NFL Nation: NFL Schedule Analysis 2011

Breakdown: The misery that Washington Redskins fans suffered through last season has resulted in the predictable reward for this coming season: a notably soft schedule. Washington will meet just two non-divisional opponents who had winning records in 2010 (the New York Jets and New England Patriots). They’ll also meet one divisional rival, the Philadelphia Eagles, after their bye week and another at home in the season-opener, the New York Giants. What also helps is a schedule that includes six teams that have questions at quarterback for the coming season.

Of course, the Redskins don’t know what they’re doing at that position just yet (and yes, the entire Donovan McNabb fiasco still baffles me). But if head coach Mike Shanahan is going to put his team on a positive path, these are the kind of advantages that will help the cause.

Complaint department: Whatever hopes the Redskins have for an improvement over last year’s woes might vanish in the final five weeks of the season. It’s bad enough that they’ll see the Jets and the Patriots in the first two weeks of December. But road games against the Giants and Philadelphia (in the season finale) aren’t going to be easy, either. At least the Minnesota Vikings are in town for Christmas Eve. That’s the only decent matchup the Redskins will see during the holiday season.

It’s about time: There’s always plenty of reasons to tune in for a Cowboys-Redskins game. On Sept. 26 -- when Washington travels to Dallas for a "Monday Night Football" contest -- there will be another storyline: Whether the Redskins actually can win in the palatial stadium Jerry Jones built two years ago. Washington is 0-2 in that building and this would be a great time to change their fortunes.

Redskins Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, NY Giants, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Monday, Sep. 26, at Dallas, 8:30 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at Buffalo, 4:05 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, San Francisco, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, at Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, Dallas, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at Seattle, 4:05 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, New England, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at NY Giants, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at Philadelphia, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: The John Fox era will start in the national spotlight. The Broncos will host Oakland on Monday Night Football, Sept. 12 on ESPN on the back end of a doubleheader. This has become an AFC West tradition. The Raiders and Broncos opened the season in this game in Oakland in 2008.

The Broncos lobbied hard for this gig. It is the first time they have opened at home since 2004. So, this spotlight game will be a special way to begin the John Elway-Fox era.

If the Broncos are going to improve in 2011, they must start early. After playing Oakland to start the season, Denver hosts Cincinnati in Week 2. It plays at Tennessee on the road the next week before traveling to Super Bowl champion Green Bay in Week 4. The Broncos have to take advantage of the early slate because they are tied for the third toughest schedule in the NFL.

Complaint department: The Broncos will play all three of their AFC West roads games in a four game stretch, spanning weeks 9-12. These are the dog days of the season. If the Broncos haven’t faded by their ninth game, they must buckle down and try to stay in the division race with this tough stretch.

Bring a parka: The Broncos’ four final games should all be cold-weather affairs. Denver has three home games in that stretch. It’s one roadie is Dec. 24 at Buffalo. It should be a white Christmas Eve for the Broncos.

Broncos Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Monday, Sep. 12, Oakland, 10:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Cincinnati, 4:15 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, at Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Green Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, San Diego, 4:15 PM
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, Detroit, 4:05 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at Oakland, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, at Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Thursday, Nov. 17, NY Jets, 8:20 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at San Diego, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Minnesota, 4:05 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, Chicago, 4:05 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, New England, 4:15 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Kansas City, 4:15 PM

Breakdown: For a team that won the NFC East last season, the Philadelphia Eagles definitely received a nice break from the schedule-makers. Yes, Philadelphia does open the season with two road games (against the St. Louis Rams and Atlanta Falcons) before meeting the New York Giants at home. But they also get three straight contests against teams that didn’t make the playoffs before facing the Dallas Cowboys at home after the bye week. Don’t think that Eagles head coach Andy Reid isn’t grateful for that bit of good fortune.

Even the Eagles’ toughest games will come on their home turf. That’s where they’ll see the Chicago Bears, New England Patriots and New York Jets. Again, will somebody please explain that turn of events to me?

Complaint department: November is going to be the hardest month for Philadelphia. It opens with the Bears and Arizona Cardinals before traveling to face the Giants in New York. The Eagles return to host New England on Nov. 27. If the Eagles have any gripes about their schedule, they can air them then.

