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2019 NFL schedule release: 5 takeaways, top 8 games to watch

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It turns out that last Sunday was more than just a very good day for Tiger Woods. It was also the day that the 2019 NFL schedule -- No. 64,521 of 64,713 options generated -- was found and league officials joked Wednesday afternoon that the early start time in Augusta worked well with their need to be in the office to find the schedule. The NFL had more options to sort through than ever before, a product of having between 1,200 and 1,500 computers working throughout the process to find the schedule that will be both most attractive for fans and TV networks and least onerous for teams.

This year, the NFL didn't have to work around any massive concert tours or Papal Masses that interfere with stadium usage. That certainly made things easier, and the result is a schedule that gives relatively few teams room for griping. The Philadelphia Eagles have the league's only true three-game road trip this season, in October. Just two teams -- the San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets -- have a bye in Week 4, earlier than teams usually like it, and both of those teams have had late byes in recent years.

There are, though, some tough stretches. The Tennessee Titans play four of their first six games on the road, including three of their first four. The Green Bay Packers finish with four of six on the road. The Seattle Seahawks have three straight prime-time games starting in Week 12 (although two of them are subject to change), which includes a cross-country trip to Philadelphia for a Sunday night game, then a Monday night home game against the Minnesota Vikings and then another Sunday nighter at the Los Angeles Rams. All of which is followed by a 1 p.m. (Eastern Time) game at Carolina, rounding out a four-week stretch that will test the Seahawks' recovery skills and almost certainly determine the fate of their season.

But when league officials called each network and team to go over their schedules, there were few complaints.

"I don't think there is anything here where teams could say, 'What in world were you thinking?' " said Howard Katz, the league's senior vice president of broadcasting.

That is in large part because of the computer firepower at work. The league has so many more options from which to choose than it had even a few years ago, that it is finding schedules that do not have the multiple pitfalls often encountered in years past.

That, of course, does not ensure a winning schedule and booming ratings. The NFL enjoyed an especially exciting season in 2018, and got a little lucky. There were few major injuries to prominent quarterbacks, games were high scoring, a group of young stars emerged, and teams from many of the biggest markets were in playoff contention throughout the season.

As for 2019, here are the things -- and games -- to watch.

1) Patrick Mahomes is a megastar. The Kansas City Chiefs are scheduled for five prime-time games, including three on Sunday night -- "That's huge," Katz said -- and the reigning league MVP has also made them one of the most attractive teams for CBS. That kind of frequency is reserved for what the league expects to be the biggest draws -- teams like the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Rams all have five prime-time games.

"It's worth noting that the schedule makers' crystal ball isn't always clear," said Michael North, the league's senior director of broadcasting. "Last year when we had this conversation, the Chiefs were maxed out in prime time as well, with a kid that had played one game so far. This year was less risky."

2) The kickoff game between the Bears and Packers is a nod to the past, but the Week 1 Sunday night game that is hosted by the defending champion Patriots is a modern-day classic. The Pittsburgh Steelers have lost Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell this offseason, but the drama had nothing to do with why they are playing the Patriots, Katz said. The league had plenty of options for the Patriots -- the Browns and Giants were among the other opponents considered -- but the Steelers are a perennial huge draw and putting them here allowed for the best overall schedule. In recent years, this matchup has had a huge late-season role in determining home-field advantage during the playoffs. But with the game so early in the season this time, it feels much more like a referendum on the Steelers' personnel decisions and on how Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger can lead them into life without two of the three Killer Bs.

3) The Jets, Browns and Raiders all did things this offseason that made them a lot more attractive to the networks. The Jets are on "Monday Night Football" twice, while the Browns have four games in prime time after trading for Odell Beckham Jr. Even the Raiders, despite coming off a poor season, have plenty of buzz after acquiring Antonio Brown.

4) We're going to hear a lot about the NFL's 100th year. Each week, there will be a game celebrated for its resonance in league history. The opener between the Bears and Packers is the game's oldest rivalry. The Browns and Jets meet on "Monday Night Football" in Week 2, just five days before the anniversary of when the two teams met (in Cleveland that time) in the very first "Monday Night Football" game in 1970. Miami at Dallas in Week 3 is a reprise of Super Bowl VI teams, and the Chargers' game at Miami in Week 4 will evoke memories of their epic 1981 Divisional Round meeting, when Dan Fouts led his team to a 41-38 overtime triumph at Miami.

5) That the Raiders play what seems likely to be their final game in Oakland in Week 15 is indicative of nothing. The NFL didn't go out of its way to have the Raiders avoid playing at home in Week 17. It just turned out that way. And the team made no special request to have a game at home that week for any kind of celebration. And, as Katz noted, there is the chance the Raiders will play another season in Oakland if their new stadium in Las Vegas is still not ready for 2020. For now, the Raiders' final game in Oakland is Week 15 against Jacksonville, unless the team hosts a playoff game. Less dramatic: The Rams' final regular-season game in the L.A. Coliseum is Week 17 against the Cardinals, and the Chargers' last regular-season game in Carson is Week 16 against the Raiders.

GAMES TO WATCH

You could do nothing but watch Mahomes make his way through the season and be thoroughly entertained. But we didn't know Mahomes would be Mahomes at this time last year, so why limit yourself and miss the next big thing? Or, in a few cases, the big things we've been watching for nearly 20 years. The games to circle on your calendar:

1) Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears (Week 1): A fitting opener for the NFL's 100th season. And also our first look at what new Packers coach Matt LaFleur has in mind for Aaron Rodgers against one of the league's great defenses.

2) Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots (Week 1): After missing the playoffs and losing Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, this game (season?) feels like a very important, very early litmus test for the Steelers.

3) Cleveland Browns at New York Jets (Week 2): An early look at whether Odell Beckham Jr. or Le'Veon Bell will be more transformative for their new teams.

4) New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams (Week 2): The Pass Interference Bowl and quite possibly a preview of an NFC Championship Game rematch.

5) Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs (Week 5): Have the Colts made up ground on the team that blew them out in the playoffs last season and in the race as AFC contenders?

6) Kansas City Chiefs vs. Los Angeles Chargers (Week 11 in Mexico)/Chargers at Chiefs (Week 17): The Chargers have a loaded dance card of opposing quarterbacks -- Luck, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Foles, Watson, Cousins, Stafford. But the most important hurdle is the most familiar: Can the Chargers get past Mahomes in their two meetings to win the AFC West?

7) Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots (Week 14): An AFC Championship Game rematch and preview? Possibly. And who knows how many more times we'll see Mahomes and Tom Brady square off.

8) Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys (Week 15): Is this the year the Cowboys finally make a run at NFC supremacy?

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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