By Don Banks
April 20, 2011

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

• Now we can see how much we might be missing. It's hard to look at the NFL's 2011 schedule through any other prism but the obvious one: It may feel like a long way off, but the first three weeks of the new season is where the real pain of the league's labor stand-off would be felt. The impact would be immediate, losing the Saints at Packers star-studded opener on Thursday night, Sept. 8, as well as the Cowboys at Jets, Steelers at Ravens, Falcons at Bears, Giants at Redskins, Colts at Texans, and Patriots at Dolphins in Week 1.

That's seven glamour games with nine of the NFL's 12 playoff teams from 2010 represented in those matchups that potentially could be wiped out by the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement. All told, nine of the league's 16 opening-week pairings are division games, and once they're gone, the competitive balance and equity of schedule the league loves to brag about might be forfeited in 2011.

2011 NFL SCHEDULE: Weekly | Team-by-team

The collateral damage of an NFL stoppage would be less so in Week 2, but we'd still lose out on three matchups of playoff teams from last year -- Bears at Saints, Seahawks at Steelers, and Michael Vick's trumpeted return to Atlanta as the Eagles starting quarterback. Chargers at Patriots is a headline game that would be sacrificed, too.

As September drew to a close in Week 3, the Steelers at Colts on Sunday night would come into the crosshairs. Those two heavyweights have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl in five of the past six seasons, winning three rings between them. Other Week 3 casualties to an NFL-less state of being? Divisional clashes like Giants at Eagles, Redskins at Cowboys, Falcons at Bucs, Packers at Bears, and Chiefs at Chargers. Gone, gone, gone.

The 2011 NFL season still remains one giant TBD, and Tuesday night's schedule release only served to show us all what's at stake, and what we might be missing.

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• After having Brett Favre's return to Green Bay in 2009 and Donovan McNabb's return to Philadelphia in 2010 as centerpieces of the NFL schedule, there's not that jaw-dropping spectacle of a reunion game to count down to this season (Jay Cutler's return to Denver in Week 14 loses points for its belatedness).

Well, at least not so far. But keep an eye on that Week 16 Vikings at Redskins game Christmas Eve at FedEx Field. If Minnesota doesn't get itself a starting quarterback in the draft, and maybe even if the Vikings do, there's always the possibility that McNabb could be suiting up in purple against Mike Shanahan's Redskins that day. Rex Grossman versus McNabb one more time, anyone? It'd be kind of fitting, given that Minnesota and Washington were Favre and McNabb's celebrated new landing spots the past two years.

• For a franchise that appears to be on the cusp of even bigger and better things, the NFL certainly didn't follow its recent pattern and bestow upon Tampa Bay the status of chic pick and nouveau darlings of prime time. The Bucs got just two night-game assignments -- in Week 3 at home against the Colts, and in Week 15 at home against the Cowboys -- which seems low for a young and talented upstart that went 10-6 last year and barely missed the NFC playoffs. Eleven of Tampa Bay's games are slated for Sunday 1 p.m. kickoffs, and maybe the Bucs' well-known attendance issues had more than a little bit to do with limiting their prime-time appearances.

Then again, maybe the league just deemed Tampa Bay perhaps too much of an overachiever, and thought the Bucs likely to take a step back in 2011. The league could be sensing a Cleveland in 2008 or Miami in 2009 all over again. The NFL lavished the on-the-come Browns and Dolphins with five and four prime time games, respectively, those seasons, then watched both clubs flame out and miss the playoffs with losing records.

Perhaps Bucs coach Raheem Morris would be wise to resume his penchant for promoting his on-the-way-up club and aim a little of it in the direction of the league office in New York.

• On the other hand, the NFL continued its love affair with the Dallas Cowboys and the healthy TV ratings they always inspire -- win or lose. Dallas joined five other teams in receiving the maximum prime-time exposure (five games), which is just one fewer than the total number of games won by the last-place Cowboys in 2010 (6-10).

It's worth noting, but not a bit surprising, that the other five teams to receive such a strong vote of confidence from the league office this year all made the playoffs last season: the Colts, Jets, Ravens, Steelers and Eagles. All but the Colts and Eagles won at least one playoff game last January.

For decades now, the NFL's mantra has been the same in terms of prime-time scheduling: When in doubt, give 'em Dallas. To that I say, sure, whatever. Just do me a favor and take Jerry Jones and his whiz-bang stadium out of the Super Bowl rotation for the next 30 years or so. Much obliged.

• It seems like even the NFL would like the Chargers to get off to a fast start for once. I think it last happened in the Don Coryell era. Or was it Sid Gillman?