Welcome back: It won’t take much to hype the Eagles’ Sunday night game against the Falcons. We all know that Michael Vick's return to Atlanta will generate plenty of buzz from both supporters and haters alike. Even though that franchise has found another Pro Bowl quarterback in Matt Ryan -- while also making the playoffs in two of the three seasons since Vick’s involvement in a dog fighting scandal led to the team dumping him -- this game will be all about one thing: closure.

Eagles Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at Atlanta, 8:20 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, NY Giants, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, San Francisco, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, at Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, Dallas, 8:20 PM
Week 9: Monday, Nov. 7, Chicago, 8:30 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at NY Giants, 8:20 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, New England, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Thursday, Dec. 1, at Seattle, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, NY Jets, 4:15 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at Dallas, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Washington, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: If he wasn’t locked out, Peyton Manning might have just called the Indianapolis Colts' video staff to start gathering film of Wade Phillips' defenses. Because Indianapolis opens at the Houston Texans for the second consecutive year, and this time it’ll be against a brand new defensive coordinator who will surely keep as many secrets as possible in the preseason (providing there is one).

The Colts will play five prime-time games -- home against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Texans and on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New Orleans Saints (in a rematch of Super Bowl XXLIV) and at the New England Patriots. They do not make a road trip on a short week, something they’ll surely welcome.

Complaint department: Three in a row and four out of five on the road always seems unreasonable (see: October). But there is a nice payback with November coming all at home with games against the Atlanta Falcons and Jaguars before a bye, and then another home game against the Carolina Panthers.

Tough two: We don’t know who’s going to add what or whether the start of the season will be delayed. We do know Colts at Patriots is traditionally gigantic and Colts at Ravens can have a great deal to do with playoff positioning as well. Now make those trips on consecutive Sundays in early December. Pretty challenging. We could see either or both as soon as four or five weeks later in playoff rematches.

Colts Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Pittsburgh, 8:20 PM
Week 4: Monday, Oct. 3, at Tampa Bay, 8:30 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at New Orleans, 8:20 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 11: BYE
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at New England, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Thursday, Dec. 22, Houston, 8:20 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Breakdown: The Cleveland Browns have the toughest strength of schedule in the AFC North. But it's only 19th overall in the NFL, which gives the Browns a chance to improve on last year's 5-11 record.

Cleveland rookie head coach Pat Shurmur has a golden opportunity to get off to a fast start with a home game in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Both teams are rebuilding and this may be Cincinnati's first game without franchise quarterback Carson Palmer, who has threatened to retire. At least one Ohio team will start off 1-0, while the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens also battle it out in Week 1.

The Browns' only prime-time game this year will be against the Steelers on Thursday Dec. 8 in Pittsburgh.

Complaint department: Although I don't expect the Browns to contend this year, three consecutive road games in December could end any playoff push. The Browns will play at Pittsburgh, at the Arizona Cardinals and at Baltimore in Weeks 14-16. That could be a three-game losing streak toward the end of the season. The Browns also will host the reigning AFC champion Steelers in the regular-season finale on Jan. 1.

Interesting ties: There are interesting storylines involving two NFC West teams. Browns president Mike Holmgren's current team will face his former team -- the Seattle Seahawks -- on Oct. 23. Cleveland also will host the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 13. Shurmur was St. Louis' offensive coordinator last season.

Browns Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, Tennessee, 1:00 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, at Oakland, 4:05 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, Seattle, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at Cincinnati, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Thursday, Dec. 8, at Pittsburgh, 8:20 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
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: Any analysis of a San Diego Chargers schedule has to start at the beginning of the slate. The team has started slowly the past several seasons. It finally caught up to the Chargers last year when they failed to overcome a slow start and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

San Diego has an opportunity to start on the right foot. It opens at home against the rebuilding Minnesota Vikings. Yet, the schedule immediately toughens when the Chargers play at the New England Patriots in Week 2. The Chargers then come home for games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins. If the Chargers can find a way to go 3-1 in this stretch, it could give the team an unusual early-season spark. The Chargers are tied for the third toughest schedule in the NFL, so a fast start could be essential.

Complaint department: The Chargers come out of their bye week with a tough five-game stretch beginning in Week 7. It features road games at the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs in back-to-back weeks. They then go home for games against the Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders before going on the road to the Chicago Bears. We should know a lot about this team after this stretch.

