If the NFL draft is Christmas, then the league’s schedule release date must be Thanksgiving. As in thanks to the NFL for finally cranking this thing out.
Except maybe if you’re the Saints. Congrats on winning the Super Bowl, but the league appeared to make it as demanding on the world champs as it possibly could.
First, there’s the opener against the Vikings and — wait for it — Brett Favre. The Vikings’ players felt they outplayed the Saints and had to be choking hard while watching the Saints go on to beat the Colts. That was their Super Bowl, or it should have been, they felt. The NFC title game was a feisty affair, and I expect nothing less in the Thursday opener.
Although the Saints’ opponents have a winning percentage of only .469, which is the 27th-hardest schedule by that measure, the NFL has stuck them with some tough games in tough times. After the opener, they have to go to San Francisco (on Monday night, 11 days after the opener) against an improved 49ers team. Then it’s back home for a tough game against the Falcons in Week Three. After that, it’s the divisional-rival Panthers in Week Four and a tough trip to Arizona in Week Five, even if the Cardinals are weakened.
But that’s not all. Four of the Saints' final six games are on the road, including: at Dallas on Thanksgiving (the Cowboys ended the Saints’ winning streak last season), at Cincinnati and Baltimore (two playoff teams in 2009) and at Atlanta on Monday night in Week 16. All told, the Saints play four prime-time games. They’ll be tested, for sure.
The Steelers, potentially facing a four-game suspension for QB Ben Roethlisberger, have an interesting quartet — vs. Atlanta, at Tennessee, at Tampa Bay and vs. Baltimore — before a Week Five bye. The four games makes more sense when you see that the league has given the Steelers that fifth week to give Roethlisberger time to get back into the lineup and a Week Six matchup against the Browns. If you’re the Ravens, you’re thrilled at the potential prospect of facing the Steelers in Pittsburgh without their starting QB.
The rest of Week One, along with Saints-Vikings and Steelers-Falcons, is pretty strong, too. Cowboys at Redskins is the NBC Sunday-night matchup, pitting Tony Romo against Donovan McNabb and, in an interesting Broncos connection, Wade Phillips vs. Mike Shanahan. Ravens at Jets is the early Monday nighter in Week One, also with a fine coaching twist: Rex Ryan against his old club.
Want more? You got it. The Colts have to go on the road after losing the Super Bowl to face the emerging Texans, owners of a brutal schedule. The Bengals and Patriots, two ’09 playoff teams, meet in Foxborough. The Packers travel to Philadelphia in another matchup of postseason teams. Nothing like facing pressure out of the chute for Kevin Kolb, eh?
As for reunions, McNabb will get his first crack against the Eagles when the Redskins go to Philadelphia in Week Four in what is sure to be a high-profile event, perhaps with a boo or two. The following week, Julius Peppers and the Bears head to Charlotte to face the Panthers, where the fans might be more mild than in Philly, but the reception there might not be much warmer. Santonio Holmes, shipped off to the Jets, will face his old Steelers team — provided he doesn't suffer a third strike in the meantime. And Albert Haynesworth, last year's free-agent prize, could see his old Titans teammates in Tennessee in Week 11 — assuming he's not dealt away by the Redskins.
In New York, Jets fans are getting ready to hoist the Lombardi Trophy after a banner offseason, but they should put the sliver polish back on the shelf for a bit when they see the team’s slate. After the tough Ravens opener, they face the Patriots at home (a Week Two rematch from a year ago) and have the Dolphins and Bills on the road in Weeks Three and Four — three division games in the first four. Then, prior to the Week Seven bye, they have the NFC runners-up Vikings and a tough trip to Denver at Invesco. Welcome back in Week Eight with a date against the Packers, and that’s followed down the stretch with a tough period in Weeks 11 through 16: vs. the Texans and Bengals, at New England, vs. Miami, followed with two straight on the road against the Steelers (presumably with Roethlisberger) and at Chicago. It gets a little cold in the Windy City that time of year.
Favre, of course, would play the Packers at Green Bay in Week Seven and then back in the Metrodome in Week 11. The Vikings have a tough opening duo with the Saints and at home against the Dolphins in Week Two. And like the Saints, the Vikings have four prime-time games. Their final two games are on the road, but Week 17 is at Detroit.
As Roger Goodell announced recently, Week 17 would feature all division games, including a number of traditional rivalries: Bears at Packers, Giants at Redskins, Dolphins at Patriots, Cowboys at Eagles, Steelers at Browns, Bills at Jets and Raiders at Chiefs.
The NBC slate has great games after Week One. The Manning brothers face off in Week Two: Giants at Colts. The Jets and Dolphins match up in Week Three, and, of course, there’s that first Favre vs. Packers matchup. The Steelers and Saints meet in New Orleans on Halloween night (more on this below) in Week Eight, and the Cowboys head to Green Bay the following week — a nice homecoming for Tony Romo, a Wisconsin kid. It keeps rolling. Patriots at Steelers in Week 10, Giants at Eagles in Week 11, Chargers at Colts in Week 12 and Steelers at Ravens in Week 13. Catch your breath. Ready? Eagles at Cowboys in Week 14, Packers at Patriots in Week 15 and Chargers at Bengals in Week 16 (the Week 17 game will be determined closer to that date). Phew! Although the games for Weeks 11-16 are subject to change, NBC has to be tickled with its draw.
(An interesting shot across Major League Baseball's bow: The traditional World Series Sunday-night embargo is no longer, as the Saints and Steelers face off. "We feel the NFL is what people want to watch," Goodell said on NFL Network.)
ESPN has some nice Monday games, too, after Week One. Packers at Bears in Week Three, Patriots at Dolphins in Week Four, Vikings at Jets (the lesser of the Favre Bowls) in Week Five and Giants at Cowboys in Week Seven, during September and October. It stays nice, too. Texans at Colts in Week Eight, Steelers at Bengals in Week Nine, Eagles at Redskins (You Know Who vs. You Know Who) in Week 10, Broncos at Chargers in Week 11, Jets at Patriots in Week 13, Ravens at Texans in Week 14 (intriguing), Bears at Vikings in Week 15 and Saints at Falcons in Week 16 in what should be a great divisional game that could decide the NFC South. Nice slate for them, too.
So what about the also-rans?
If the Rams do draft QB Sam Bradford, the opening slate is quite kind if he indeed is the opening-week starter. They get a beat-up Cardinals team in Week One at home; a suspect Raiders team at Oakland in Week Two; the Redskins and Seahawks, both with new head coaches, at St. Louis in Weeks Three and Four; and the Lions — the one team the Rams beat in 2009 — in Week Five in Detroit. For a team that is coming off a 1-15 season, today brings good news.
Of course, many will complain about their draw. It’s an exciting day, but also a frustrating one.
Just ask the Saints.
Related links: 2010 weekly schedule | AFC team schedules | NFC team schedules
For the most authoritative NFL draft news and free-agency analysis, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.