Just days after a new found sense of optimism and distinct possibility regarding a new labor agreement looked certain, the NFL took two steps backward earlier this month, after reports began to circulate regarding a shortened eight-game regular season whilst the lockout still trudges on.
The news comes as a shock to some—especially those who lived in hope of free agent chatter and the usual training camp banter that consumes the months of June to August—but it also spoils the plans of the NFL's regular season schedule, another shot in the arm for fans.
Right now, if the NFL really does cut itself short eight weeks premature, some will undoubtedly say that this year's Super Bowl winner in Indianapolis is tainted.
Still, if this really does happen—and you know, previously below .500 teams actually have a shot at getting lucky thanks to the schedule—there's every chance that the 2011 season could be all the more worthwhile, even with the conference title games taking place just two months down the track from November.
Nevertheless, there's a bunch of games that will be missed, and it's a shame too. The variety of this year's schedule originally left NFL fans with a handful of classic games but also, a select group of cross conference fixtures, or at the very least, some exciting big stage debuts for previously struggling teams.
So, we've compiled a list of the most missed games of a shortened, dimmed down, eight game regular season. (**Note: this list includes games from Weeks 1-8, as an eight-game regular season would take place as early as late November)
It's not so much that this match up is old or even classic, although it obviously is. It's that this year's Monday Night Football encounter between Oakland and Denver would have been much different, especially for one or two people in particular.
If the regular season were to go to plan, both Hue Jackson and John Fox would be taking the sideline for the first time as respective head coaches. It's not as monumental as say, Mike Shanahan's return to coaching, but it would've been the perfect plateau for two of the leagues more interesting and intriguing AFC West teams, even if neither is a certainty to crack a winning schedule anytime soon.
Of course, Fox and Jackson will get to make their debuts sometime or other. On the other hand, this original rivalry game may have highlighted some of the Broncos remaining problems, especially at quarterback, running back and on defense.
Then again, with no training camp underway just yet, Denver is still twisted at the quarterback position, a spot Fox perhaps hopes to solve someday soon. This Monday night game also would've marked the debut for rookie linebacker Von Miller, but that may be delayed.
Oakland, well, things aren't quite as loose for Jackson as they are for Fox. Jason Campbell looks to be the starter, and although Nnamdi Asomugha likes to play guess who with his potential free agent status, the Raiders' 11th ranked defense in 2010 is far from a concern.
There was a lot of new and shiny things to look forward to, and it wasn't going to take place on some sunny Sunday afternoon in Denver either. Oakland at Denver on Monday night would have, and should have, set the tone for the AFC West.
There was a lot to like about the Eagles last year, and not much has changed.
There was also a lot to like about the Falcons last year, and not much has changed.
In Week 2, both Philadelphia and Atlanta are set to meet inside the Georgia Dome on Sunday Night Football. There aren't quite as many new and exciting factors to watch as there are between Oakland and Denver, but for me, it's the quarterback play between Michael Vick and Matt Ryan that hands down makes this matchup worthwhile.
Vick is supposed to be better than ever this season. In fact, the entire Eagles team is supposed to be too. But for once, this isn't the same Eagles team we have seen in year's past, and that's probably due to the defensive focus employed by owner Jeffrey Lurie in this year's draft.
Philadelphia played the sensible card and selected Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round. The Eagles also drafted Curtis Marsh and three brand new linebackers, one of which was Casey Matthews.
That's not to say that all of these guys would be on the field in Week 2. Yet it is to say, that the Eagles 15th ranked defense in 2010 will be that much better—and that's a big plus against the Falcons.
Obviously, Atlanta play the Georgia Dome well. The Packers uncovered their secrets in the NFC Divisional game last year, though, so it's not totally beyond a strong offensive team like the Eagles, or any NFC team for that matter.
The Falcons do have some minor issues with strong competition though, and that's relevant in Atlanta's 31-17 loss in Philadelphia last season.
