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NFL has Dolphins in prime focus; Falcons facing tougher schedule

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we peruse the NFL's just-released 256-game regular-season schedule....

Complete 2009 NFL team-by-team schedules

• The Dolphins look like the league's new favorite feel-good story, much like the NFL schedule-makers bestowed that title on Cleveland in 2008 with five prime-time games coming off its 10-win season in '07. The upstart Dolphins went 11-5 and won the AFC East in historic fashion last season, and they've been rewarded with four prime-time games -- including two home Monday nighters -- and the league's toughest opponents strength of schedule for their trouble (.594 winning percentage).

Miami won't sneak up on anybody this season, and Tony Sparano and Co. face a brutal eight-game stretch from Weeks 8-15 in which they play six-of-eight on the road. The Dolphins only home games during that stretch are Week 10 against the Bucs and a Week 13 matchup against the Patriots.

The Dolphins benefited from no prime-time games last season, playing for the most part in the relative obscurity of 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. But that's over, because Miami has those two Monday night games at home in the season's first five weeks, and it's at Carolina on a Thursday night in Week 11 and home against the Patriots on Sunday night in Week 13.

• The NFL obviously approved of the Jay Cutler trade to Chicago, because the Bears have the potential of five prime-time games, a reality that absolutely would not have happened if Kyle Orton were still leading the Bears offense. I'm sure trying to shine the spotlight on the league's second-largest TV market had plenty to do with all the love the NFL is showering on Chicago, but I'm not sure Cutler (he of the 17-20 career record as a starter) or the Bears (coming off a 9-7 non-playoff finish in 2008) are worthy of all the extra attention.

• I like everything Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff did last year, but if there's a 2008 playoff team headed down on the NFL's roller coaster, it might be the Falcons. Atlanta has a brutal schedule that includes 14 of its 16 opponents having finished at .500 or better last season. The Falcons have just one home game against a team with a losing record from last season, and that's the 7-9 Bills, who have improved themselves this offseason. Atlanta also has just one road game against a 2008 loser, that being a trip to San Francisco, who some think will contend for the NFC West title this year.

The Falcons have no time to catch their breath this season, because they open up at home against the Dolphins and Panthers, and travel to New England in Week 3. Those three finished a combined 34-14 last season. All told, Atlanta has the fourth-toughest strength of schedule in the league this season, with a .588 opponents winning percentage.

• Don't look now, but I see yet another late-season Cowboys collapse coming. In the last five weeks of its schedule, Dallas is at the Giants, home against San Diego, at New Orleans, at Washington and home against Philadelphia.

That'll be Wade Phillips' Bataan Death March. Count on it.

Terrell Owens has played for San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas in his tumultuous 13-year career, and as bad luck would have it, the Bills don't play any of them this season -- preseason or regular season. Here's hoping for a Bills-Cowboys, Bills-Eagles or Bills-49ers Super Bowl next February.

• Who'd the Giants tick off in the league office? New York has one of only two three-game road trips in the NFL this season, but the Giants get theirs in Weeks 2-4, playing at the Cowboys (in the new Dallas stadium opener), at the Bucs and at the Chiefs.

And in a weird twist, the Giants finish the season at home against Carolina in Week 16, and at Minnesota in Week 17 -- exactly the same quinella with which they ended last season.

• If you like coaching reunions, the 2009 season is not for you. Detroit's Jim Schwartz doesn't face Tennessee, Kansas City's Todd Haley doesn't face Arizona, St. Louis' Steve Spagnuolo doesn't square off against the Giants, there's no Seattle-Atlanta matchup to look forward to for Jim Mora, and most regrettably, new Jets head coach Rex Ryan won't be scheming to beat his old friends in Baltimore.

• Whatever happened to the idea of the defending Super Bowl champion getting a tough schedule? I know Pittsburgh had a difficult slate last season, but the Steelers will have one of the four easiest schedules.

Pittsburgh has just six games against 2008 playoff teams, and eight games against teams that lost in double digits.

• Arizona thankfully isn't being asked to make five trips to the Eastern time zone like it did last season, because that storyline got so old, so quickly. The Cardinals only have three ET games this time around. But here's the next big travel story for Arizona: How will it fare in the Central time zone? Ken Whisenhunt's team has three road games in CT: at Chicago in Week 9, at St. Louis in Week 11 and at Tennessee in Week 12.

