2014 NFL schedule undergoes multiple changes

Importance of intradivisional matches in teams’ playoff runs reflected in schedule

The 2014 NFL schedule was released last Wednesday night, and once again it is backloaded with divisional games, something the NFL has done over the past few seasons to emphasize the importance of facing divisional opponents in deciding playoff spots. This year, 57 of the 96 intradivisional games take place in the last two months, with 35 alone in December.

2013 Week 1 MNF risk didn’t pay off

Last season, the NFL did something unique when it scheduled the second game of Week 1’s Monday night doubleheader (taking place at 9:20 CT): included a team from the Central Time Zone for the first time. This ratings gamble on late-night TV failed as the Texans fell quickly to a 28-point deficit at the Chargers, making most people in the Eastern and Central Time Zones turn off their TVs and go to sleep.

While the Texans did come back to win, the ratings are what the league is concerned about, and they know people will continue to watch most games (even at a large point deficit) as long as they take place at a reasonable hour. It is clear to me that the NFL is not willing to take a similar risk this year, as they have placed two West Coast teams in the second Monday night game in Week 1 (Chargers at Cardinals) in order to guarantee that fans in those two places will stay up for the full game and the league will not lose ratings.

The “no double primetime” rule bends even further

There is a league policy on broadcast rights that states that out of the two games between two teams in the same division, only one can be on NBC, ESPN, or NFL Network, and the other must be on CBS or Fox. Because CBS and Fox used to only broadcast Sunday afternoon games, while the other three networks broadcast primetime games, this rule was thought by many, including myself, to exist solely to guarantee only one primetime game per home-and-home series.

The only exception to the rule is that NBC may broadcast a divisional championship game in Week 17 even if the first game of the series was already in primetime, and this has happened only once before, with the Cowboys and Giants in 2011.

There appears to be a big change in place this year. It seems this rule is being followed to the letter of the law in 2014, as the Ravens and Steelers are actually scheduled to play two primetime games. I had assumed the rule was in place before to prevent two primetime games and was only phrased in terms of networks because those had the primetime channels.

But I suppose the league’s intent had nothing to do with primetime games at all, and instead somehow actually has to do with the channels. CBS has become a Thursday night broadcaster, allowing the Ravens and Steelers to play two primetime games as long as one is a CBS Thursday nighter.

As I said, I had thought the intent behind the rule was to force one of the games to be in the afternoon, perhaps for fan convenience. I now think that the league’s policy has more to do with broadcasting rights, and the fact that CBS and Fox have probably signed contracts guaranteeing them to at least half of a conference’s intradivisional games.

CBS can now air NFC games

Three of CBS’s Thursday night games are games between two NFC teams, as is its Thanksgiving game: Bears at Lions. This results in the first-ever Thanksgiving with all three games as divisional rivalries. Very interestingly, in Week 4, Panthers at Ravens is scheduled to be on CBS, although the road team is NFC.

In the past, interconference games were always decided by the road team, with AFC games on CBS and NFC games on Fox. I can’t find any explanation on any official NFL communications for why this game is scheduled to air on CBS, so I just have to assume that a side effect of CBS’s Thursday night deal is that it will sometimes have Sunday afternoon games that traditionally would have aired on Fox.

Flexible scheduling now starts in Week 5

Flexible scheduling is the NFL’s way of moving more interesting games that were originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon (because the teams in the games were thought not to be contenders at the beginning of the season) to Sunday Night Football. This policy also includes the ability to switch games scheduled at 1 p.m. ET with games scheduled at 4:05 or 4:25.

Until last season, flexible scheduling didn’t start until Week 11, meaning that some midseason primetime games were clunkers. This new policy of allowing flexible scheduling to start in October will guarantee exciting games at the most prime viewing times (4:25 ET and 8:30 ET).

Week 17 schedule remains bland

The NFL’s decision starting in 2010 to schedule only divisional games in the final week of the season was a genius one, but it hasn’t been executed properly. One of the best rivalries of the last six years, Steelers and Ravens, has still never been played on Week 17. Here are other examples of games I would like to see on Week 17 but once again are not on the schedule: Chiefs/Broncos; Packers/Bears (It was on the schedule last year, which was a rare good Week 17 decision by the scheduling committee, and it made for a thrilling divisional championship game); Panthers/Saints; 49ers/Seahawks.

All these games have the potential to be divisional championship games. The only games currently on the schedule that I consider exciting are both NFC East games, either of which I could easily see becoming the title game for the division. Especially for rivalries such as Panthers/Saints and 49ers/Seahawks, in which the division came down to the final week of the season last year, it’s incomprehensible to me that the league wouldn’t want to have season finale games between these teams.

Tough path to a title defense

The Seahawks open the season on Thursday night of Week 1 when they host the Packers in their first visit back to the Link since the infamous Fail Mary game. They host the Broncos in Week 3, but I actually think the league should have taken advantage of the one-eighth chance of a Super Bowl rematch the following season at the site of the champion, and should have scheduled Broncos at Seahawks as the first game of the season. What I mean by a one-eighth chance is that teams in difference conferences only play each other once every four years, and therefore only play at every stadium in the other conference once every eight years.

While the Hawks may have a relatively easy schedule through the first two months of the season, they run the gauntlet in Weeks 11-16 with the following six games: at Chiefs; vs. Cardinals; at 49ers; at Eagles; vs. 49ers; at Cardinals. The Cardinals barely missed the playoffs last year, and were the only team last season to win at the Link. The 49ers also split the season series with the Seahawks and almost won the division. The Chiefs and Eagles were both playoff teams last season, and while they both lost in the first round, both losses were close games, and either of these teams could beat the Seahawks, especially at home.

On top of all that, the first 49ers game, at Levi’s Stadium, is just four days after the first Cardinals game, and is on Thanksgiving night. Even if the Seahawks somehow escape this tough late slate unscathed, it’ll be hard to buck this recent trend: The defending Super Bowl champion hasn’t won a playoff game the following season since Jan. 7, 2006.