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Random Thoughts on the 2011 NFL Schedule

We already know the matchups, but it’s cool to see the primetime pairings, dream about that opening matchup (and hope it isn’t lost to the lockout) and see which dome teams drew the short straw in December on the road. Before I get to some discussion, I want to say that even though I could take or leave the two hour show breaking down the schedule, I really like what they have over at nfl.com for the schedule release, with a map showing the country and the path between each game by week or by team highlighted. I found it well laid out and user friendly. Now to some completely random thoughts.

Three Intriguing Lesser Known Primetime Games: Yes, New England and Indianapolis meet in primetime again, this time in early December. Pittsburgh and New England, Baltimore and the Jets, all the division rivalries such as that must-see Ravens-Steelers Sunday Night Game on November 6. But I’m just as interested in seeing other games, particularly prime time matchups that feature new teams and different matchups. Here’s some that caught my eye.

Indianapolis at Tampa Bay, Monday, October 3. Get ready for plenty of highlights from 2003, the last time Indianapolis was in Tampa Bay, also on Monday Night, and Manning led a huge comeback in the final minutes. Jon Gruden returns to the scene of the crime as the analyst, but I’m just as interested in seeing this young Bucs team that began to emerge last year with Josh Freeman in primetime.

Chicago at Detroit, Monday, October 10. The Lions are always on Thanksgiving, but it has been ten years since they appeared on Monday Night. I applaud ESPN for this one and trying to be ahead of the curve. This one has the Calvin Johnson game storyline from last year, a division rivalry, and (remembering the first Monday Night game the Chiefs got in the Peterson era after a decade of anonymity) I suspect that Ford Field will be rocking as Detroit fans take out a decade of frustration in primetime, with their chief protagonist there with ESPN. Let’s hope Matthew Stafford’s shoulder makes it this far.

San Francisco at Baltimore, Thursday, November 24. The good news is that Jim and John Harbaugh will be able to spend Thanksgiving together. The bad news, they will have to be getting ready for a game against each other. San Fran is a major wildcard this year–they seemed at times so much better than they showed last year, and Baltimore will be really good. This one has the potential to have more storylines than the two coaches by game time.

Schedule Strength, What Is It Good For? Absolutely nothing, right? Well, it depends on what you look at. There is some correlation in year to year records, and it improves if you look at things like underlying efficiency, point differential, and adjust for the strength of the previous year’s schedule. Getting too specific team by team can be counterproductive, because one or two teams collapsing or emerging can turn a weak schedule into a good one. However, we know some teams last year had easier and harder schedules. Take my Chiefs, who went 10-6 against a weak schedule and were closer to an average team. If they and all their opponents play similar to last year, the Chiefs would go 6-10 or 7-9–games against the four conference championship teams plus New England in a stretch appear brutal. That the same team can go 10-6 with a completely different schedule shows how easy the schedule was last year comparatively. KC will either need to improve, or have their schedule lighten up by opponents regressing as a group in 2o11, or they will appear to drop off, when in fact it may all be schedule driven.

Detroit is in the opposite boat. Tough schedule last year, and even though relying on just opponent W-L record says it is hard again, if you put the Lions results and their opponents ratings into this year, they go somewhere between 8-8 and 9-7. If Best, Stafford, and company can come on after injuries, and Suh can continue to emerge as a star, the Lions will have a chance.

West Coast Teams Going Coast to Coast: This is the year that West Coast teams have to travel cross-country even moreso than normal, as the NFC West plays the NFC East and AFC North (all of whom are in the Eastern time zone) and the AFC West plays the AFC East and NFC North. While we knew that ahead of time, we didn’t know the time slots or who might get prime time games. Teams traveling west to east and playing in early games tend to be at a disadvantage, so it matters. San Diego got several primetime matchups and late time slots and only have one game currently scheduled for 1 pm on Sunday. The others, not so much. Oakland and Arizona both play 6 times at 1 pm on Sunday, San Francisco and Seattle play 5 games at that slot, and Denver plays 4.

Dome Teams Going Cold: Indianapolis drew the short straw this year. They had only 3 potential cold weather games on the road slate, and two of them are in December (at New England and Baltimore). Games against Green Bay and Chicago won’t be easy any time, but if you are Atlanta and New Orleans, I think you are glad to be going there in week 1 in September rather than in December.

[photo via Getty]

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