This time, home field advantage would have been flipped. The key word is "would."
The Packers made their way toward a fourth Super Bowl ring by beating this same Chicago Bears team, even though it may not have been altogether pretty. So it's no surprise to see the NFL schedule the Packers and Bears as early as Week 3 in the season, to truly establish the tempo in the NFC North, or if nothing else, the Packers possible march toward repeating.
If we learned anything from the NFC Championship Game, it's that this rivalry has become entirely defensive. Okay, so Rodgers and company did pile on a few points. And so did the Bears. But the majority of game changing plays came from the likes of Brian Urlacher, and of course B.J Raji, who recorded an uncharacteristic interception with under six minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
This time, though, both teams are much stronger. In fact, if anything, the Packers are that much scarier, while the Bears are that much more determined to make a possibly shortened seasons theirs, although the Detroit Lions can't be taken for granted.
In the draft, Green Bay typically weren't full of surprises in terms of positions targeted. Ted Thompson chose to reinforce the offensive line, and even add some depth at wide receiver and running back. The Bears on the other hand, basically did the same with as little draft picks as Chicago had -- and if nothing else, watching former Wisconsin lineman Gabe Carimi suit up against the Packers is one of many big moments in this rivalry.
Definitely, it would have been close. It always is.
Away from that, a trip to Chicago for the defending champions so early in the season, still would have been a test.
If the AFC has delivered anything in the past few years, it's a variety of rival games that never seem to disappoint.
For the record, the Jets and the Ravens may never be bitter rivals, ever. And perhaps even the word "rival" is a little too hasty in this case, and better suited to say, the Patriots and the Colts. But when the NFL stitches up two AFC playoff competitors like this, it seems that the game automatically intensifies tenfold.
Perhaps the exciting part of this game, is again, quarterback play. Mark Sanchez struggled last season in Week 1 against the Ravens, passing for just 74 yards and nothing else but a doughnut in the touchdown column. The critics had a field day, labeling the Jets as early season no-hopers. But Joe Flacco had a fluorescent glow, as he passed for 248 yards -- and slightly made people believe that Baltimore were the full quid.
Unlike a lot of other AFC clashes, this one was likely to be choc full of offense. Not because of the quarterbacks either, because Ray Rice also has a chip on his shoulder after rushing for just five touchdowns last season.
The Jets and the Ravens won't meet again next season, unless it's in the playoffs. Yet another potential big match up gone by the wayside.
The Chicago Bears are used to the big stage, they've been there, and done it plenty of times before. But the Detroit Lions, well, Jim Schwartz's team has become comfortable with Sunday afternoon games away from the limelight, that is, up until this season.
If the lockout is really determined, which it appears to be, this looks to be the biggest downer of the season. After nearly ten years of babysteps and rebuilding phases that have included endless drafts, injuries and even blown touchdown calls, if there's anything the Detroit Lions have earned, it's a Monday Night Football time slot against NFC North rivals, Chicago.
But that may not happen now.
The Lions haven't played on a Monday night since 2001. They were blown out and kept scoreless 31-0 against the St. Louis Rams, and that pretty much tells you why the NFL has been hesitant to go back on their decision.
Still, this is the letdown of all letdown's as far as the regular season schedule is concerned. The beauty of this possible match up was its interest, even from neutral fans, as Ford Field hasn't seen a Monday night game, ever.
The final kick in the belly is the fact that the Lions second half schedule is no where near kind. Detroit ends their season at Lambeau Field against the Packers, while earlier games include a trip to New Orleans, Oakland and a home game against San Diego.
A shortened season definitely doesn't make it easier for some teams.
Week 6 sees one of few occasions where the schedule is loaded with top quality games. The Vikings play the Bears in Chicago, the Saints take on the Buccaneers in an NFC South show down in Tampa Bay, while the Dolphins also play the Jets on Monday Night in New York.