If the labor situation allows, San Diego will play three of its first four games at home this season, playing host to the Vikings in Week 1, the Chiefs in Week 3, and the Dolphins in Week 4. Only that Week 2 trip to Foxboro interrupts the Chargers' homestand. The Chargers started last season 2-5, and finally paid the price for another sluggish getaway, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005 at 9-7, a game behind AFC West-winning Kansas City.

• I suppose there's always Halloween and Labor Day to aspire to, but until then, Green Bay will be the first club to ever play on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day in the same season. So much for family holiday gatherings this year among members of the Packers organization and the media who cover them. I suppose that's one of the hidden costs of winning a Super Bowl ring.

Green Bay will open the NFL's Thanksgiving Day triple-header at Detroit, play the hated Bears at home on Christmas night in a rematch of last January's NFC title game, and then have its rematch with the Lions at Lambeau on New Year's Day.

All told, the defending Super Bowl champs have four prime-time games this season, but when you add in the national telecast that comes with the Thanksgiving date in Detroit, the Packers' attempt to put together back-to-back Super Bowl seasons for the first time since 1996-97 will be well-chronicled by the NFL's TV partners.

• As counter-intuitive as it sounds in the last-shall-be-first ways of the NFL, the Carolina Panthers have the league's toughest schedule. At least based on that often meaningless scale known as strength of schedule -- the combined 2010 won-loss record of all their 2011 opponents.

The 2-14 record the Panthers posted last season got them the No. 1 overall pick in next Thursday night's draft, but it didn't get them an easier road to travel in 2011, at least based on strength of schedule. Carolina's opponents went a combined 142-114 (.555) last year, but keep in mind that playing two games against NFC South foes Atlanta (13-3), New Orleans (11-5) and Tampa Bay (10-6) account for most of the damage.

That said, Carolina rookie head coach Ron Rivera's job won't be easy no matter how you quantify it. The Panthers play nine of their 16 games against teams that finished with at least 10 wins last year, and they draw the Packers, Bears, Saints and Falcons in the season's first six weeks.

• We don't get a Packers-Steelers Super Bowl rematch to look forward to, but the three most recent Super Bowl pairings before that will be reprised during the regular season. Week 7 has the Colts visiting the Saints on Sunday night, and the Steelers traveling to the Cardinals earlier in the day. In Week 9, the Giants play in Foxboro against the Patriots, in the first meeting they've had since New York spoiled New England's perfect season in the desert of Arizona in February 2008.

• I successfully identified the Bengals and Vikings last year as 2009 playoff teams that would take and step back and fail to match that success in 2010. If I had to tab two more such selections this time around, it'd be Kansas City in the AFC and Chicago in the NFC.

The Bears start out with a very difficult schedule, opening against the powerful triumvirate of the Falcons (home), Saints (away) and Packers (home) in the first three weeks. Drawing the sure-to-be-fired-up Lions in their first home Monday Night Football showing in forever in Week 5 is no favor to the Bears, and you can ditto that for the Week 7 trip to London to play the improved Bucs.

And there's a kicker at the end, too. Chicago ends the year playing at Green Bay and at Minnesota in Weeks 16-17, on Christmas night and New Year's Day. Nothing soft about that slate of games.

As for the Chiefs, they'll travel more than 14,000 miles this season with a pretty big target on their backs after coming out of nowhere to win the AFC West at 10-6 last year. While Kansas City faces just one 2010 playoff team (the Colts) in its first nine games, the schedule turns brutal after that, with a five-game stretch that goes: at Patriots, home against the Steelers, at Bears, at Jets, and home against the Packers. That's five in a row against playoff teams from 2010, including three of the league's final four qualifiers.

• Despite playing three of their first four on the road, the Patriots better start strong in those games, because then things grow really challenging. In their following eight games they'll face a daunting stretch that includes six games against 2010 playoff teams, with dates against the Cowboys and Giants (both at home) tossed in for good measure.

From Weeks 5-13, New England's schedule includes maybe its game of year at home against the Jets, who knocked the Pats out of the playoffs in January, home against Dallas, a bye, at the Steelers, home against the Giants in that Super Bowl rematch, at the Jets, home against the Chiefs in Matt Cassel's return to Foxboro, at the Eagles, and a visit from Peyton Manning and the Colts.

If the Patriots survive the running of that gauntlet, they'll richly deserve whatever playoff positioning they might be able to secure for themselves.

Week 17 is comprised entirely of division games once again, and my picks for the most meaningful showdowns on New Year's Day are Cowboys at Giants, Colts at Jaguars, 49ers">49ers at Rams, and Chiefs at Raiders. No Bucs at Falcons, you say? I say no.

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