Still prime-time attraction: The Chargers’ failure to make playoffs in 2010 did not make them a less attractive team nationally. The Chargers have four prime-time games. They play at Kansas City on "Monday Night Football" on Halloween in Week 8. Two weeks later, they host Oakland on a Thursday night and then play at Jacksonville on Monday night in Week 13.

Chargers Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, Minnesota, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at New England, 4:15 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Kansas City, 4:05 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, Miami, 4:15 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at Denver, 4:15 PM
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, at NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Monday, Oct. 31, at Kansas City, 8:30 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, Green Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 10: Thursday, Nov. 10, Oakland, 8:20 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at Chicago, 4:15 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Denver, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Monday, Dec. 5, at Jacksonville, 8:30 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, Buffalo, 4:15 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, Baltimore, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at Detroit, 4:05 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at Oakland, 4:15 PM
Breakdown: If the Minnesota Vikings open the season with a rookie quarterback, he'll at least have the comfort of playing two of his first three games at home. The Vikings would open the season at the San Diego Chargers, but then they would return for home games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions. None are easy games, but playing at home certainly is preferable than the alternative for a rookie quarterback.

Beyond Week 3, the Vikings' schedule is exceedingly balanced. In fact, they would mostly alternate home and road games for the rest of the season. The only exception is road games in Weeks 8 and 10, but those contests would be broken up by a well-timed bye week.

Complaint department: If and when the lockout ends, the Vikings will open training camp behind most other NFL teams. They have a new offensive coaching staff and, presumably, will have a new starting quarterback. They will have lost at least some of the critical offseason to begin installing that offense and growing accustomed to coach Leslie Frazier's program. Consequently, it makes sense to think they would have a better chance of running off some victories later in the season than earlier.

In such situations, you would prefer to have your division games bunched up in November and December. But the Vikings' fortunes would likely be decided, one way or the other, by the end of Week 10. At that point, they would have played four of their six division games, which are obviously important to the NFC North race, but also to tiebreakers in the wild-card.

If they play well in those games, the Vikings would push themselves into the playoff chase. But some shaky early performances, which might be expected for a team in this situation, could bury them by the midpoint of November.

Full circle: The Vikings' first-ever game in Minnesota came against the Chicago Bears, a 37-13 victory on Sept. 17, 1961. Will their last game in Minnesota also come against the Bears? Their final game of the 2011 regular season is scheduled to come against the Bears at the Metrodome on Jan. 1, 2012. Exactly one month afterwards, their lease to play at the stadium expires, making them franchise free agents. I don't think anyone believes they could relocate that quickly, if ever, but it's at least worth noting the symmetry.

Vikings Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at San Diego, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, at Chicago, 8:20 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, Green Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Monday, Nov. 14, at Green Bay, 8:30 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, Oakland, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Denver, 4:05 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Chicago, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: The New York Giants better keep their bags packed early. They open the season with three of their first four games on the road (against the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals). Granted, New York will face only one team with a winning record in its first seven games but that’s still a rough way to start the season. Nobody wants to spend that much time on the road so soon.

If that isn’t bad enough, the Giants will have plenty of tests from their non-divisional opponents. They’ve got road games against the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints and the New York Jets and they face the Green Bay Packers in the first weekend in December. Correct me if I’m wrong but don’t the toughest schedules go to the teams that actually make the playoffs? The Giants might want to remind the league’s decision-makers of that if New York’s fortunes go south this fall.

Complaint department: The Giants’ season will be heavily impacted by what happens in late November and early December. In that four-game stretch they’ll face the winners of the last two Super Bowls (New Orleans and Green Bay) along with divisional rivals Philadelphia and Dallas. Good luck with that one.

Revenge factor: The last time the Giants and Patriots met -- in Super Bowl XLII -- New York pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. This contest clearly won’t have the same drama hanging over it, but it is the first meeting between these teams since that day. That alone should give it a nice storyline heading into what should be a fun watch.

Giants Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Washington, 4:15 PM
Week 2: Monday, Sep. 19, St. Louis, 8:30 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, at Philadelphia, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Arizona, 4:05 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, Seattle, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at New England, 4:15 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, at San Francisco, 4:15 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, Philadelphia, 8:20 PM
Week 12: Monday, Nov. 28, at New Orleans, 8:30 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Green Bay, 4:15 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Dallas, 8:20 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at NY Jets, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Dallas, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: The good news is head coach Jason Garrett should get a nice opportunity to start fast in his first full season on the job. After opening the season with a Sunday night game against the New York Jets -- the first of their five prime-time contests this year -- the Dallas Cowboys can look forward to three straight games against teams that finished 2010 with losing records -- the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions. The bad news is that Dallas might be in big trouble late in the season if they’re trying to contend for a playoff spot. Road games at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New York Giants (in the season finale) don’t bode well. A Dec. 24 matchup at home against defending division champion Philadelphia Eagles could also be tough contest to pull out.

