If you think there’s no time like “prime time” in the NFL, then you’re sadly mistaken.
All you have to do is harken back to the numerous Monday-night clunkers that tarnished your TV set this past season to realize the extreme difficulty in figuring out which games truly deserve to be the sexiest attractions on a weekly basis.
That said, there are extreme limits on “flex” scheduling in the NFL, necessitating, for better or worse, the annual highly anticipated unveiling each spring of the NFL schedule, highlighted by the nationally televised prime-time games that, in theory, serve up the most particularly compelling story lines.
Starting right off with a humdinger of a divisional battle in a rare Wednesday-night opener — with the Giants’ Eli Manning, who has become more than worthy of the super-hype normally reserved for big brother Peyton, squaring off vs. the Cowboys’ Tony Romo, who remains on the outside looking in at the high-rent QB district Eli has moved into following his Super Bowl MVP performance — the NFL schedule makers have constructed what appears to be another juicy-looking prime-time slate.
On paper, that is.
If recent form holds, there will be just as many games that live up to their considerable pregame hype as there will be near-unwatchable yawn fests that will be forgotten the moment you press the remote and decide to call it an evening.
Learning to expect the unexpected in the NFL has become a way of life. You know there’s going to be a team or three, like the Eagles last season, that falls way short of the “Dream Team” buildup it gets this offseason.
Same goes for those inevitable teams, like the 49ers last season, that come out of nowhere and instantly develop into legitimate contenders.
But here’s the good news: On any given Sunday in the coming season, there is, at the very least, one game a week — and in some weeks two or three games — that figures to be just as compelling as the games that will be getting prime-time treatment, at least in my opinion.
What follows is a close league observer’s week-by-week rundown of the most intriguing games of 2012 not initially scheduled for prime time:
Week One (prime-time exclusions: Cowboys at Giants, 8:30 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Sept. 5; Steelers at Broncos, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Sept. 9; Bengals at Ravens, 7 p.m. ET, Monday, Sept. 10; Chargers at Raiders, 10:15 p.m. ET, Monday, Sept. 10)
Game of the Week: Niners at Packers (4:15 p.m. ET) — No longer a surprise to anybody, Jim Harbaugh’s Niners, featuring the most ferocious front seven on earth, come a-calling to Lambeau Field, where one of the most explosive offenses in league history will be aiming to send the Niners’ secondary in search of oxygen masks by halftime. On the other side of the ball for the Packers, a defense fortified by first-round pick Nick Perry and second-rounder Jerel Worthy must prove itself a great deal more worthy from the get-go than last year’s porous unit. Matched up against a Niners offense with a bunch of intriguing new toys, most notably future Hall of Famer Randy Moss and second-round draft pick LaMichael James, the stage is set for a most intriguing battle featuring both brains and brawn.
Week Two (prime-time exclusions: Bears at Packers, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Sept. 13; Lions at Niners, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Sept. 16; Broncos at Falcons, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Sept. 17)
Game of the Week: Saints at Panthers (1 p.m. ET) — Will there be a more intriguing division in the NFL this coming season than the NFC South? I think not. What a fall from grace the Saints have experienced, taking on a new tainted image courtesy of “Bountygate.” They still no doubt have an offense almost on a par with that of the Packers, with QB Drew Brees, TE Jimmy Graham and triple-threat Darren Sproles spearheading a highly explosive arsenal. But, for obvious reasons, they have become a much more vulnerable team without its head coach and a few key defenders, facing a dangerous NFC South up-and-comer in the Cam Newton-led Panthers. In Week Two last season vs. Green Bay, Newton picked up where he left off in a sensational debut vs. Arizona with 432 yards and a TD passing and 53 yards and a TD rushing in a 30-23 loss. Something tells me he will be looking to make a major statement in an early-season home game vs. the defending division champs.
Week Three (prime-time exclusions: Giants at Panthers, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Sept. 20; Patriots at Ravens, 8:20 pm ET, Sunday, Sept. 23; Packers at Seahawks, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Sept. 24)
Game of the Week: Falcons at Chargers (4:05 p.m. ET) — Ah, the Falcons. A year ago at this time, they were my outside-the-box pick to win it all, the thought being that they were hell-bent on following in the footsteps of the high-powered Packers, who obliterated Atlanta in the playoffs on the road to the Super Bowl two years ago. I still think they are more than capable of doing major damage, especially considering the Saints’ issues, but they are hard to figure. Same goes for the Chargers, whose annual early-season woes have become well-documented. The QB battle between Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and San Diego’s Philip Rivers should be a dandy.
