NFL places Jets in spotlight in 2011

What a way to open the 2011 season: America's Team visits America's Most Wanted.

Love 'em or hate 'em, the New York Jets are one of the hottest tickets in the NFL. They have five prime-time games, starting with a Sunday night showdown against the Dallas Cowboys at the New Meadowlands Stadium. That the game falls on the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks will add to the emotion and drama of the evening.

Get used to seeing the Jets in that time slot -- three times in the first 10 weeks of the season, to be exact. If they had any more Sunday night appearances on TV, Rex Ryan would be getting more face time than Andy Rooney.

"They know we're an elite team, and I think that's why we have five prime-time games," said Ryan, who already has guaranteed a Super Bowl for the Jets -- a swagger-licious prediction that probably didn't endear him or his team to the growing masses around the country that want to see them fail.

The Jets, who suffered for years from an inferiority complex, love the attention. You can bet anything that, when the NFL released the schedule Tuesday night, it was noted in the Jets' offices that they have one more prime-time appearance than their fiercest rival, the New England Patriots.

Of course, the Patriots are about rings, not ratings -- and the Jets can only dream about getting to that level. With this schedule, they should get off to a fine start.

The first month of the season is, well, rather cushy, wouldn't you say?

After the Cowboys, the Jets host the Jacksonville Jaguars and travel to the Oakland Raiders -- all non-playoff teams in 2010. If the lockout lasts into the summer, resulting in a shorter training camp, it will create significant rust and chemistry issues for teams early in the season. The Jets should be able to navigate September better than most because they open with two home games against less-than-elite teams.

The Cowboys, in particular, could be a lockout-affected team. Ryan's twin brother, Rob, is their new defensive coordinator, and he's planning to install a new, pressure-oriented system. Problem is, he's being robbed of valuable teaching time because of the work stoppage, and it could lead to serious growing pains.

"I hope it's real tough," Rex Ryan cracked.

The Jets could have their own issues. If they can't re-sign cornerback Antonio Cromarie and fail to replace him with a comparable veteran, their defense could have problems against the likes of Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Kyle Wilson covering Bryant? Oh, boy.

Under Ryan, the Jets are 5-1 in the month of September, so there's no reason why they shouldn't get off to a fast start. They'd better, because there are a couple of rough patches in October and November that would test the best of teams.

The Jets have three consecutive road games, from Weeks 3 to 5 -- at Oakland, at Baltimore and at New England. They can handle Oakland, but the Baltimore-New England exacta is brutally tough. You go from the No. 3 scoring defense to the No. 1 scoring offense in a span of seven days. Baltimore will be a physical, emotional game, and it's always hard to play two of those in a row.

"That's a tough stretch," Ryan acknowledged, "but [our opponents] are looking at it, too, like, 'Oh, man, we have to play the Jets.' It goes both ways."

In November, there's a positively sinister back-to-back -- a Sunday night home game against the Patriots, followed by a Thursday night road game in Denver. On long trips, Ryan likes to leave two days before the game, but that will be difficult in this case because he'll need Tuesday for a full practice day. Throw in the altitude factor in Denver, and you're talking about another challenge on a short week.

"Like I always say about those Thursday games, they're great as long as you win, because you can almost treat it like a little mini-bye after that," said Ryan, putting on a brave face.

The Jets get their real bye in Week 8, which is nice. Down the stretch, they'll get a heavy dose of the NFC East, highlighted by back-to-back games against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. If the Giants can avoid their usual late-season tailspin, the game could have real playoff implications.

It will have other ramifications for the Jets. Ryan likes to talk about New York being a Jets town, but it would help the cause if they actually beat the Giants one of these years. The Jets have dropped the last four regular-season meetings. Now they get the Giants on Christmas Eve, a chance for America's Most Wanted to take over their own backyard.

Five games to watch

Week 1 vs. Dallas: This is the first of five prime-time games for the Jets, who -- like them or not -- have become one of the biggest draws in the NFL. It will be an emotional night -- the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, mere miles from the New Meadowlands Stadium. This game will have everything, including big names and big coaches (Rex Ryan and his twin brother Rob, the Cowboys' new defensive coordinator). It's a matchup made in Nielsen heaven.

Week 4 at Baltimore: Two of the best teams in the AFC will square off in a Sunday night showdown. For Ryan, this one is personal. He will return to Baltimore for the first time since leaving the Ravens to become the Jets' head coach in 2009. He was passed over for the Ravens' head job in 2008, and that still burns him. The game also features two of the bright young quarterbacks in the league, Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco, but it wouldn't shock anyone if the night belongs to the defenses.

Week 5 at New England: The Rematch. How else can you put it? The Jets, returning to the scene of their greatest victory since Super Bowl III, go back to Foxborough for a game that will be rife with emotion. The Jets stunned the Patriots in last season's divisional playoffs, 28-21, one of the most bitterly disappointing defeats of the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Here's a guarantee: Wes Welker won't make any foot jokes in the days leading up to the game. They play again in Week 10, a Sunday night affair.

Week 6 vs. Miami: Put the Dolphins at the Meadowlands on Monday night, and you never know what might happen. Remember the Midnight Miracle in 2000? This will be an important game for the Jets because they've lost three straight at home to the Dolphins, and it'll start to become psychological if they don't reverse the trend.

Week 16 vs. N.Y. Giants: It really isn't a rivalry, per se, but there should be plenty of drama, assuming both teams are in the playoff hunt. That the game will be played on Christmas Eve will add to the spectacle. This will be the 12th meeting between the locals; the Giants have won the last four meetings. Considering Ryan's bravado, he will turn this showdown into a referendum on which team owns New York. It will have extra juice if Tom Coughlin is coaching for his job.

Prediction: 12-4 season