On the flip side, there is hope coming off the bye, especially since Dallas will have two weeks to prepare for a road trip to New England. The other opponents the Cowboys will meet outside the division also aren’t ominous, with seven of those failing to make the postseason last year. In fact, Dallas has way too much talent to not capitalize on such a weak schedule. The question, as usual, is whether they’re actually going to make good on that promise.

Complaint department: Dallas fans had better enjoy the first three months of the season because the anxiety will be flowing in December. Aside from a Dec. 4 road trip to Arizona (a team that could be dangerous again if they stabilize their quarterback problems from a year ago), the Cowboys face the Giants twice, the Bucs and the Eagles. This is the time of year we’ll learn everything we need to know about this team.

Opening statement: The season-opener against the Jets will be critical for Dallas setting the right tone for this season. Rex Ryan has taken his team to two straight AFC title games and he’ll be talking plenty of mess before this one ever kicks off. If Dallas wants to prove it’s ready to put itself back in championship contention, this is the best place to start sending that message.

Cowboys Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at NY Jets, 8:20 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at San Francisco, 4:05 PM
Week 3: Monday, Sep. 26, Washington, 8:30 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, Detroit, 1:00 PM
Week 5: BYE
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, at New England, 4:15 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, St. Louis, 4:15 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at Philadelphia, 8:20 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, Seattle, 1:00 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 24, Miami, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Arizona, 4:15 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, NY Giants, 8:20 PM
Week 15: Saturday, Dec. 17, at Tampa Bay, 8:20 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Philadelphia, 4:15 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at NY Giants, 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:Mike Munchak will make his debut as a head coach in Jacksonville, then faces a team his team’s fans probably hate most, the Baltimore Ravens. The Tennessee Titans have a very comfortable month from mid-October to mid-November, with their bye week followed by a three-pack of home games -- against the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals.

A year after they played five of their six division games in the final six weeks of the season, those crucial games are much more reasonably spaced out. In fact, their games against the Jacksonville Jaguars are spaced as far apart as possible, in Week 1 and Week 17.

Complaint department: While one spacing issue went away, another surfaced. Tennessee plays its four games against the NFC South in a five week span from Nov. 13 to Dec. 11. It’s hard to predict the quality of any team at this point. But the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers combined for a 34-14 record last season.

Weather-watching:Opening in Jacksonville will give Munchak a reason to work his team hard in the heat of training camp -- if there is training camp and if there is a opening day as scheduled. The Titans had a chance at three big-time cold weather games, but got a break drawing their trips to the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers in consecutive weeks at the start of October, before things will be their worst in those venues. No such luck with the Dec. 4 game at the Buffalo Bills.

Titans Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, Denver, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Week 6: BYE
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, Cincinnati, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, at Carolina, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at Atlanta, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Tampa Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, New Orleans, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, at Houston, 1:00 PM

New England Patriots schedule analysis

April, 19, 2011
4/19/11
8:04
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Breakdown: The New England Patriots must be ready to roll from the jump.

Three of their first four games will be on the road. They'll open at the Miami Dolphins on Monday night, visit the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 and travel across the country to play the Oakland Raiders in Week 4.

The lone home game in that stretch is against the San Diego Chargers in Week 2. The Patriots' next game in Gillette Stadium will be against the New York Jets in Week 5.

If the Patriots get in a hole, then they could have a nice opportunity to climb out of it in December. They'll close the season against opponents that went a combined 21-43 last season: at the Washington Redskins, at the Denver Broncos and home against the Dolphins and Bills.

Complaint department: How about this for a nasty stretch of games? The Patriots better cherish that Week 7 bye because their next six opponents went a combined 63-33 last season with no record worse than 10-6. The Patriots must navigate five playoff teams in that stretch, with the New York Giants the exception. The other foes are the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts.

Annual tradition: The annual Patriots-Colts game will take place on Sunday night in Week 13 at Gillette Stadium. It will be their ninth straight regular-season meeting, the longest ongoing streak between non-divisional opponents.

