Analyzing the NFL schedule: Is your team Super Bowl XLIX bound?
The NFL’s regular season won’t begin until September 4, but the first score is already on the board.
Television Viewers 7, Ticket Holders 0.
Along with Wednesday’s release of the 2014 schedule came news that the NFL can begin using its flexible scheduling system six weeks earlier than before. The league and one of its network partners (NBC) can now “flex” two of the six Sunday night games between Weeks 5 and 10 to ditch less-attractive matchups in favor of better ones.
For the large majority of NFL fans who watch games from home, this is great news. It’s better football from the couch.
For those who actually attend the games, it’s another story altogether.
While there will be some ticket-holders thrilled about the potential of a prime-time matchup, there are plenty who understandably consider such moves as a major inconvenience. Not everyone loves night games — especially if you have to get up for work early Monday morning, take your kids with you or attend in cities where traffic is a major concern. In fact, as I write this, I’m still in a bumper-to-bumper jam after leaving a 2013 New England Patriots game in Foxboro.
Trying to make set plans for non-football functions on the Sunday of home games now becomes even riskier starting in early October. The situation is even worse for out-of-town fans who want to attend a scheduled Sunday afternoon game and fly back that same night.
The NFL already is asking a lot from its season-ticket holders just to attend regularly scheduled Sunday afternoon games based upon the empty seats that often pop up on TV. There were only two local blackouts in 2013, which means home telecasts are virtually guaranteed. Attending games can cost a small fortune. The viewing experience is better on television. Tickets for subpar preseason contests are included in the season-ticket package cost. Intriguing matchups are sometimes moved overseas to London so the league can continue trying to establish an international presence and grow revenues.
With the increased possibility of kickoff-time roulette, I can understand why some fans would think season tickets just aren’t worth it anymore.
Some other thoughts on the 2014 NFL schedule:
X: “Strength of schedule” is a fun talking point but a weak way to guess which teams will make the playoffs.
Yes, the 2013 Denver Broncos and 2012 New England Patriots reached the AFC title games after facing the easiest slate of opponents based upon won-loss records from the previous season. But the Arizona Cardinals had that same luxury for the 2010 and 2011 campaigns and failed to reach the playoffs in either season.
Conversely, the 2013 Carolina Panthers faced the hardest schedule on paper – opponents had a combined winning percentage of .543 – and still won the NFC South title with a 12-4 mark. The 2012 Broncos also faced teams with a .543 winning percentage and finished with an even better 13-3 record.
The lesson: Too much can change in the NFL from year to year to put too much stock in how teams fared the previous season.
X: In case you were wondering, Indianapolis has the easiest “strength of schedule” lineup this season at .430 primarily because NFC South foes Houston (2-14) and Jacksonville (4-12) were so dreadful in 2013. Oakland has the toughest strength of schedule matchups with opponents posting a .578 winning percentage. That marks the NFL’s highest percentage since the 2009 Miami Dolphins played opponents with a .594 mark.
Oakland’s upcoming schedule features nine playoff opponents from last year including all three AFC West foes (Denver, San Diego and Kansas City) and the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks as well as an Arizona Cardinals squad that just missed the postseason with a 10-6 record. The Raiders also have two 1 p.m. ET kickoffs in the first three weeks of the season and must schlep back a whopping 5,362 air miles from London following a Week Four showdown with Miami.
That trip will feel even longer if Oakland loses.
X: The Raiders also will be involved in the game that will likely draw the largest stateside security presence when hosting San Francisco in Week 14 (Dec. 7).
Skirmishes between 49ers and Raiders fans for preseason matchups grew so intense and bloody that the series was cancelled in 2012. San Francisco will be playing on the other side of the Bay in the regular season for the first time since 2002.
Even with the short trip to Oakland, the 49ers are set to log 19,758 travel miles for the 2014 season.
X: The sporting world will be talking NFL rather than turkey on Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 27) with a loaded three-game schedule of Chicago at Detroit, Philadelphia at Dallas and Seattle at San Francisco. This will mark the first time that an AFC team isn’t scheduled for Thanksgiving since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
While an impressive lineup of division games, the NFL could have honored two of its long-time team owners who passed away earlier this year (Ralph Wilson and William Ford) by scheduling a Buffalo Bills-Lions game at Ford Field.
X: The 49ers and Minnesota Vikings will be playing in new home stadiums. The regular-season unveiling of Levi’s Stadium will come in Week 2 when San Francisco hosts Chicago on Sunday Night Football (Sept. 14).
As their new stadium is being constructed, the Vikings begin a two-year stay at TCF Bank Stadium at the University of Minnesota in Week 2 against New England. But with Minnesota playing home games in an outdoor facility for the first time since 1981 (excluding a one-game emergency stint following the collapse of the Metrodome roof in 2010), the more intriguing games could come as the temperatures plummet. Prepare to bring the parkas and gloves when the Vikings host Chicago in the Week 17 season-finale on Dec. 28.
X: Speaking of cold-weather cities, Bills players thought they would be getting a break when their annual game in Toronto got cancelled as the franchise and city officials try to fix what has become a disastrous “International” series. But the Bills won’t be able to use chilly conditions to their advantage in 2013. Buffalo plays three of its final four games on the road and the one December home contest comes in Week 15 against Green Bay (Dec. 14).
X: We now know when some high-profile players and head coaches will get the chance to face their former teams. The “grudge” games I’m looking forward to most involve wide receivers who were both released earlier this year from the only clubs they had ever played for. Baltimore’s Steve Smith gets his shot at Carolina in Week 4 (Sept. 28) and Washington’s DeSean Jackson gets two cracks at Philadelphia in Week 3 (Sept. 21) and Week 16 (Dec. 20).
X: Finally, there would be something missing if Peyton Manning and Tom Brady weren’t facing each other yet again. Round XVI of Manning vs. Brady takes place in Week 9 (Nov. 2) when Denver plays at New England.