For the first time in awhile, folks in St. Louis, Detroit and Tampa Bay won't have to always watch other teams play in prime time. These long-suffering franchises showed so much progress -- and promise -- last season that they've been put in the pressure cooker of night time TV in 2011.
Some upstarts haven't handled the national attention well. Others have done just okay.
Before they get their shot, though, some of the most popular teams and players get their place on the national stage, starting with the opening week.
Thursday, Sept. 8 -- Saints at Packers: Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers guide the last two Super Bowl champions in this season-opener, guided by New Orleans coach Sean Payton and Packers coach Mike McCarthy, two of the most ruthless play-callers in the NFL. But keep in mind the defenses quietly are the backbones of these teams.
Monday, Oct. 3 -- Colts at Buccaneers: The Colts play in prime time for the second straight week, but Tampa Bay is the story here. The Bucs haven't played on Monday night in eight years. Last season, their biggest problem was beating teams of note. They'll get a chance here against one of the league's best. The Bucs better hope cornerback Aqib Talib is on the field.
Monday, Oct. 10 -- Bears at Lions: Detroit hasn't played on Monday night since 2001 -- with good reason. If Matthew Stafford is still on the field at this point, things could be very interesting. It looks like the Lions are headed in the right direction. The early tests for the Bears continue in the Motor City.
Thursday Nov. 24 -- 49ers at Ravens: The "Bro Bowl" between San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and Ravens coach John Harbaugh could be tough for the visitors, who have to travel cross country on a short week. The 49ers likely will be in the NFC West playoff hunt, though, and will have some motivation.