For the past three weeks, the only firm date for any 2012 NFL regular-season games was Sept. 5.
We now know exactly when the 255 other contests will be played after the Week 1 opener between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants.
The league announced the remainder of its schedule Tuesday. This gives ample time for avid fans to make personal plans (travel, weddings, etc.) and Green Bay hoteliers to raise their weekend rates (no joke — markups of 300 percent to 400 percent can cost out-of-towners a lot of cheddar).
Trying to predict what specific matchups will be meaningful in November and December is fruitless, but here are eight aspects of the slate that already stand out:
The most anticipated Week 1 game isn’t the Giants vs. Cowboys.
While there is great history in this NFC East rivalry, the NFL could have opted for a more attractive matchup pitting its past two champions — Green Bay (Super Bowl XLV) vs. New York (Super Bowl XLVI). There would be added intrigue from the Giants upsetting the Packers in the 2011 playoffs en route to capturing the Lombardi Trophy.
The NFL, though, also knows that the opening game will garner monster television ratings from football-starved fans even if the Giants were hosting, say, lowly Cleveland like in Week 5 (Oct. 7). That’s why the league booked Packers-Giants for Week 12 (Nov. 25, a Sunday night) as a surefire draw later in the season. The league couldn’t have positioned a game more perfectly to lure fans wanting to plop in front of the TV at the conclusion of the first holiday shopping weekend.
Unfortunately, a rematch of the amazing NFC Championship Game between New York and San Francisco wasn’t a Week 1 option. The NFL always has the defending Super Bowl champion open at home, and the Giants are set to travel to San Francisco in what will be a Week 6/Oct. 14 kickoff on FOX.
The more appealing Week 1 contest: Pittsburgh at Denver on Sept. 9 (Sunday night). This will mark the regular-season debut of Peyton Manning for the Broncos in a rematch of last year’s first-round playoff game.
Speaking of Manning . . .
What was once the NFL’s top interdivisional rivalry — Indianapolis vs. New England — no longer carries such cache.
In a scheduling quirk, the Colts and Patriots are set to meet for the 10th consecutive year in the regular season. Those games and playoff meetings were always a must-see when two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks — Manning and Tom Brady — were on opposite sides of the field.
But now that Manning has left the Colts for Denver, the Colts-Patriots rivalry has lost its luster. In all likelihood, Manning replacement Andrew Luck is going to take his lumps in this Week 11 game (Nov. 18) in Foxborough, Mass.
And yes, a 1 p.m. ET kickoff is scheduled for what likely will be a regional telecast.
As for the next installment of Manning vs. Brady, that takes place when the Patriots host Denver in Week 5/Oct. 7.
Does the NFL have a saturation point?
We’ll find out if the weekly Thursday night games that begin in Week 2 with Chicago vs. Green Bay aren’t a television ratings smash or drag down the numbers of other telecasts, particularly on Monday nights when the product isn’t attractive enough to mainstream fans (think Baltimore vs. Jacksonville or St. Louis vs. Seattle in 2011).
However, the additional Thursday night games will accomplish two things: A) All teams now are guaranteed at least one prime-time television appearance; B) Cable television providers that don’t carry NFL Network now will be under even more pressure to add the channel from subscribers who want to see those contests.
It could have been worse for the New Orleans Saints.
The franchise has placed itself in the awkward position of using two interim head coaches during the regular season as Sean Payton sits out because of his involvement in the Saints bounty scandal. Joe Vitt has assumed the duties for now, but he too will be suspended for the first six games as bounty-related punishment.
It’s unknown which New Orleans assistant will serve as head coach during that stretch or when he will take over for Vitt. Regardless of whenever the transition occurs, the Saints got a break by getting to host Washington in the Week 1 opener rather than one of the more battle-tested opponents on the schedule.
The Redskins likely will be fielding a rookie starting quarterback making his NFL debut (Robert Griffin III) or, if he’s not ready, the perpetually inconsistent Rex Grossman. New Orleans also will receive a boost from a Saints-crazed crowd that helps provide the NFL’s top home-field advantage. Both elements will make it easier for whoever is on the Saints sideline to run the show.
“Tebow Time” truly begins Sept. 9.
That’s when the New York Jets open the season against visiting Buffalo and unveil their two-headed quarterbacking plan of Tebow and Mark Sanchez. The Jets’ first prime-time appearance isn’t scheduled until Week 5/Oct. 8 (Monday night) vs. Houston.
Philadelphia, Chicago and San Diego each was given five prime-time games despite failing to reach the playoffs in 2011.
The NFL did the Baltimore Ravens a disservice.
Counting the Monday night opener against Cincinnati on Sept. 10 and a Week 2 game at Philadelphia on Sept. 16, the Ravens open with four contests in a 17-day stretch.
Baltimore also is the only team that plays a Sunday night game (Week 3/Sept. 23 vs. New England) followed by one on Thursday night (Week 4/Sept. 27 vs. Cleveland). Even though both of those games are in Baltimore, the Ravens essentially will lose an entire day of preparation time while the Browns have added time to recover and game plan after a 1 p.m. Sept. 23 showdown against visiting Buffalo.
Such a whirlwind start will physically tax the Ravens more than any other team in the league early in the season. The scheduling also flies in the face of league-sponsored safety initiatives as concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL have grown to more than 1,200 former players.
If one game can spell the difference between reaching the playoffs or not, is it worth losing home-field advantage in exchange for boosting the bottom line?
That’s what the Buffalo Bills should be asking themselves with the league scheduling their Week 15/Dec. 16 game against Seattle in Toronto.
The Bills are 1-3 in the Rogers Centre since team owner Ralph Wilson struck a $78 million deal in 2008 for Buffalo to play one regular-season game there each year. The agreement has helped the Bills remain financially viable in one of the NFL’s smallest markets. But it also allows an opponent to escape the sometimes-frigid and always-raucous Orchard Park environment for a staler atmosphere inside a domed facility.
The Bills and Rogers Communications Media officials remain in negotiations to extend the series beyond the 2012 campaign.
On the bright side for Buffalo, the NFL schedule gave the Bills three December home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium against Jacksonville (Week 13/Dec. 2), St. Louis (Week 14/Dec. 9) and the New York Jets (Week 17/Dec. 30).