The making of the NFL schedule is what Howard Katz, the league's scheduling guru, has called his annual ritual of finding out how stupid he is.
After more than two months of sorting through thousands of potential schedules, pondering logistics (stadiums that share parking lots with baseball parks are a particular headache), fielding requests from television networks and owners (no games at the hottest part of the day early in the season is a popular plea from teams in warm-weather locales) and trying to divine the right balance between the pageantry of the established behemoths and the projection of the next powerhouses, Katz will still be receiving calls and texts of complaint -- and the very occasional compliment -- Wednesday, as the schedule for the 2014 season is unveiled.
The matchups (and even the venues) have been known since the 2013 season ended. But now we know the all-important order. Here are six scheduling patterns to watch:
1) In the AFC's heavyweight fight, timing might be everything.The arms race that developed in free agency between Denver and New England -- which even John Elway admitted he has enjoyed -- will play out on the field for the first time on the afternoon of Nov. 2 in Foxborough. Forget about who has the edge between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning or Darrelle Revis and Aqib Talib, as it appears the Patriots got the scheduling advantage.
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That Week 9 bout will start a three-game road stretch for the Broncos, who are one of four teams (Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Cincinnati are the others) that will play away from home for nearly a month straight. And it will come after a stretch in which the Broncos visit the Jets for a game that starts at 11 a.m. MT, host the 49ers for a Sunday night game and host the Chargers on a Thursday night. For the Patriots, the game that likely will play a significant role in playoff seeding will come in the middle of more than a month spent at home (three straight games in Gillette Stadium and their bye week). As a bonus, the first game of that home stretch is on a Thursday night (against the Jets), so the Patriots get a mini-bye that weekend. Maybe the Broncos can take some comfort in knowing that the weather might be better against the Patriots than it was when the teams played in late November 2013 in Foxborough, amid bitter cold and a stiff wind that Manning's passes struggled to knife through.
2) In their element. The Green Bay Packers play four of their first six games on the road -- including the regular-season opener in Seattle. That, of course, means they'll play more games at home late in the season, when the Lambeau Field weather figures to be an advantage. Imagine the plight of the Atlanta Falcons, a dome team, dealing with the conditions in Green Bay on a Monday night in December in Week 14.
The best news, though, comes from a scheduling quirk: When the Packers host the Bearson Sunday night in Week 10 -- in their second meeting of the season -- both teams will be coming off their byes, giving them, and their fans, the best chance to see a critical game played by well-rested foes in the best health one could hope for. The Bears will get no such break early in the season, though. They have the task of being the opponent when the San Francisco 49ers open their new stadiumin Week 2.
3) Will Indy get to coast? The team with the easiest strength of schedule in 2013 was the Broncos; in 2012, it was the Patriots. Both reached the AFC Championship Game in those years. This season's lucky recipient of the "easiest" schedule: the Indianapolis Colts. We'll get a very early glimpse of how they stack up nationally, and if -- with the returns from injury of receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen, as well as the addition of receiver Hakeem Nicks -- the Colts can put up the bunches of points needed to topple the superpowers in the conference. The Colts open at Denver in the first Sunday night game of the year. (Remember that the Colts beat the Broncos last year in Manning's emotional return to Indianapolis.) The Broncos led the league in scoring in 2013, and the Eagles -- the Colts' Monday night opponent in Week 2 -- were fourth. Indy, meanwhile, tied for 14th.
4) Welcome back, Sam Bradford -- and watch your back. The St. Louis Rams quarterback is returning from injury in what is arguably the toughest division in the game, with each of the other three teams in the NFC West finishing last season with a top-six defense. If this is truly a make-or-break year for Bradford in St. Louis -- and if the Rams want to make up ground on Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona -- the crucible will be a brutal stretch in the middle of the season.
The Rams play at Philadelphia in Week 5, then host San Francisco on Monday night and Seattle on the short week ... before embarking on a three-game road stretch at Kansas City, San Franciscoand Arizona. St. Louis returns home to face Denver in Week 11, then travels to San Diego. Only one of those teams -- 10-win Arizona -- did not make the playoffs last year.
Battista: A new day in Oakland?
5) Between a rock and a hard flight (or two).Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis already has said there are no more built-in excuses for losing, now that the Raiders are out of salary-cap purgatory and general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen have had time to remake the roster. But the Raiders' upcoming slate of games -- they have the toughest strength of schedule, based on last year's results (their opponents' winning percentage was .578) -- does them no favors.
Oakland opens with a cross-country flight to face the Jets in a game that will kick off at 10 a.m. PT. West Coast teams famously loathe kicking off early when they travel east, because of the havoc they believe is wreaked on their body clocks. Two weeks later, the Raiders have to do it again, heading to New England for another 10 a.m. PT kickoff -- and then they fly to London to play the Dolphins, also at 10 a.m. PT. Since 2000, teams based in the Pacific time zone are 47-91 when traveling east for games that start at 10 a.m. PT -- and the Raiders have been particularly awful, having lost their last 13 such games. Squeezed in between will be new quarterback Matt Schaub's meeting with the team that knows his frailties best: the Houston Texans, with whom he spent the past seven seasons. Then there will be a brutal seven-week stretch starting in November: at Seattle in Week 9, home against Denver, at San Diego, home against Kansas City on a Thursday night, at St. Louis, home against San Francisco and at Kansas City. That's six games against playoff teams, three of which are arguably the best in the league, with a short week thrown in, too. Yikes. The hot seat in Oakland is already torrid.
NFL Returns to Saturday
6) Calendar-based QB controversy? The Jets have added weapons to what had been an anemic offense by signing receiver Eric Deckerand running back Chris Johnson. A look at the early part of their schedule raises the question of whether it might sway Gang Green to start quarterback Michael Vick over Geno Smith if their training camp competition is anywhere close to even, because of the greater dynamism Vick brings to the field. In Weeks 2 through 7, the Jets will face the Packers, Bears, Lions, Chargers, Broncosand Patriots (on a Thursday night). All of those opponents were in the top 13 in scoring in 2013 -- with the Broncos, Bears and Patriots filling the top three slots. Last season, the Jets were 29th in scoring.
A few last tidbits: The television darlings are no surprise: the Patriots, Broncos, Colts, Steelers, Bears, Cowboys, Packers, Giants and Saints all have five prime-time appearances slated. Meanwhile, the teams with the most unfavorable bye scheduling (that is to say, those with early byes, which teams generally consider less beneficial) are the Cardinals, Bengals, Browns, Broncos, Seahawks and Rams, all of whom have the bye the first week it is available, in Week 4 -- before the month of September is even done.