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Here are a few things to look forward to when the NFL returns this fall
Super Bowl XLVIII is still more than nine months away, but the path to play in MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2, 2014 has been laid out for all 32 NFL teams. The 2013 NFL regular season will officially kick off on Thursday, Sept. 5, and that matchup was just one several things that caught our attention.
1. Defending World Champion Ravens Hit the Road
It’s bad enough that Baltimore, the defending Super Bowl champions, have to open on the road because of a scheduling conflict with its MLB brethren, the Orioles. But to open defense of said title in Denver, the site of where the Ravens’ remarkable postseason run began? Like the saying goes, “heavy is the head that wears the crown.”
2. Peyton Manning’s “Old Friends and Family Tour”
Speaking of the Broncos, one look at Denver’s schedule and you would think the NFL was setting him up for a farewell tour. For starters, he gets to open the season at home against Baltimore, the very team that ended his 2012 campaign in stunning fashion in January. The very next week, Manning and the Broncos go to New York to face younger brother Eli and the Giants.
A little more than a month later, Week 7 finds Denver in Indianapolis, allowing an NBC primetime audience that Sunday night the chance to see the Colts’ franchise quarterback of the past match up with the present, Andrew Luck. And if that’s not enough nostalgia for fans of No. 18, there’s the obligatory meeting with New England in Week 12, which also allows new Broncos target Wes Welker the chance to reacquaint himself with his former teammates, and a Week 14 visit to Nashville, Tenn., to face the Titans. Manning called Knoxville, Tenn., his home during his college days at the University of Tennessee, and his success on Rocky Top has carried over to when he’s faced (13-5 vs. Titans) his former AFC South rivals in his career.
3. 2012 Postseason Matchups, Take Two
Not only do we have rematches of both conference championship games on tap, but both are set for the same week and both will be in primetime. That’s right, Christmas will come a little early for NFL fans as Week 16’s slate features New England at Baltimore as the Sunday night game on Dec. 22 followed by Atlanta at San Francisco on Monday night. Even though there’s a chance playoff spots and perhaps even seeds could be settled by this point, you know these teams have this date already circled, especially the Patriots and Falcons.
The conference championship repeat tilts and the aforementioned Baltimore vs. Denver encore aren’t the only 2012 postseason matchups that will be revisited during the regular season either. San Francisco will start defense of its NFC championship by hosting Green Bay in Week 1, the same team the 49ers defeated 45-31 in last season’s NFC Divisional round. In fact all four divisional round matchups will take place again this season, as Seattle and Atlanta will face off in the Georgia Dome in Week 10, while Houston will get another crack at New England when the Patriots come calling in Week 13. And of course we’ll get two helpings of Green Bay against Minnesota, since the two are NFC North divisional foes.
The only thing that’s missing is a Super Bowl rematch between Baltimore and San Francisco, which also would have included the added element of former Raven wide receiver Anquan Boldin going up against his old team. Is it too late to revise the schedule?
4. Andy Reid Returns to the City of Brotherly Love
It had to happen, right? There was no way the NFL was going to pass up an opportunity to have Andy Reid return to Philadelphia as the visiting head coach. Whether you believe in conspiracy theories or not, the NFL has delivered. Reid will bring his Kansas City Chiefs to Philadelphia to face Chip Kelly’s new-look Eagles in Week 3. This game will take place on Thursday night, meaning not only will it kick off that week’s action, but it will be televised on, wait for it, the NFL Network. How’s that for synergy?
5. Chip Kelly Gets Used to Playing on Sundays
By the time Kelly makes his NFL head coaching debut his former team, the Oregon Ducks will have already played Nicholls State and Virginia. Instead of running up the score on a FBS team and an ACC school, Kelly will try to lead his Philadelphia team to victory over NFC East rival Washington in the first game of ESPN’s season-opening “Monday Night Football” doubleheader.
Kelly will play his first game at home the following Sunday against San Diego, which serves as the lead-in to the return of Andy Reid just four days later. The Week 3 Thursday slot does allow Kelly and his team the chance to catch their breaths and regroup, which is a good thing considering consecutive road games against Denver, the New York Giants and Tampa Bay are next on tap.
Then it’s back-to-back NFC East games against Dallas and the Giants along with another trip out west to face Oakland, a visit to Lambeau Field to take on Green Bay, and a second round with the Redskins before the Eagles go on bye in Week 12. Kelly will find out quickly that he’s not in the Pac-12 anymore.
6. Welcome to the NFL Coach!
Kelly won’t be the only one making his NFL head coaching debut come Week 1 either. Six other first-year head coaches were hired this offseason and similar to Kelly, the schedule-makers didn’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for them. Five of the six get to debut at home, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone gets New England as his opener, while San Diego’s Mike McCoy will welcome defending AFC South champion Houston to Qualcomm Stadium. Marc Trestman’s first game as Chicago’s head coach will come at Soldier Field against Cincinnati, while new Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley will host Andy Reid and Kansas City. Of all the first-year head coaches that open up at home, Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski probably got the kindest draw with Miami, who went 7-9 last season, on tap.
