2018 NFL schedule release: Balancing Beyoncé, TV and travel

Each year, the National Football League wades through thousands of schedules -- and closely scrutinizes hundreds of them -- before finally settling on a winner. The chosen one of the 59,031 playable schedules spit out by computers since January this year could not interfere with massive concert tours by Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift or Beyoncé and Jay-Z. It couldn't put too much strain on shared parking facilities with Major League Baseball stadiums or overlap with games played by college football teams or Major League Soccer. It could not give the Monday night game that falls on Christmas Eve to a home team that did not volunteer for it.

And this year, it could not play a game in Cincinnati that coincided with the celebration of Oktoberfest. Which takes place in September.

On Thursday night, the NFL unveiled the winner, which emerged only two days ago, after Commissioner Roger Goodell had questions about a few late-season Saturday games in the first schedule presented to him on Monday. While trying to answer those questions, the computer kept working and came up with the winner on Tuesday morning. Why was it so good? The schedulers thought all the television networks had good lineups -- FOX had told the league that it should take some of their premier Sunday afternoon doubleheader games and move them to Thursday night, to boost that schedule, and they got their way, with four or five of them -- and it minimized team penalties. Only three teams have three-game road trips (the Saints, Rams and Ravens). Only two (the Redskins and Panthers) have a bye in Week 4. No team has to play a road game after a road Monday night game.

And the league was able to grant a lot of wishes. The Steelers, who played on every holiday last year, don't play on one this year. The Bucs wanted to host a Monday night game this year, so they would have a big stage when they put Tony Dungy into their ring of honor. They got it with a bonus -- the game is against the Steelers, the team for which Dungy played. The Packers hoped to start their 100th season -- they actually predate the rest of the league by one year -- with a game against their oldest rival, the Chicago Bears. They will, and it will be the first game of the season on "Sunday Night Football."

And no, the Bengals do not have to worry about a traffic nightmare by playing at the same time that Oktoberfest is going on in downtown Cincinnati in late September. The result is the Bengals start with three of their first four games on the road.

"We called all the clubs today and all the television networks today, and on balance, the networks were all pleased with their schedules, and the issues clubs have, nobody had any reaction like, 'Oh my God, how could you do that to me?' " said Howard Katz, the NFL's senior vice president of broadcasting and media operations. "Nobody had anything that created a serious objection. It was more like, 'Ouch.' We got a couple of ouches."

The schedule is likely to be closely scrutinized throughout the season, particularly because the NFL is coming off consecutive years of a decline in ratings, and because FOX has taken over the "Thursday Night Football" package. In an attempt to be fan-friendlier, the league has inched up the start times of night games, with the hope that all games will end by 11:30 p.m. on the East Coast. Here are some things to stay awake for (and keep your eyes on) in 2018:

1) The kickoff game is a rematch, but not the one we all expected. The Minnesota Vikings -- who lost to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game and, you might have heard, made the biggest free-agency splash in years by signing quarterback Kirk Cousins -- are on the Eagles' home schedule this year. No-brainer for the season opener, right? Nope. The NFL opted for a rematch of the Divisional Round game between the Eagles and Falcons, which is also a meeting of the two most recent NFC champions -- and which, after all, was the more compelling playoff game last season. They saved Vikings at Eagles for Oct. 7 (4:25 p.m. ET on FOX), and the scheduling group actually looked at Carolina as a possibility, too. So how did they settle on Atlanta?

"It was how it fit into the whole schedule," Katz said. "The computer was continually showing us Atlanta as the game to put in there that did the best job of solving the entirety of the schedule puzzle. Some years, we have a really strong preference, and we do everything based on that one assumption. But that openness allowed us to search more broadly."

2) London will host games on three consecutive Sundays for the first time, and they are really good ones. The Seahawks and Raiders are in the prime slot of opening Tottenham Stadium, and the Eagles, the first defending champs to play in London, face the Jaguars, London's home team coming off their surprising run to the AFC Championship Game. The other game -- Titans vs. Chargers -- features two winning teams. Stadium availability played a big part in putting the games in consecutive weeks, and the league's international department clearly feels it can handle the challenge of staging three games in a row. But don't discount the desire to keep interest high, with no lull between games, as a reason for this move, as the league thinks more and more about its global reach.

3)Deshaun Watson's return factored into the Patriots' season opener. The Texans might have the best chance to make the leap from last to first, as the Eagles did last season, because they are expected to get Watson and J.J. Watt back from injury, and they have the NFL's easiest schedule, based on the 2017 records of their opponents. Six of their 16 regular-season games are against teams that won five or fewer games last season, and five games are against teams with new head coaches. But it is the season opener -- Texans at Patriots -- that is the potential ratings blockbuster, and the schedule department knows it.

"Before he got hurt, Deshaun Watson was maybe the most dynamic player in the league last year," Katz said. "We sure as hell hope that it's Deshaun Watson coming back against Tom Brady."

Likewise for the Colts facing the Patriots on Thursday night in Week 5 -- the league hopes Andrew Luck is back.

4) Jon Gruden is popular. The Raiders won just six games last season. No matter. Gruden's return to the sideline after a decade in the broadcast booth has reignited interest in a team that, a year ago, was losing and struggling to excite fans who know the team will decamp for Las Vegas in a few years. The Raiders will play four times in prime time, including as part of the opening Monday-night doubleheader, plus be part of the aforementioned London game against the Seahawks.


A heralded class of rookie quarterbacks. The returns (hopefully) of Luck, Watson and Aaron Rodgers from big injuries. Top quarterbacks switching teams. And the never-ending greatness of Drew Brees and Tom Brady. You could plan your viewing around the quarterbacks alone. But there's a lot more to watch this season, too. The games below are just a handful of matchups to circle on your calendar:

» Rams at Raiders (Week 1): Jon Gruden returns, and what a way to start -- against the team that has gone all-in with an offseason overhaul to win it all this season.

» Vikings at Packers and Patriots at Jaguars (Week 2): Early measuring-stick games for playoff contenders. How does Cousins look with his new team? How does Rodgers look with his old one? Did the Jaguars learn anything from blowing the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots?

» 49ers at Packers (Week 6):Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Aaron Rodgers is a game we're going to watch, and probably will continue to track for quite a few years to come.

» Chiefs at Rams (Week 11): We're exporting the Marcus Peters Bowl to Mexico City, but this will also be a good look at how Patrick Mahomes does against arguably the league's best secondary.

» Patriots at Steelers (Week 15): Just like in 2017, this feels like it will be a battle for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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