That's why this decision was so hard, but the Cowboys visit to New England perhaps marks the time where two of America's teams go head to head, and for once, it isn't in Jerry Jones' world either.
As far as cross conference games go, this one would be tough to beat. Week 6 last year saw both Dallas and New England at different ends of the drawing board, as the Cowboys were reeling behind a mountain of uncharacteristic mistakes, followed by a collarbone injury to Tony Romo later in the year.
That doesn't matter anymore, though. If one thing was to be expected from this encounter, it was the showdown between wide receiver and cornerback, as Patriots' rookie Devin McCourty recorded seven interceptions and two forced fumbles last year.
On the other side is Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. With Roy Williams seemingly out of touch and undoubtedly fizzled with the game at the moment, Bryant seems intent to avoid the second year blues. He also looks to crack the 1000+ yard mark, and the odds are favorable with Tony Romo returning healthy and fresh.
Finally, let's not forget the unfamiliarity between Dallas and New England. In 2007 the Patriots walloped the Cowboys 48-27 at Texas Stadium, but it's a different ball game at Foxboro, in front of arguably one of the most hostile crowds in the league.
Another potential Super Bowl match up left in the dust.
The New Orleans Saints were a modern day champion. They were a team, kind of like the Dallas Mavericks, but with a few superstars, one of which was named Drew Brees among them.
Honestly, this game deserved to take place last season, but it just didn't happen. Colts fans, and perhaps even Peyton Manning for that matter, have been out for revenge against the Saints since giving away the Super Bowl in 2009, but Indianapolis hasn't had so much as a chance.
The NFL took a slight detour before offering fans this game, yet it's finally here -- at least for the time being. Both teams remain noticeably different since they met in Super Bowl XLIV, though, and after a season that perhaps saw Peyton Manning take on way too much of the Colts work load (injuries also must be taken into account), Indianapolis is no longer the guaranteed trigger-pull safe pick in the AFC South.
But neither are the Saints for that matter, and that is what makes this game so intriguing. New Orleans was tested, or rather, pushed to their limits last season by the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints then went backward in the playoffs against the Seahawks, and now find themselves with Mark Ingram on their hands, and Reggie Bush possibly out.
Overall, aside from all of the other knooks and crannies in this game, it's the competition behind (or in front of) both Indianapolis and New Orleans that would make this game so important. The Colts have the Jaguars, and of course the Texans to worry about. And the Saints also have the Buccaneers eager for a playoff berth.
That all changes if it is an eight game regular season, mind you. But like so many other fixtures, this game could or would have changed the landscape of the AFC South and the NFC South, simply thanks to how tight each division is.
This game isn't on the list just because it is always highly anticipated, or even because it has become a mild AFC rivalry recently. It's on here, because for the first time in years, the Steelers would have been watched from all four corners this season to see if any signs of a Super Bowl hangover are present.
Given, that by Week 8, we would know whether or not Pittsburgh are true contenders, any match up against New England is sure to prove a few things.
One, would be the running game, as Rashard Mendenhall was left helpless last season in Week 10, as he managed only 50 yards against the Patriots 11th rank rush defense. Two, is defense, as Tom Brady tore the Steelers a part last season for 350 yards and three touchdowns. And finally, three, is to actually take advantage of home turf, as Brady has won four of his five career games at Heinz Field.
But then again, all of those factors would matter if this game wasn't left off the schedule due to the lockout.
Realistically, the most disappointing thing about missing this affair is the simplest things, like quarterback play, solid defense and a packed house at Heinz Field. Let's face it, it's a classic match up. Tom Brady vs. Ben Roethlisberger only happens every so often. And it's occurring in one of the NFL's most iconic stadiums.
Perhaps, it's almost as if the Red Sox went an entire season without playing the Yankees, but without the endless decades of rivalry. Fans deserve to see this game, because it's never going to happen in the Super Bowl. And now, there's a chance it may not happen this season as well.