PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 14: Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots waits in the tunnel to lead his team onto the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 14 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Coming off a Super Bowl appearance, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots -- one of the NFL's most dominant teams of the past decade -- only have four prime time games scheduled for the 2012-13 season.
Do the TV networks subscribe to the notion of a Super Bowl losers jinx? Or is the Patriots schedule just not appealing enough to put them in front of a national audience as many time as in the past? Or do they feel that America is just sick of Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the rest of the Patriots?
The NFL released the 2012 schedule this week in their usual minimalist, understated fashion. That is, they devoted a three-hour primetime network show to going over a schedule in which the opponents have been known for months.
The Patriots, coming off a Super Bowl appearance and the dominant team in the AFC for the last decade, have four, or the same number as the Detroit Lions. Only one of their prime time games is scheduled prior to Thanksgiving.
It seems odd that teams that were vast disappointments in 2011, such as the Eagles and Chargers, would be put front and center in this fashion, but perhaps the Patriots' schedule actually factors into their lack of prime time games. The Patriots schedule has been called the "weakest" in the NFL for the upcoming season (based on 2011 teams’ stats) by Adam Schefter, who in the same Tweet noted that teams with the "easiest" schedule have also missed the playoffs each of the last five seasons.
Other than AFC East matchups, the toughest part of New England's schedule lies in 2011 Division winners Baltimore, Denver, Houston and San Francisco. Not coincidentally, three of those four games make up the Patriots prime time schedule, and the Patriots face Denver (with new quarterback Peyton Manning) at Gillette stadium in a national 4:15 p.m. CBS broadcast on October 7th.
The highlight of the early part of the schedule is a rematch of the AFC Championship game as the Patriots travel to Baltimore to face the revenge-minded Ravens. This game will be the Sunday Night Football broadcast for the week, with Al Michaels and the always popular Cris Collinsworth calling the game.
While some local experts are saying that it is lock city that the Ravens will "embarrass your Patriots on national TV," I prefer to wait and see what the teams actually look like before I make a pronouncement on the outcome.
The Patriots then have to wait until Thanksgiving night to play again in prime time, as they travel to MetLife Stadium to play the Jets. In the past, the Thanksgiving night game had been broadcast on the NFL Network. As part of the new TV package, NBC now gets this game, and Patriots fans get another dose of Michaels and Collinsworth.
Two weeks later, the Patriots have back-to-back prime time games as they take on the Houston Texans on Monday, December 10th. ESPN shortened up its Monday Night Football booth, removing Ron Jaworski from the broadcasts, giving Jon Gruden more room to talk about "this guy." Mike Tirico has the task of reigning in Gruden that night when he starts gushing over Tom Brady and Matt Schaub.
The following Sunday, the Patriots are back on NBC for a matchup with the San Francisco 49ers and yet more Michaels and Collinsworth.
Any of the final seven games of the season are eligible for Flex Scheduling, but with the Patriots already having three prime time games in that period, and the other four consisting of Miami (twice) Jacksonville and Indianapolis, the likelihood of any of those contests being moved to NBC seems remote.
The Patriots have nine 1:00pm Sunday starts this season, including four at home, which many season ticket holders appreciate, though the home television audience may not always agree.
Let's hope the Patriots can take advantage of this "easy" schedule, and fly under the radar to another deep playoff run in January and February of 2013.