2011 NFL Schedule: 16 Games To Circle on the Calendar
In an era of professional sports where real rivalries are dying or in decline all over the place—and many remaining rivalries are more invention than organic—the NFL deserves credit for doing the best among America's four major sports in cultivating bad blood that is at least believable.
Part of the NFL's winning blueprint? Strategic scheduling.
It's no accident that the Patriots and Colts still hook up at least once a year, despite having been realigned in separate divisions. It wasn't a random act of chance that the Packers and Saints cross paths this season at the same time when Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are snatching the NFC's elite quarterback torch from the gnarled fingers of Brett Favre. (Those two surpassed Favre a while ago, but it's symbolic now with Favre's retirement.)
And given the events of the past week or so, don't be surprised if NFL Network has a camera ready for the first awkward training-camp meeting between Steelers teammates James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger.
This is not the NBA or NHL, where every team plays each other no matter what and the schedule-makers just have to make the right dates. It's not even MLB, where every team plays those within its league several times a year and interleague contests are more novelty than rivalry-building. Often times, the NFL has to make its marquee matchups happen.
With prospects improving for an imminent end to the NFL lockout, it appears safe to look forward to the 2011 season. And while the players will be starting behind the curve, the schedule isn't going anywhere. So ready or not, the games are coming.
Here are 16 games on the schedule worth an appointment viewing:
Week 1: Saints at Packers
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Sept. 8, NBC, 8:30 p.m. EST
The main event. The season opener. The grown man's substitute for the first day of school. The unofficial national holiday.
Aaron Rodgers and the defending Super Bowl champions kick off the season that many people worried wouldn't happen by hosting Drew Brees and the champs from the previous year. Green Bay will celebrate its shiny new trophy, while New Orleans presumably won't settle for being a party favor.
Who will be the Packers' featured running back? Will Reggie Bush still be on the Saints roster by Opening Night? Is the New Orleans defense still shell-shocked from Marshawn Lynch treating them like a barrel of wine grapes? Has Charles Woodson decided to start aging? Did Roman Harper finally land that Just For Men endorsement gig? How many wild grizzly bears did Clay Matthews wrestle into submission over the summer?
So many questions...
Week 1: Steelers at Ravens
Geoff Burke/Getty Images
Sept. 11, CBS, 1 p.m.
If Thursday night's Packers/Saints opener feels too much like a carnival exhibition, then Ravens/Steelers on Sunday morning will be the first "real" football game to bring back fans who have been disillusioned by the lockout.
Two of the nastiest defenses in the league, Hall of Fame players on both sides and arguably the most bitter rivalry in pro sports played out in a historic football town. If you can't get back into the NFL after this game, you may be gone for good.
Week 2: Eagles at Falcons
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Sept. 18, NBC, 8:20 p.m.
Michael Vick returns to Atlanta, this time as a starting QB and leader of an NFC contender. Vick had his first Atlanta homecoming in '09, but saw only spot duty—producing two touchdowns on just a handful of snaps—in an Eagles blowout.
Last season when the Falcons visited Philadelphia, Vick was out with an injury. Now both teams are defending division champs, and both offenses are among the league's most explosive. Between Vick, Matt Ryan, LeSean McCoy, Michael Turner, DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones (not to mention Jackson and Eric Weems returning kicks), expect a lot of points to go up on the board.
Week 3: Packers at Bears
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Sept. 25, FOX, 4:15 p.m.
Don't forget that during Aaron Rodgers' superstar-making playoff run, Chicago was the only defense that made him look human. Rodgers threw two picks in the NFC Championship game and posted a passer rating of 55.4—somewhere in the Jimmy Clausen/Joey Harrington range.
And if Jay Cutler hadn't suffered the Knee Injury Mocked Around The World, the Bears could've been the team getting fitted for Super Bowl rings.
Week 4: Colts at Buccaneers
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Oct. 3, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
After opening the schedule with three uniquely tough opponents—Houston, Cleveland and Pittsburgh—the Colts go on the road for a Monday Night Football meeting with the up-and-coming Bucs.
This game should reveal how much of a championship window Peyton Manning and Co. still have, and whether a young Tampa Bay squad is for real after last season's surprising 10-6 finish.
Week 6: Browns at Raiders
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Oct. 16, CBS, 4:05 p.m.
Two teams who have been AFC doormats for most of the last decade are ready to become dangerous.
Peyton Hillis is the guy on the Madden cover, but Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden and left tackle Joe Thomas shouldn't be overlooked as standout talents, and Colt McCoy has been pegged as the team's quarterback of the future. The Raiders have their own playmakers in halfback Darren McFadden, receiver/returner Jacoby Ford, quarterback Jason Campbell and D-lineman Richard Seymour.
For Oakland, this game falls in the middle of a five-game stretch of schedule that includes the Jets, Patriots, Texans and Chiefs that will set the tone of their season. For Cleveland, this game comes after a bye week, the precursor to a favorable stretch that includes the Seahawks, 49ers, Texans, Rams, Jaguars and Bengals.
Week 8: Patriots at Steelers
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Oct. 30, CBS, 4:15 p.m.
Whenever two of the AFC's holy trinity of the past decade—Steelers, Patriots and Colts—face off, it promises to at least be entertaining.
Last season, Tom Brady hung 350 yards and three TDs on the Steelers on their own field, nullifying a 387-yard, three-TD effort from Ben Roethlisberger in a shootout where both teams combined for 39 points in the fourth quarter.
