Don Banks: NFL counting on Peyton's return to form; more '12 schedule thoughts - Sports Illustrated

NFL banking on Peyton's return to form; more 2012 schedule thoughts

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• To absolutely no one's surprise, the NFL has blown it out as only it can, deciding to put Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on the biggest stages it has in the opening two weeks of the regular season. First comes a prime time Week 1 playoff rematch against visiting Pittsburgh on NBC's Sunday Night Football, and then a prime time Week 2 trip to Atlanta on ESPN's Monday Night Football.

It'll be a veritable Peyton-palooza in early September, and the spotlight will be on No. 18 and burning hotter than ever before. To which I say: Great. Can't wait. And, oh, by the way, I hope he can play.

2012 Week-by-week schedule | Team schedules | Monday night

Look, the very act of assembling and releasing a schedule is a leap of faith of sorts, and I get it that the NFL wasn't going to backload the schedule as a means to give Manning as much slack as possible in his quest to return to the playing field. But it's at least worth remembering that by the time Manning steps foot on Sports Authority Field in Denver to do battle with the Steelers, he will have gone exactly 20 months and one day between meaningful football games. And even now, he's still almost four months away from proving himself even in the setting of a preseason game.

All signs have certainly been positive and pointing toward Manning's return to health and form for weeks now, and I'm not discounting the firsthand accounts of his throwing arm looking very Peyton-esque of late. But he did miss an entire season with his repeated neck problems, and there are still a lot of hurdles for him to clear. There are no guarantees that his rehab will continue to be a nice, steady ascent. Setbacks are possible.

But the NFL clearly is counting on Manning being Manning again. And right from the start. Denver is one of eight teams scheduled for the maximum five prime-time games, with four of those falling in the first eight weeks of the Broncos season: at home against San Diego on Monday night in Week 6 and at the Saints on Sunday night in Week 8, in addition to the Week 1-2 games already noted. In addition, the Broncos will travel to New England in Week 5 in a resumption of the Manning vs. Tom Brady showdowns that were traditionally the league's game of the year when No. 18 wore a horseshoe (instead of a horse's head) on his helmet.

All told, Denver draws a 2011 playoff team in four of its first five games, with only a Week 4 home game against the division-rival Raiders posing anything resembling a breather. And don't forget Oakland beat the Broncos last season in Denver.

For Denver's sake, and the NFL's, Manning had better be ready from the first snap of the regular season on. Caleb Hanie, at the moment, is the Broncos backup quarterback. And we all know what happened in Chicago last season when he was forced to center stage.

• Good luck to the defending Super Bowl champion Giants. Lord knows they're going to need it. You can't project these things accurately, of course, but New York's schedule looks brutal at first glance.

Not only does Tom Coughlin's team have rematches with all three teams it beat in the NFC playoffs -- Week 6 at San Francisco, Week 12 at home against the Packers, Week 15 at Atlanta -- but also New York faces four other playoff clubs from a year ago: Week 9 vs. the Steelers, Week 10 at Cincinnati, Week 14 vs. the Saints, and Week 16 at the Ravens.

On top of that, you can mix in a tough trip to ascending Carolina in Week 3, two games against Robert Griffin III and a Redskins team that swept the Giants last year, and then the four annual knock-down, drag-out games New York seems to have with NFC East foes Philadelphia and Dallas.

Want more? The Giants play three of their first four games in prime time, don't get their bye until Week 11, and become the first team in NFL history to play on a Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday and Monday night in the same season.

Enjoy that defense of your Super Bowl title, G-men. If you go back-to-back, you're going to earn it maybe more so than any other champion in recent memory.

• Plenty of paranoid Saints fans out there are convinced the NFL office had it in for their heroes because of the bounty investigation. But if so, the NFL has a curious way of showing its antipathy via the Saints 2012 schedule.

Logic tells us New Orleans arguably would have it toughest earlier in the season, with interim head coach Joe Vitt being suspended for the team's opening six games, and any potential player suspensions likely falling in that time frame as well. Also, coping with regular-season life without suspended head coach Sean Payton figures to be more difficult at the start of the year, before the team adjusts to its new realities.

But New Orleans at least has a chance to catch its breath early on, playing only one 2011 playoff qualifier in its first six games of the year: a Week 4 trip to Green Bay. Other than that, the Saints face off against four teams that had losing records last year, plus one .500 club.

New Orleans opens at home against Washington, then plays at Carolina, home against Kansas City, at Green Bay, home against San Diego, takes a Week 6 bye, and travels to Tampa Bay. At worst, I could see the Saints being 3-3 in that span, but 4-2 or even 5-1 is entirely possible. And it's not as if the league office is trying to bury New Orleans and keep the Saints out of its showcase games either. Drew Brees and Co. will have four prime time games this season, in Weeks 5, 8, 9 and 13.

Saints or sinners, the NFL isn't out to get New Orleans. Otherwise someone in the league office missed a nice opportunity to deepen the price and pain of the bounty saga.

