Declaring a team an NFL schedule winner or loser on April 21 is like crowning a World Series champion the day pitchers and catchers report to spring training. It's far too early for such things. However, that doesn't mean there aren't some things to be gleaned from the master list released by the NFL on Thursday night. Here are 17 timely facts about the 2017 NFL schedule.
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There's no such thing as a tough or easy schedule in April
The NFL's hardest schedule belongs to .......... the team that ends up playing the most good teams in 2017. There's a lot you can do with schedule day, but declaring definitively that the Ravens have an easy finish to the season and the Packers have a tough start isn't one of them. No league sees more year-to-year turnover than the NFL, so slow your roll with trying to figure out how a late November matchup is going to affect the playoff race your team may or may not be in. Past performance is not an indication of future performance; there's no use in saying which team has it worse than any other. Tough schedules have a way of turning easy, easy schedules have a way of turning hard, and the only constant is that the Browns somehow will find a way to go 4-12 no matter what.
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Night time is the right time
Teams with five or more primetime games, ranked in order to most-to-least surprising:
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2. Kansas City Chiefs
3. Oakland Raiders
4. Washington Redskins
5. Denver Broncos
6. Atlanta Falcons
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
8. Green Bay Packers
9. New England Patriots
10. Dallas Cowboys
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Not all primetime games are primetime matchups
Among the 49 primetime games on the schedule: (TNF) Rams/49ers, Bills/Jets, Titans/Steelers; (SNF) Chiefs/Texans, Raiders/Dolphins; Steelers/Texans and (MNF) Vikings/Bears, Colts/Titans, Texans/Ravens, Chargers/Chiefs. That's nothing out of the ordinary — they all can't be winners — but at least you'll have some early nights during the season.
Remember that year the Falcons were coming off Michael Vick's rookie season and figured to be the most exciting team in the NFL and appropriately got a bunch of nationally televised games the next year, but Vick got hurt, was lost for the season and we were stuck watching Doug Johnson hand the ball to T.J. Duckett in a hard-to-watch 5-11 campaign? (It's not a coincidence flex scheduling came one season later.) Well, I mention that because of the Raiders, a team that might as well have "REGRESSION TO THE MEAN" flashing behind them in neon Vegas lights, have nine or 10 national games this year.
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It's a Browns thing
NFL.com had a headline accompanying each team's schedule. They were all hopeful, declarative or summarizing sections of a schedule. A smattering: "Road to AFC Championship starts with Patriots" (Chiefs); "Primed to pounce" (Jaguars); "Doomed in December" (Eagles); "Friendly beginning" (Vikings); "Carolina set to claw back"(Panthers); "Racking up the air miles" (Ravens); "Sixth Super Bowl in sight?" (Patriots); "Early hurdles to clear" (Bengals); and "A new era?" (Rams). Not all are positive — some are downright skeptical — but each treats a team's schedule as a living document subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous NFL fortune. And then there's the Browns': "Division foes await at the door." Sums it up pretty good, I think.
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Speaking of those Browns, they'll play 14 games at 1 p.m. ET. There's one 4:05 p.m. ET game, courtesy of a West Coast trip to Los Angeles and then, in the best enticement for breakfast drinking, a 9:30 a.m. ET game in London against the Vikings. Many a snooze bar will be hit that morning.
The last shall be first
The NFL's rigid scheduling format doesn't allow for much schedule variation for division teams, except for the two games every team plays against the other two conference teams that finished in the same place in the standings. This first-vs.-first, second-vs.-second, third-vs.-third and fourth-vs.-fourth setup helps with parity (just ask Dallas, which plays the Falcons and Packers in its two non-common games while the third-place Redskins get Minnesota and New Orleans and the fourth-place Eagles have the Bears and Panthers). Anyway, those last-on-last games are usually tucked away, deep into the quad-box afternoons on NFL RedZone. Except one: That Eagles-Panthers game is the only last-vs.-last matchup that'll be a national game, getting a Thursday night slot in Week 6.
Best bet to flex
As mentioned repeatedly, schedules have a way of looking far different in December than they do in April, but a cursory glance at the SNF schedule in the latter part of the season shows a lot of Cowboys, Patriots and Packers games, none of which is likely to be flexed barring woeful seasons by opponents. So which game has the most flexy feel right now? Week 14's Ravens at Steelers game could be a marquee matchup but could just as easily be between two 5-7 teams fighting to become an 8-8 division winner.
Mondays bring the Redskins down
The Redskins are 1-16 in their past 17 home games on Monday Night Football. This year, Washington has two MNF appearances, but in a rare bit of positive news for 'Skins fans, neither is at home.
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Sunday night fright
The late afternoon game (for now) looks like a better matchup than the Sunday night game in 10 of 16 weeks. The difference between the two slates: There's almost no dog games at 4:25 p.m. Cincinnati at Green Bay in Week 3 is the least-good late game, while the much more cringeworthy Kansas City at Houston is the worst Sunday nighter.
No one said this was fair
Capitalism won out over fair play this year. For the five years of the full Thursday slate, the NFL guaranteed that every team would get at least one primetime game. But a ratings-driven, money business can only dabble with equitability for so long. This year, mercifully, neither the Browns nor the Jags will be on your television sets in the evening. The teams do get a national stand-alone game, however: They both play in one of the three 9:30 a.m. ET kickoffs from London.
Last year it was the Eagles, this year it's the Giants. (Who said the NFL favors the NFC East?) New York plays an NFL-leading four games against teams coming off a bye. That's not good: Since 2003, only eight teams have losing records coming off a bye week.
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Patriots vs. Cowboys
New England is scheduled for nine early games this season. The Cowboys have two.
The tradition of inexplicably scheduling teams for back-to-back primetime games (excluding Thursdays) continues in 2017 and in the weirdest way possible. Of the six teams that play consecutive night games on a Sunday or Monday, five are baffling: Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, Oakland and Washington. Is there any world in which NFL fans want to see Kansas City, Detroit or Miami in back-to-back weeks? But then there's Pittsburgh, which actually plays back-to-back-to-back games in primetime late in the season. No Dallas? No New England? No Green Bay? No sweat; the schedule maker has you covered so you'll get your fill of the LIONS and DOLPHINS.
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The byes can wait
Though the NFL bumped the first byes from Week 4 to Week 5, that's still too early and, looking at the schedule, unnecessary. There are seven overall bye weeks. In three of them, six teams are off (three fewer games per week). In three others, four teams are off, just like in Week 5. That's two fewer games per week. Then there's Week 7, which has only two teams on a bye. Why not get rid of Week 5 byes, fold those teams into Week 7 and keep the off-days to a compact six-week period?
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All the Pats at once
Miami plays the defending Super Bowl champions twice in 15 days. While that might seem like a burden, look at the bright side: The Dolphins don't have to face New England at all in the other 101 days on the schedule.
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The NFL's senior director of schedules, Mike North, gave this amazing quote to NFL.com about the day of the schedule release: "It's rare that you get to disappoint 32 billionaires and five television networks on the same day." Gold. And overall, while some teams will be screaming about back-to-back trips to the coast or facing too many teams coming off the bye or a tough stretch near playoff time, this is one of the more balanced schedules to come out in years. All of which, of course, means that by October, when the Tampa is 8-0, Atlanta is 2-6, the 49ers lead the West, Dallas is playing Kellen Moore and the Jets are firmly in control of the AFC East, it'll be a disaster.