The National Football League has a 2011 schedule. Whether or not it actually gets played is another question entirely. But with the players and the owners meeting with a mediator in Minnesota this week as the owners’ lockout extends into a second month — and many league observers expecting some kind of resolution before training camps open in late July — an NFL season played without interruption doesn’t seem quite so unlikely as it might have earlier this off-season.
As usual, there are plenty of enticing prime-time games on the schedule, which was released Tuesday, April 19, beginning with the very first game of the year — a matchup of the last two Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers and the New Orleans Saints, at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field on Thursday, September 8. It is the first time since the NFL began opening the season on a Thursday in 2002 that the previous two champions have met in the prime-time kickoff.
Other notable opening week games include the New York Jets hosting the Dallas Cowboys in the first Sunday night game of the season on September 11 — the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America. There was speculation that the Jets and New York Giants would play in the prime-time game September 11, but instead the two tenants of the New Meadowlands Stadium will play Christmas Eve — Saturday, December 24 — at 1 p.m.
The annual week one Monday night doubleheader this year will feature the Miami Dolphins hosting the New England Patriots in an AFC East battle in the opener before the Oakland Raiders visit the Denver Broncos in an AFC West tussle later in the evening.
In week two (Sunday, September 18), the Atlanta Falcons will host the Philadelphia Eagles in the Sunday night game. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, of course, was a Falcons icon before he was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for his role in a dog-fighting ring.
Week five will feature a pair of interesting prime-time matchups when the Packers visit the Falcons Sunday, October 9 in a rematch of last year’s NFC Divisional Playoff game, which the Packers won 48-21. The next night, Monday, October 10, will be a historic one as the Detroit Lions — who won their final four games last year and are a popular sleeper pick to reach the playoffs after one of the worst runs in NFL history — play on Monday night for the first time in 10 years when they greet the Chicago Bears. The Lions are 39-118 since their last appearance on Monday Night Football.
Fans could have a potential conflict at the end of week eight Sunday, October 30, when the Eagles host the Cowboys in Sunday Night Football. That game is scheduled for one day after a potential Game Seven of the World Series, but a weather hiccup, coupled with an Fall Classic appearance by either the four-time defending National League East champion Philadelphia Phillies or the reigning American League champion Texas Rangers, could make for a big day for ticket brokers and channel surfers alike.
The following week features one of the NFL’s best rivalries in the Sunday Night Football slot when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Baltimore Ravens Sunday, November 6. Another pair of bitter divisional battles takes center stage in week 10 — Sunday, November 13 and Monday, November 14, respectively — when the Jets host the Patriots and the Packers host the Minnesota Vikings.
In week 12, the trio of Thanksgiving games (Thursday, November 24) will as always feature the Lions and Cowboys hosting (this time the Packers and Dolphins) before a family battle in the NFL Network nightcap between the host Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers. It will be the first time that brothers John Harbaugh, the fourth-year coach of the Ravens, and Jim Harbaugh, the first-year coach of the 49ers, oppose one another.
Another annual highlight takes place in prime time in week 13, when the Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, December 4. This will be the ninth straight year the Patriots and Colts have played each other in the regular season because they finished in the same position in their divisions the year before (i.e. the Patriots were first in the AFC East last year and the Colts first in the AFC South).
With Christmas falling on a Sunday this year, the NFL largely takes off Sunday and Monday, but a pair of attractive prime-time games will round out the week 16 slate when the Bears and Packers battle at Lambeau Field in a rematch of the NFC Championship Game on Christmas night before the Saints host the Falcons on Monday, December 26 in the rematch of their classic Monday Night game from last year. Week 17 has no Monday night game and the Sunday night game will be determined that week as the NFL tries to find a tilt with playoff implications for the season finale.
Six teams will play five games in primetime: The Colts, Cowboys, Jets, Eagles, Ravens and Steelers. Only five teams are not scheduled to appear in primetime: The Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills, Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals and Tennessee Titans, a quintet that finished a combined 21-59 last year.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who didn’t sell out any of their eight games last year even though they finished a surprising 10-6, will be the “home” team when they face the Bears in the NFL’s annual London game on Sunday, October 23. The Buccaneers are owned by the Glazer family, who also own the Manchester United soccer team of the English Premier League.
The Buccaneers will also get a pair of prime-time games when they host the Colts Monday, October 3 and the Cowboys Saturday, December 17. The NFL also handed a pair of primetime games to another Florida franchise that’s had trouble filling seats in recent years: The Jacksonville Jaguars, who sold out every game last year after selling out just one in 2009, will greet the Ravens Monday, October 24 and the San Diego Chargers Monday, December 5.