Week 8: Chargers at Chiefs
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Oct. 31, ESPN, 8:30 p.m.
If you're not out partying on Halloween, your Monday Night Football matchup pits the two best teams in the AFC West against each other in a pivotal game that could be big in deciding playoff positioning down the road.
Kansas City beat San Diego on MNF last season in Week 1, in which Dexter McCluster's 94-yard punt return TD proved to be the difference. In the Week 14 rematch, the Chiefs didn't have QB Matt Cassell and they got destroyed, putting together one of the worst offensive performances in recent memory.
Week 9: Packers at Chargers
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Nov. 6, FOX, 4:15 p.m.
Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver air it out against the reigning best pass defense in the NFL, led by safety Eric Weddle and cornerback Quentin Jammer.
The Chargers allowed 177.8 passing yards per game last season, No. 1 in the league, and their 47 sacks tied for second place. The Packers' passing game put up 272.2 yards each week and totaled 31 touchdowns, fifth-best in the NFL.
Week 9: Ravens at Steelers
Nick Laham/Getty Images
Nov. 6, NBC, 8:20 p.m.
If the Ravens and Steelers played 16 times a year, you should watch all 16 times. This go-round, we'll know more about each team and where they fit into the AFC title picture.
Throw in the possibility of November snow, and the only thing that could make this game better would be putting mikes on Ray Lewis and James Harrison and broadcasting the thing on HBO.
Week 10: Titans at Panthers
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Nov. 13, CBS, 1 p.m.
If the Panthers are planning at all to bring No. 1 draft pick Cam Newton along at a reasonable pace—i.e., not throwing him to the wolves immediately—their schedule doesn't provide too many ideally comfortable spots for him to be initiated as the team's starting quarterback.
In Week 1, Carolina is on the road in front of a hostile Arizona crowd (or as hostile as people in Glendale can get). Their home opener, in Week 2, is against defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay. Their next home game is against a mediocre Jacksonville squad, but that's followed by a three-game stretch against 2011 playoff teams Chicago, New Orleans and Atlanta.
The softest part of the schedule? Week 10, when Carolina is coming off a bye week and facing a Tennessee team that could be starting their own rookie QB in Jake Locker. If this game isn't Newton's first start, it will at least be a good opportunity to see him showcase his skills against an evenly matched opponent.
Other potential matchups to watch in this one: RB Chris Johnson vs. MLB Jon Beason, WR Steve Smith vs. CB Cortland Finnegan and the two first-year head coaches, Carolina's Ron Rivera vs. Tennessee's Mike Munchak.
Week 10: Patriots at Jets
Nov. 13, NBC, 8:20 p.m.
Outside of Steelers/Ravens, this is the NFL's most compelling division rivalry. Last season the Jets upset New England on the road in the playoffs, adding another layer of intrigue to the storylines involving Tom Brady, Mark Sanchez, Bill Belichick, Rex Ryan, Wes Welker and Darrelle Revis.
Plus, you can count on the New York and Boston media overhyping any and everything leading up to this game, making it inevitably feel like a big deal.
Week 12: Dolphins at Cowboys
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Nov. 24, CBS, 4:15 p.m.
Cowboys/Dolphins is being set up as the default main event of Thanksgiving Day.
Scheduled right in the middle of the day when families across the country will be in front of their TVs, this one has everything from mid-level mainstream celebrities (Tony Romo) to cartoonish corporate characters (Jerry Jones). It has incredible individual performers (Brandon Marshall, DeMarcus Ware) and young talents waiting for a national breakout (Dez Bryant). It has guys who can start a brawl (Channing Crowder) and guys who can finish one (360-pound Leonard Davis).
And it will be held in the overall ridiculous spectacle that is Cowboys Stadium, with a bombastic halftime show and the Cowboys cheerleaders and everything.
Week 13: Colts at Patriots
Dec. 4, NBC, 8:20 p.m.
The NFL's answer to Yankees vs. Red Sox, except in this version Brad Pitt plays shortstop for the Yankees and Johnny Depp pitches for the Red Sox.
Colts vs. Pats is our annual gauge of the Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady debate, and must-see TV even if the two headline stars aren't at the top of their game. How rare is that, though? In each their last five head-to-head meetings, at least one of the QBs threw for over 300 yards or three touchdowns.
Week 14: Vikings at Lions
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Dec. 11, FOX, 1 p.m.
Classic "unstoppable force meets immovable object" equation, as Adrian Peterson swaps helmet paint with Detroit's D-line hit squad of Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and rookie Nick Fairley.
Of course, Peterson isn't going in solo: Future Hall of Fame guard Steve Hutchinson and Pro Bowl tackle Bryant McKinnie will be blocking for him.
Week 16: Texans at Colts
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Dec. 22, NFL Network, 8:20 p.m.
A wild-card playoff spot, a first-round bye, an AFC South title...this game is going to be crucial in deciding something regarding the NFL postseason.
The up-and-coming Texans are ready to challenge for division supremacy, and aging Indy is just vulnerable enough to make it interesting. My prediction: Both teams go into this Week 16 matchup with near-identical records and a whole lot on the line.
The Colts have gone 5-1 against Houston over the last three seasons, but almost every one of those games has been close. How can the Colts keep their edge this year? By at least trying to contain Houston's run game. Arian Foster ripped Indy for 231 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in last season's Week 1 win for the Texans, but he was "held" to 102 yards in a Week 8 loss.