The Colts lost six in a row from 2001 through 2004, then won five of the next six games. The Patriots beat them 31-28 last season. Each of their past five games, including the playoffs, has been decided by four points or fewer.

Patriots Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Monday, Sep. 12, at Miami, 7:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, San Diego, 4:15 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, at Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, at Oakland, 4:15 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, NY Jets, 4:15 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Dallas, 4:15 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at Pittsburgh, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, NY Giants, 4:15 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, at NY Jets, 8:20 PM
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 21, Kansas City, 8:30 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, at Philadelphia, 4:15 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, Indianapolis, 8:20 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Washington, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at Denver, 4:15 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Buffalo, 1:00 PM

Breakdown: For the fourth time since 2006, the Oakland Raiders will open the season on "Monday Night Football" in the back end of a doubleheader. The Raiders open at the Denver Broncos. The three previous times Oakland played in this doubleheader series, the games were at home and Oakland lost all three games.

The Raiders, who are tied for the 19th most difficult 2011 schedule and have the easiest AFC West schedule, play at the Buffalo Bills in Week 2. The Raiders get two road games out of the way early against two weak teams. Plus, these could have both been cold-weather games.

Oakland’s season does toughen in its third and fourth games with home games against the New York Jets and New England Patriots. We should know a lot about the Raiders after the first quarter of the season.

In addition to the season opener, Oakland plays a prime-time game at the San Diego Chargers in a Thursday game in November.

Complaint department: Oakland’s first two games in December will be difficult. It plays at the Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers in back-to-back games. That is a lot of travel down the stretch. Plus, playing at Green Bay on Dec. 11 is no treat.

No opening night in Green Bay: There was a school of thought in Oakland that the Raiders would be chosen to play at Green Bay in the annual season-opening Thursday night game that has become a traditional celebration game for the defending Super Bowl champion. The Packers will instead play New Orleans in a battle of the past two Super Bowl champions.

Raiders Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Monday, Sep. 12, at Denver, 10:15 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, NY Jets, 4:05 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, New England, 4:15 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Cleveland, 4:05 PM
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23, Kansas City, 4:05 PM
Week 8: BYE
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, Denver, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Thursday, Nov. 10, at San Diego, 8:20 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at Minnesota, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Chicago, 4:05 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Miami, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, at Green Bay, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, Detroit, 4:05 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, at Kansas City, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, San Diego, 4:15 PM
Breakdown: The Cincinnati Bengals, 4-12 last season, couldn't handle a first-place schedule in 2010. But this season's slate is more manageable.

Cincinnati has the NFL's 27th-ranked strength of schedule, but it must overcome turmoil this offseason. The Bengals have had several changes on the coaching staff, a franchise quarterback who has threatened to retire and are rebuilding.

The Bengals are at least a couple years away from competing in the AFC North again, especially with quarterback Carson Palmer's future uncertain. But a relatively easy schedule compared to last season should help. The Bengals have a chance to get off to a good start in Week 1 against another rebuilding team in the Cleveland Browns. One of the Ohio teams will be 1-0 after the first week.

Complaint department: It's odd that Cincinnati will play five division games in the second half of the season. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing for the Bengals. The only AFC North matchup in the first eight weeks for Cincinnati will be at Cleveland on Sept. 11.

The what-if game: Bengals owner Mike Brown said he will not trade Palmer, and based on Brown's history, there is a good chance he won't budge. But let's imagine for a second that the Bengals do have a change of heart and decide to trade Palmer. There are several potential trade partners, including teams on the Bengals' 2011 schedule (San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans).

Bengals Regular-Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 11, at Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 18, at Denver, 4:15 PM
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 25, San Francisco, 1:00 PM
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 2, Buffalo, 1:00 PM
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 9, at Jacksonville, 1:00 PM
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16, Indianapolis, 1:00 PM
Week 7: BYE
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30, at Seattle, 4:15 PM
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6, at Tennessee, 4:05 PM
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13, Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 20, at Baltimore, 1:00 PM
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 27, Cleveland, 1:00 PM
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4, at Pittsburgh, 1:00 PM
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 11, Houston, 1:00 PM
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18, at St. Louis, 1:00 PM
Week 16: Saturday, Dec. 24, Arizona, 1:00 PM
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 1, Baltimore, 1:00 PM

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