price to pay for playing so many home games near the middle of the season. Another price, of course, was opening the season with three of the first four on the road.

Bounty watch: The audio tapes that revealed former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams encouraging players to take out certain 49ers during the teams' playoff matchup will be the big story heading into the Nov. 25 rematch, to be played in the Superdome. Bounty-related punishments figure to leave the Saints at their weakest earlier in the season, when interim coach Joe Vitt and (presumably) some defensive players will be serving suspensions. Seems like playing this game earlier in the season would have been more favorable to the 49ers.

49ers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 9, at Green Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, Detroit, 8:20 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 30, at NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, Buffalo, 4:15 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, NY Giants, 4:15 PM
Week 7: Thursday, Oct. 18, Seattle, 8:20 PM
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 29, at Arizona, 8:30 PM
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, St. Louis, 4:15 PM
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 19, Chicago, 8:30 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, at New Orleans, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, Miami, 4:05 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at New England, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Seattle, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Arizona, 4:15 PM

Dallas Cowboys schedule analysis

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
7:38
PM ET
Breakdown: The Cowboys are always a prime-time draw, and while they have only one "Monday Night Football" game on ESPN (Oct. 1 against the Bears), NBC is putting them on in prime time at least three times. In addition to the Sept. 5 opener against the Giants, the Cowboys play Sunday night prime-time games Nov. 4 (at Atlanta) and Dec. 2 (at home against the Eagles).

The Cowboys got an early bye -- Week 5 for the second season in a row. Players generally don't like the early bye, since it's the last break for a long time, and I wondered earlier today whether teams that got the early byes last season would get later ones in 2012. Not the case. The Cowboys will have played just four games before they take their week off.

And their first two games are on the road, as I will discuss in greater detail below, but that means the Cowboys' home opener won't be until Sept. 23, at 1 p.m. ET against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They don't see their traditional rivals from Washington until very late, but the first Redskins-Cowboys game of the year will be watched by a lot of overstuffed people, as it's the second game of the day on Thanksgiving, Nov. 22.

Complaint department: After their Week 4 home game against the Bears, the Cowboys begin a six-week stretch in which they will have just one home game. They're off in Week 5, then play at Baltimore, at Carolina, home against the Super Bowl champion Giants, at Atlanta and at Philadelphia. That's a long stretch of time without the home fans getting a chance to see their team in person, and if those teams perform as expected, it could be a pretty tough stretch of opponents as well. The payoff is that five of the Cowboys' final seven games will be at home, but they can't love ending the season with a road rivalry game against the Redskins in Washington.

A travel break: The Cowboys' longest road trip of the season is to Seattle, but they get about as good a break as they could get on that one. Their game against the Seahawks will be in Week 2, following 10 days off after the Sept. 5 season opener against the Giants in New Jersey. If you're a middle-of-the-country team and you have to play in New Jersey and Seattle in consecutive weeks, the best you can hope for is that the first game is a few days early.

Cowboys Regular-Season Schedule (All times ET)
Week 1: Wednesday, Sept. 5, at NY Giants, 8:30 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 16, at Seattle, 4:05 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 23, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Monday, Oct. 1, Chicago, 8:30 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, NY Giants, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, at Atlanta, 8:20 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, at Philadelphia, 4:15 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 18, Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 22, Washington, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 2, Philadelphia, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, Pittsburgh, 4:15 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, at Washington, 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 on 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 if 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 also 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 Eastern)
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

New York Giants schedule analysis

April, 17, 2012
4/17/12
7:21
PM ET
Breakdown: Hey, when you finish in first place, your schedule the next season is going to feature a lot of teams that also finished in first place. Add in the fact that the NFC East this year is playing the AFC North -- a division that sent three teams to last season's playoffs -- and the New York Giants have a schedule that would have been pretty challenging in 2011. After Week 5, every game the Giants play is against either a division opponent or a 2011 playoff team.

The Giants' bye week is late. It doesn't hit until Week 11 (the Sunday is Nov. 18), and while most players prefer the bye to come as close to the middle of the schedule as possible, a late one is generally preferable to an early one. Yeah, they could be worn down by Week 11, but it will give them a chance to refresh for what could be a very tough closing schedule.

As for travel, there's not much to hate here. The Giants only leave the Eastern time zone twice -- for trips to San Francisco and Dallas. Those trips are in Week 6 and 8, respectively, but each is positioned between a pair of home games. The Giants get their odd-day games out of the way early with a season-opening Wednesday nighter at home against the Cowboys and a Week 3 Thursday night matchup against Cam Newton and the Panthers in Carolina. The only "short" weeks are Week 3, when they'll have three days between their Sunday home game and the Thursday nighter in Carolina, and Week 14, when they play the Saints at home following their only "Monday Night Football" game of the year, which is Dec. 3 in Washington.

Complaint department: I maintain that using last year's records to determine strength of schedule is a mistake, since we don't know who the good teams are going to be. But of the Giants' six games after their Week 11 bye, four are against the Packers, Saints, Falcons and Ravens (not just 2011 playoff teams, but perennial playoff teams) and the other two are at Washington and home against the Eagles. And while a division home game is a nice way to finish the season if you expect to be contention for a division title, note that the Eagles have beaten the Giants in seven of their last eight meetings overall and haven't lost at the Meadowlands since Sept. 30. 2007.

Homecoming: Maybe you have to be a New Jersey guy to appreciate this one, but I am and so I do. Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, now the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, returns to the Garden State in Week 2. This will create several easy column and sidebar angles for my old friends at The Star-Ledger.

Giants Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Wednesday, Sep. 5, Dallas, 8:30 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 16, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Thursday, Sep. 20, at Carolina, 8:20 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Sep. 30, at Philadelphia, 8:20 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 7, Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 14, at San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 21, Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 28, at Dallas, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 4, Pittsburgh, 4:15 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 11, at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 25, Green Bay, 8:20 PM
Week 13: Monday, Dec. 3, at Washington, 8:30 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 9, New Orleans, 4:15 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 16, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 23, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 30, Philadelphia, 1:00 PM

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