Like Kelly, new Arizona head coach Bruce Arians will make his head coaching debut on the road, as the Cardinals will be in St. Louis for an NFC West clash. If it’s any consolation to the new guys, they aren’t the only ones who drew tough opening assignments. Sean Payton, who was suspended all of last season for his role in the Saints’ bounty scandal, will return to the sidelines at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the first time in Week 1. And on the opponent will be none other than the Atlanta Falcons, defending NFC South champions and the team that tied Denver for best regular-season record (13-3) in 2012. Welcome back coach!
7. Don’t I Know You?
Thanks to free agency and other circumstances, Peyton Manning vs. Indianapolis, Wes Welker vs. New England and Ed Reed vs. Baltimore aren’t the only reunions we can look forward to seeing this season. For starters, the Denver-Baltimore season opener also means that new Raven Elvis Dumervil will not only try and sack Manning, his teammate last season, but show the Broncos the mistake they made in letting him get away in the first place.
New Minnesota wide receiver Greg Jennings will get not one, but two cracks at Green Bay, as the Vikings and Packers will square off in Weeks 8 and 12. Do you think the Packers fans will catch Jennings should he try to do a Lambeau Leap? On the flip side, Percy Harvin would like nothing more than to inflict some damage on the Vikings, when his former team comes to Seattle in Week 11. Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace will aim to do the same thing when Miami travels to Pittsburgh in Week 14. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson won’t have to wait nearly as long for his shot at his former team, as St. Louis will pay a visit to the Georgia Dome in Week 2.
These are not the only intriguing matchups that have been set up, and there could be even more depending on where remaining free agents such as Brian Urlacher, Dwight Freeney, Charles Woodson, John Abraham, Ahmad Bradshaw and Jerome Harrison end up. In other words, there could be even more stops added to the 2013 Payback Tour.
8. Must-See TV
Even though the NFL is America’s most popular and most watched sport, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a perceived pecking order when it comes to TV real estate. While “Monday Night Football” is the most recognizable time slot, the Sunday night game on NBC and, to a degree, the NFL Network’s Thursday night game also have to be in the discussion when it comes to broadcast assignments.
To that end, expect to see a lot of Atlanta, Denver, New England, the New York Giants, San Francisco and Washington in primetime this season. Each of these teams has five appearances scheduled across the three networks. The NFL Network is the most generous when it comes to its Thursday Night slate, as no team is scheduled to make multiple appearances.
On the other hand, the NBC slate of games has a distinct NFC East feel to it, as Dallas, the Giants and Washington have a collective eight appearances scheduled, while Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh and San Francisco also will each be featured more than once. The 49ers, Falcons and Redskins are also slated to play twice on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football,” as are the Bears, Chargers, Dolphins and Seahawks.
As it is currently constructed, only six teams – Arizona, Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Tennessee – are scheduled for only one primetime appearance during the regular season. What do these teams have in common? None made the playoffs last season and, other than the Titans, all have new head coaches this season.
9. Thanksgiving Day Trifecta
Nothing goes better with turkey, dressing and all the trimmings than a side of football, and once again the NFL has obliged with a tasty Thanksgiving Day tripleheader. Traditional Thanksgiving Day host Detroit and NFC North rival Green Bay will get things started with two more of the league’s most historic franchises – Oakland and Dallas – set to follow. The football feast concludes later that night when bitter AFC North rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore clash. Can you think of a more appropriate ending to a day centered around friends, family and fellowship?
10. Does Strength of Schedule Matter?
According to the NFL, Carolina has the toughest 2013 regular-season schedule, as the Panthers’ opponents posted a combined record of 138-116-2 (.543) last season. Why do the Panthers, who went 7-9 themselves in 2012, have the toughest slate? For starters, they are in the same division as Atlanta (13-3 in ‘12), and this season play the NFC West and AFC East in crossover action. Those divisions are home to playoff participants New England, San Francisco and Seattle, who went a combined 34-13-1 last season.
Teams have no control whatsoever who they play each season, as the NFL determines the schedule based on a rotating schedule that relates to crossover divisional play and other factors. The question then becomes does this so-called strength of schedule calculation matter?
We may find out this season, as expected contenders such as Green Bay, San Francisco, Seattle, New England and Atlanta rank among the top half of teams in terms of strength of schedule, while the New York Giants, Dallas and Houston are among the teams with the weakest schedules. And believe it or not, but the team that drew the least difficult draw based on this formula is none other than the Denver Broncos, the defending AFC West champions who went 13-3 last season.
Using the NFL’s formula is just one way to analyze the perceived difficulty of a team’s schedule. Click here for another take on this same exercise.