Week Four (prime-time exclusions: Browns at Ravens, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Sept. 27; Giants at Eagles, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Sept. 30; Bears at Cowboys, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Oct. 1)
Game of the Week: Saints at Packers (4:15 p.m. ET) — What we’ve got here is a rematch of the opening game of the 2011 NFL campaign, which just might have been the most entertaining game of the entire year — a 42-34 barn burner at Lambeau that went right down to the last play. Fire up your calculators for this one.
Week Five (prime-time exclusions: Cardinals at Rams, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Oct. 4; Chargers at Saints, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Oct. 7; Texans at Jets, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Oct. 8)
Game of the Week: Broncos at Patriots (4:15 p.m. ET) — It’s Manning vs. Brady, but Manning will be just more than a month into his new gig with a Broncos team that has been boldly reconstructed by head front-office honcho John Elway. This big-time litmus test deserves major attention.
Week Six (prime-time exclusions: Steelers at Titans, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Oct. 11; Packers at Texans, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Oct. 14; Broncos at Chargers, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Oct. 15)
Game of the Week: Lions at Eagles (1 p.m. ET) — In Week Six of the 2011 season, Lions head coach Jim Schwartz had to be restrained after 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh put a little extra English into their postgame exchange. I can’t imagine a similar exchange with the much more sedate Andy Reid, but I can imagine a very spirited battle between two very interesting long-shot contenders. Finishing last season with four wins in a row, the Eagles could be on a mission, the huge early loss of OLT Jason Peters to a likely season-ending ruptured Achilles notwithstanding. But don’t discount the feisty Lions, who finished last season with a disappointing loss in the playoffs to the Saints after making encouraging strides in the regular season.
Week Seven (prime-time exclusions: Seahawks at Niners, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Oct. 18; Steelers at Bengals, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Oct. 21; Lions at Bears, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Oct. 22)
Game of the Week: Ravens at Texans (1 p.m. ET) — Before they lost 40 percent of their top-notch offensive line (ORG Mike Brisiel, ORT Eric Winston), I was all set to make the Texans my out-of-the-box pick to win it all this year. I still like them a lot, and it will be interesting to see if they can make amends for their 20-13 divisional playoff loss to the Ravens with Matt Schaub back under center instead of T.J. Yates. This game shapes up as a particularly fascinating defensive matchup, not only because of who will be missing (Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, almost certainly at least a few weeks away from his anticipated recovery from the torn Achilles he suffered this spring), but also because of the two exciting, young Texans defenders (J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed) who combined to sack Joe Flacco five times in last year’s playoff game.
Week Eight (prime-time exclusions: Buccaneers at Vikings, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Oct. 25; Saints at Broncos, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Oct. 28; Niners at Cardinals, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Oct. 29)
Game of the Week: Giants at Cowboys (4:15 p.m. ET) — Last year, these division rivals didn’t play one another until Week 14. In the 2012 season, this game will close out their series unless they somehow run into each other again in the postseason, which is not that far from a possibility. In the Giants’ two wins over Dallas last season, Eli Manning threw for a combined 746 yards with a 5-1 TD-interception ratio. A Cowboys secondary supposedly strengthened by the additions of first-round draft pick Morris Claiborne and free-agent veteran Brandon Carr will be hoping to significantly reduce those numbers.
Week Nine (prime-time exclusions: Chiefs at Chargers, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Nov. 1; Cowboys at Falcons, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Nov. 4; Eagles at Saints, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Nov. 5)
Game of the Week: Panthers at Redskins (1 p.m. ET) — Is Robert Griffin III this year’s answer to Cam Newton? Expect more than a few viewers, including yours truly, to enthusiastically embrace the answer to that question in what could be a very telling matchup between two extremely rare talents.
Week 10 (prime-time exclusions: Colts at Jaguars, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Nov. 8; Texans at Bears, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Nov. 11; Chiefs at Steelers, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Nov. 12)
Game of the Week: Cowboys at Eagles (4:15 p.m. ET) — In the first of two battles in three weeks between these divisional rivals, it will be worth keeping close tabs on a Philly defense that limited the Pokes to a mere 14 points and an average of 252.5 yards per game in the Eagles’ series sweep last season. Something tells me the Cowboys will produce a lot more firepower this season.