That probably won't generate as much sympathy, will it?

• Your results may vary, but I know which 17 games in the NFL's 17-week regular season I can't wait to see in 2009:

1. Bills at Patriots, Week 1 --Tom Brady's first game of consequence in a year. Owens' first game with a small red buffalo on his helmet (both teams will be wearing their "Legacy'' uniforms, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the AFL). Monday Night Football cameras. Who could ask for anything more?

2. Giants at Cowboys, Week 2 -- The opening of the Cowboys' new $1 billion stadium (the Jerry Dome?) is enough to make me tune in. I bet T.O. still can't believe he's going to miss out on playing in this one, but he'll have his popcorn ready.

3. Panthers at Cardinals, Week 8 -- I'm going to take a wild guess and presume this one's circled on Jake Delhomme's calendar. He'd better be ready this time, or he might as well not board the plane home for Charlotte.

4. Jets at Dolphins, Week 5 -- The rematch of their Week 17 showdown last season, which ended the Jets career of Brett Favre and Eric Mangini, and put the Chad Pennington-led Dolphins into the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

5. Bears at 49ers, Week 10 -- New San Francisco coach Mike Singletary gets to coach against a Bears franchise that he once personified. On Thursday night in prime time, no less.

6. Patriots at Colts, Week 10 -- Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, this has become the NFL rivalry you can set your watch to. Two glamour teams led by two glamour quarterbacks, once again in Indy in November.

7. Patriots at Denver, Week 5 -- The master and his protégé will take center stage as Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels get together for the first time wearing opposing hoodies. Anyone want to start a betting pool on the length of the postgame handshake?

8. Titans at Steelers, Week 1 -- Payback time right off the bat for the Steelers, who had to sit and watch those high-riding Titans stomp on their Terrible Towels late in that Week 16 blowout loss in Nashville last December. Did we mention that was Pittsburgh's final loss of the year?

9. Bears at Broncos, Week 3 (of the preseason) -- OK, we're cheating a bit. But c'mon, it's Cutler going back to Denver, and if it happens to take place on Aug. 30, so be it. Everyone knows Week 3 of the preseason is the dress rehearsal for the regular season, so Broncos fans should be able to boo Cutler well into the third quarter.

10. Cardinals at Titans, Week 12 -- The most interesting angle of this game will surround Vince Young and Matt Leinart. Will either one of the 2006 top-10 quarterbacks be off the bench and playing again by then?

11. Chargers at Steelers, Week 4 -- The Chargers must make trips to Pittsburgh in their sleep. Make that nightmares. This will be their third trip to the Steel City in less than a year, and they gave us two good games there last season, including that AFC divisional-round showdown. Pittsburgh won them both, however.

12. Steelers at Ravens, Week 12 -- Pittsburgh beat its division rivals three times last season, including the AFC Championship Game, but it'll be late-November before it sees them again. The two regular-season meetings last year were three- and four-point games, and the Steelers won a tight game by nine points in the playoffs. Baltimore got dominated by no means, and they're going to push Pittsburgh again in '09.

13. Packers at Bears, Week 1 -- Right away, on the season's first Sunday night, we get a taste of the new Aaron Rodgers-Cutler quarterback competition in the NFC North. It's the quarterback draft class of 2005 versus the quarterback draft class of 2006, and a matchup of two guys who do not lack for self-confidence.

14. Broncos at Eagles, Week 16 -- The return of Brian Dawkins, two days after Christmas, is a gift for those Eagles fans who still can't get over the departure of their beloved longtime safety.

15. Chargers at Giants, Week 9 -- You can't put Eli Manning in a sentence without thinking a little bit about Philip Rivers, the guy he was traded for on the first day of the 2004 draft. It's never a bad thing to see them on the same field, settling the question of who got the better end of the deal head-to-head.

16. Jaguars at Patriots, Week 16 --Fred Taylor gets his shot to show Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio that he still has a little something-something for him.

17. Rams at Lions, Week 8 -- Put me down for this one being Detroit's best shot at a victory since Week 16 of 2007, which would, if my hunch is correct, snap a 23-game losing streak and give Schwartz his first W in the NFL.Click here for complete team-by-team schedules