The 2017 NFL season is still more than four months away, but it seems a little more tangible now that the schedule has been released.
This year’s slate of 256 games is the one configuration chosen out of millions of computer-generated schedules. There are some parts of the schedule where teams get a raw deal but there are others where the pieces fit together so perfectly that it’s clear human minds have a huge influence in this process.
Week 2 is Revenge Week
There’s nothing like opening weekend of the NFL season, but in 2017 you won’t want to miss Week 2.
Five games feature players playing against their old teams or coaches coaching against their old teams.
Brandin Cooks will return to his old stomping grounds when the Patriots go to New Orleans. At this point it’s a toss-up which of those teams Malcolm Butler will be playing for or if he’s playing for either of them.
In Kansas City, Andy Reid will coach against the Eagles for the second time since he was fired after the 2012 season. His former offensive coordinator, Doug Pederson, coaches against the Chiefs for the first time. Jeremy Maclin and new teammate Bennie Logan will play against the Eagles for the first time. Nick Foles probably won’t play against his former team, but he’ll watch from the sideline after landing back in Philadelphia following one year in St. Louis and one year in Kansas City. This is a revenge game on so many levels.
Bruce Arians returns to Indianapolis for the first time since he was named Coach of the Year as the Colts’ interim coach in 2012.
Reid, Pederson and Arians all are old enough to be Sean McVay’s father. The former Redskins offensive coordinator is now the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL, and the 31-year-old will welcome to Los Angeles former star pupil Kirk Cousins and his teammates.
Bears quarterback Mike Glennon will make his barely awaited return to Tampa Bay and try to beat Jameis Winston, the guy he used to back up.
Then in Revenge Sunday’s grand finale, the Packers return to Atlanta on Sunday Night Football. They’ll try to make amends for the NFC championship game by ruining the opening of the Falcons’ new stadium.
Just like the beer that’s sure to be consumed by people watching these games on TV or in person, revenge will be best served cold.
AFC East heats up in December
The Patriots have won the last eight AFC East titles and 13 of the last 14. Perhaps the only way to make the divisional race interesting was to use a schedule in which teams could make a move in December.
Seven of this year’s 12 head-to-head AFC East games will be played after Thanksgiving. Five of the Patriots’ last six games are against division opponents. Four of the Bills’ last five games are against either the Dolphins or Patriots. The Jets, on the other hand, play five of their six division games in the first nine weeks of the season, with their only other divisional game being at New England in Week 17 when every game is a divisional game.
Patriots get playoff teams out of the way early
The Patriots face five teams that made the playoffs last season, three in the first seven weeks. Then after they play the Raiders at Mexico City in Week 11, they face just one playoff team after Thanksgiving.
Before fans of the other 31 teams shake their fist at the Patriots getting all the breaks again, let’s take a look at this schedule’s potential pitfalls.
The Patriots’ one game against a non-AFC East opponent in the last six weeks comes at Pittsburgh in Week 15. Considering the way the Patriots have crushed their division over the last decade and a half, the Steelers could be their toughest post-Thanksgiving opponent. Making that game even tougher is the fact that they’ll be at Miami on Monday Night Football six days earlier. That’s two road games in six days for the Patriots against their most formidable challengers last year in both the division and the conference.
Another challenge for the Patriots is the two-game road trip after their Week 9 bye. They go to Denver and then play the Raiders at Mexico City. They probably could fly from Denver to Mexico City to minimize their travel, but the Raiders get a bye before the Mexico City game and the Patriots don’t.
If anyone asks Bill Belichick whether this is a disadvantage, he’ll just say “We’re on to Mexico City.”
These Dolphins can fly
The Dolphins, who are the only AFC East team besides the Patriots to make the playoffs since 2010, have to deal with some rough seas early in the season.
After opening the year at home against the Buccaneers, they play the Chargers at Los Angeles in Week 2, visit the Jets in Week 3 and then play the Saints at London in Week 4. The Dolphins will be spanning eight time zones in less than three weeks and depending on their itinerary could be traveling roughly half the distance around the globe, and they don’t even get a bye after London.
Teams playing in London customarily get their bye the following week because of the travel strain, but the Dolphins waived that accommodation so their bye would come later in the season. So after London they host the Titans in Week 5 and travel to Atlanta to face the NFC champions in Week 6.
After Miami’s Week 11 bye, two of the next three games will be against the Patriots. The Dolphins’ second straight playoff berth won’t come easy.
Ravens get their wish
The Ravens also requested to play the week following their London game, which will be played against the Jaguars in Week 3.
Be careful what you wish for.
When the Ravens asked to play less than a week after arriving home from London, did they think about the possibility of the Steelers awaiting them and then traveling to the West Coast in Week 5?
Baltimore will host its most bitter division rival in Week 4. The Ravens better hope they can break down film on the plane, because that trip will shave precious hours off their preparation time for what traditionally is their most physically taxing matchup.