Week 11 (prime-time exclusions: Dolphins at Bills, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Nov. 15; Ravens at Steelers, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Nov. 18; Bears at Niners, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Nov. 19)
Game of the Week: Packers at Lions (1 p.m. ET) — It will be very interesting to see how effectively Lions DT Ndamukong Suh keeps a lid on his emotions after his terribly stupid Turkey Day ejection as a result of engraving his cleats on the chest of Packers OL Evan Dietrich-Smith. Equally interesting will be the coverage on Calvin Johnson provided by Green Bay CB Tramon Williams. In the first Packers-Lions game last season, Williams made “Megatron” a nonfactor. In the rematch, Johnson made Williams look sick.
Week 12 (prime-time exclusions, including all Thanksgiving games: Texans at Lions, 12:30 p.m. ET, Thursday, Nov. 22; Redskins at Cowboys, 4:15 p.m. ET, Thursday, Nov. 22; Patriots at Jets, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Nov. 22; Packers at Giants, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Nov. 25; Panthers at Eagles, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Nov. 26)
Game of the Week: Niners at Saints (4:15 p.m. ET) — Remember what I said about Saints-Packers perhaps being the best game of the 2011 season? I forgot about the Niners’ 36-32 divisional playoff victory over the Saints — an instant classic if there ever was one. Can Alex Smith possibly outduel Drew Brees again? If Vernon Davis once again outplays fellow star TE Jimmy Graham, I’d say the answer is yes.
Week 13 (prime-time exclusions: Saints at Falcons, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Nov. 29; Eagles at Cowboys, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Dec. 2; Giants at Redskins; 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Dec. 3)
Game of the Week: Steelers at Ravens (4:15 p.m. ET) — Put simply, this is the best pure rivalry going. If Suggs is back in action for this game, let the fur fly and the bones crunch.
Week 14 (prime-time exclusions: Broncos at Raiders, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Dec. 6; Lions at Packers, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Dec. 9; Texans at Patriots, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Dec. 10)
Game of the Week: Cowboys at Bengals (1 p.m. ET) — I couldn’t pass up acknowledging the under-the-radar Bengals at least once in this column. I do not think their surprise success last season was an aberration with Andy “the Red Rifle” Dalton directing the offense. The kid has a lot more going for him than the league’s best nickname. I have a feeling this game could have genuine playoff ramifications for both teams.
Week 15 (prime-time exclusions: Bengals at Eagles, 8:20 p.m. ET, Thursday, Dec. 13; Niners at Patriots, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Dec. 16; Jets at Titans, 8:30 p.m. ET, Monday, Dec. 17)
Game of the Week: Packers at Bears (1 p.m. ET) — I’ve already acknowledged Steelers-Ravens as the league’s No. 1 rivalry, but Packers-Bears is quickly picking up steam again. The Bears’ revamped front office is on record as making the need to catch up to the Pack within the division a top priority. The Bears went to great lengths to expand the offense with the additions of Brandon Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery and also made Shea McClellin, a Clay Matthews-like pass rusher whom sources tell me the Packers really coveted, their first pick in this year’s draft. I’d say the Bears are going out of their way to try to narrow the gap. I love Bears WR Darryl Drake’s recent quote about the “giraffes and cheetahs” that have been added to an offense new coordinator Mike Tice is touting as being much more explosive. All that animal magnetism aside, I suspect this game will be a typical "Black 'n' Blue" bloodbath.
Week 16 (prime-time exclusions: Falcons at Lions, 8:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, Dec. 22; Chargers at Jets, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sunday, Dec. 23)
Game of the Week: Niners at Seahawks (4:15 p.m. ET) — The Bears aren’t the only big-time copycats in the NFL right now. The Seahawks started stealing a page from the division-rival Niners just about halfway through last season and have not stopped. Could this game determine the NFC West champion in 2012? The Niners might have what it takes to win a Super Bowl, but I don’t see them accomplishing that feat without a real struggle. I think the Seahawks, with Marshawn Lynch and their really good, young defense, could be particularly pesky, although I continue to be baffled by their fascination with rookie QB Russell Wilson.
Week 17 (prime-time exclusions: none)
Game of the Week: Eagles at Giants (4:15 p.m. ET) — Both of these teams finished the 2011 regular season on red-hot rolls. Will recent history repeat itself? If it does, this just might be one for the books in a closing week with nothing but divisional matchups that could have plenty of meaning.