• It's not the juiciest of seasons on the revenge-game front. I'm sure to be overlooking a few potential paybacks in 2012, but unless the postseason comes to our rescue, the following grudge matchups will not occur this season:

No Peyton Manning versus the Colts; Tim Tebow won't get a crack at the Broncos; Brandon Marshall and Miami won't cross paths again; Jeff Fisher won't square off against his former players in Tennessee; and new head coaches like Jacksonville's Mike Mularkey, Miami's Joe Philbin and Indy's Chuck Pagano won't get to go up against the teams they just left (Atlanta, Green Bay and Baltimore, respectively).

True, Mario Williams gets to make a statement in his Week 9 return to Houston, as a member of the Buffalo Bills, but Williams is a pretty quiet guy and we're not expecting fireworks.

We do get a few other bones thrown our way in terms of revenge games. The visiting Dolphins in Week 14 will get their first crack at Jim Harbaugh since he spurned them for the 49ers gig in early 2011; Romeo Crennel will take his Chiefs into Cleveland in Week 14, where he once led the Browns; and Matt Flynn (maybe) faces off against Aaron Rodgers and his former Packers teammates in Week 3 at home on Monday night.

Other than that, unless Raheem Morris returning to Tampa Bay as the Redskins defensive backs coach (in Week 4) or Raiders new head coach Dennis Allen against his former New Orleans club in Week 11 floats your boat, there's not much grist for the revenge mill. I kind of miss those days of Terrell Owens returning to Philly, Brett Favre returning to Green Bay, and Donovan McNabb returning to Philly made for screaming headlines and weeklong hype-fests.

• An NFC team has claimed four of the past five Super Bowl titles, and the balance of power in the NFL seems to have shifted for the time being in favor of that conference. Not only are the Giants (twice), Packers and Saints recent Super Bowl winners, but also five of the eight teams that will have the maximum five prime-time appearances this season are from the NFC: Green Bay, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco and the Giants.

The only three AFC teams in that club? The Manning-led Broncos, the Steelers and the Chargers. Somewhat surprisingly given its track record of dominance, New England will have just four prime-time games, with only one taking place before Week 12.

• I don't know how many years we sat through bad and uncompetitive games on Thanksgiving, but those days are hopefully gone for good. This year's triple-header is again looking like it holds promise: Houston at Detroit to lead off, Washington at Dallas in the middle, and a nightcap of the Patriots at the Jets on the NFL Network.

That's two 2011 playoff teams in the Texans and the Lions doing battle in Detroit, followed up by two outstanding divisional rivalries in the Redskins-Cowboys and Pats-Jets. Two Ryan brothers coaching, a Matt Schaub-Matt Stafford quarterback battle, and the Cowboys-Redskins grudge match sounds like a fitting football feast from this vantage point.

And don't forget, the NFL will have 14 weeks of Thursday night games this year, beginning in Week 2 when the Bears visit the Packers.

• The pressure is really on now. In 2010 on schedule-release day, I accurately predicted the Bengals and Vikings would be teams that missed the postseason after qualifying in 2009. Last year, I went with the Chiefs and Bears as my fallback teams, and again went 2-for-2.

Using my same formula of one team in the NFC and one in the AFC, I'll go with the Giants (see above note on their killer schedule) and the Bengals, given that Cincinnati has never qualified for the playoffs in two consecutive non-strike seasons.

If you're looking for bounce-back teams that will take a step up and into the playoffs this year, give me Seattle in the NFC and Tennessee in the AFC.

• Steelers at Broncos, Week 1: If Manning loses to the team that Tim Tebow beat last January in the playoffs, John Elway's gonna have some 'splaining to do.

• Lions at 49ers, Week 2: Jim Harbaugh versus Jim Schwartz, in the rematch of the Handshake That Shook the NFL. The league will require both coaches to take a sedative just before the final gun.

• Patriots at Ravens, Week 3: It means more to Baltimore than it does New England, but the Ravens will want revenge after having their Super Bowl dreams snuffed out so cruelly by the Patriots at the last second.

• Broncos at Patriots, Week 5: Bill Belichick, Brady and New England have already had a weird once-in-a-while rivalry with the Broncos, but now that you add Manning to the mix, well, what more could you ask for?

• Giants at 49ers, Week 6: This will be New York's third trip to Candlestick since mid-November 2011, but after their overtime victory in the NFC title game, the Giants know their rivalry with the 49ers has been reborn.

• Panthers at Redskins, Week 9: Cam Newton and RG3 matching "wow factors" on the same field. That could be fun.

• Raiders at Bengals, Week 12: Carson Palmer is a Raider and Hue Jackson is a Bengals assistant? What's wrong with this picture?

• 49ers at Saints, Week 12: If it's even remotely as thrilling as their NFC Divisional round playoff showdown, it'll be the stuff of instant classic.