In Week 6, the Ravens play at Oakland. They better hope they don’t fly back to Baltimore with their season already in a Black Hole.
Easy road for Steelers?
The Steelers’ schedule is tied for the fifth-easiest in the NFL, according to CBSSports.com. Among teams that made the playoffs in 2016, the Steelers’ have the softest schedule. Those rankings are based on 2016 records and are calculated before the schedule comes out, however. Not every schedule is as easy or difficult as advertised because 2017 records won’t be the same as 2016 records.
That said, the Steelers’ schedule sets up pretty favorably. Three of their first four games are on the road, but in Week 4 they play at Baltimore against a Ravens team that will be coming off its trip to London. The Steelers don’t face a 2016 playoff team until they go to Kansas City in Week 6 and only two of their first 10 games are against teams that reached the postseason last year.
The Steelers face three playoff teams after Thanksgiving, hosting the Packers in Week 12, the Patriots in Week 15 and going to Houston on Christmas Day in Week 16. That AFC title game rematch is preceded by a Monday-night game at Cincinnati in Week 13 and a home game against the Ravens in Week 14. The Steelers’ schedule theoretically gets a little more challenging later in the season, but five of their last seven games are at home.
No prime-time games for Browns, Jaguars
If teams don’t like playing on Thursday nights, apparently all they have to do is tank.
Not that the Browns (1-15) and Jaguars (3-13) tanked last season. But since 2012, every team has played at least one Thursday-night game per season. The Browns and Jaguars have been excused from that requirement this year. The futility of both franchises might not have been the only factor in this scheduling wrinkle. Perhaps both teams are avoiding the dreaded four-day turnaround in exchange for playing games in London this year. It’s an interesting conspiracy theory.
Not only will the Browns and Jaguars not play a Thursday-night game, but neither team plays any prime-time games. It’s the first time the Browns won’t be in prime time since 2010, according to CBSSports.com, and the first time the Jaguars have been left out of prime time since the franchise was established in 1995.
There’s always a chance one of these teams could be flexed to Sunday Night Football beginning in Week 5, but it would take a dramatic turnaround for that to happen.
Giants, Packers face toughest starts
The first question on a lot of minds when the schedule came out was what did the Giants do to upset the scheduling committee?
The Giants open at Dallas for the third straight year and then host Detroit on Monday Night Football in Week 2. They’re one of just two teams that faces 2016 playoff teams in the first two weeks of the season. The Packers’ first two games are even more daunting. They host old friend Eddie Lacy and Seattle in Week 1 and go to Atlanta in Week 2. That will give them a chance to avenge their two NFC championship game losses in the last three seasons.
Wentz vs. Goff in Week 14?
Assuming Jared Goff can hold onto the starting job, the top two picks of the 2016 NFL draft could face off in Week 14 when Carson Wentz and the Eagles visit the Rams in Los Angeles.
Even though Wentz has his career off to a promising start, there’s no guarantee he’ll still be the Eagles’ starting quarterback in Week 14. A lot can happen between now and then, but Wentz will have an opportunity to continue his development with just two games against playoff teams before the Eagles’ Week 10 bye.
It gets a little harder after the bye with the Eagles going to Dallas. Unless the Rams surprise some people, that game in L.A. will be a nice respite for the Eagles amid a demanding five-game stretch to close out the season. The Eagles will be at Seattle the week before, then after playing the Rams they’ll finish their three-game road trip against the Giants. They return home to play the Raiders on Christmas night and host the Cowboys on New Year’s Eve. The Eagles are the only team to face three different playoff teams in the final three weeks of the season.
Wentz better be up to the task, because his honeymoon will be over by then.
NFC South could come down to December
Even more so than the AFC East, the NFC South’s division games are weighted toward the end of the season.
It will be tough for any NFC South team to run away with the division since eight of the 12 games between teams in the division will be played after Thanksgiving. The NFC South is the only division that will play nothing but intra-divisional games in both Week 16 and Week 17.
It turns out that the NFL’s two reigning conference champions are the only teams that face five divisional opponents in their last six games, and the Falcons are the only NFL team that plays its last four games in the division. It might seem like a cakewalk for the Falcons after what they go through in the middle of the season.
Falcons must navigate brutal midseason stretch
The Falcons don’t have to go to New England for the traditional Thursday-night season opener against the defending Super Bowl champions. It would have rubbed salt in the wound of their Super Bowl LI collapse.
They still have to go to New England at some point, though, and that trip starts a rough stretch. The Week 7 matchup on Sunday Night Football will be the first of three straight road games. Atlanta follows that with games at the Jets and at Carolina. The Falcons come home for a week to face the Cowboys, then go to Seattle on Monday Night Football.
That leg of the Falcons’ schedule will be a significant hurdle in their quest to return to the Super Bowl and take care of unfinished business.