The most surprising thing about the NFL schedule released Thursday night is that there are no surprises.
The NFL is used to piecing together its schedule around concert tours and papal visits. But in an incredibly abnormal offseason, this is a normal-looking schedule, kicking off on Sept. 10 with two of the most electrifying quarterbacks in the game and ending Feb. 7 with Super Bowl LV in Tampa. At the peak of schedule planning a few weeks ago, 2,400 cloud computers were used, and they generated 34,000 playable schedules. The NFL reviewed 289 of them by hand, trying to make happy an almost impossible combination of owners, coaches and television executives. The one selected has one unusual feature that is worth noting -- every team plays two home and two away games in the first month of the season -- but otherwise does not give away what kind of logistical adjustments the NFL says it will be prepared to make in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, it does what all good schedules try to do: sprinkle the most anticipated matchups throughout the season. Think anticipation will be high for this season, no matter the games? Probably, but it will be that much higher when you realize Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes will meet in the opener, and the first Sunday will feature Tom Brady in a new uniform versus Drew Brees in his familiar one.
The NFL has already made one significant change in a nod to public health concerns: The five anticipated international games were moved back to the United States so that consistent stadium protocols could be upheld. There isn't much doubt that the game experience will be different for everyone this season. But, with some serious tinkering, the league has managed to keep its offseason activities on track -- with a virtual draft and virtual offseason programs -- and the approach to the season itself is taking on a similar look. The intention is to play the full season, on time, with fans. The schedule released Thursday night is, at the very least, a framework for what the season will look like, with public health considerations almost certain to shape it further when the season opens in four months.
Here are some things to watch as the season draws closer:
1) The NFL has plenty of experience adjusting the schedule, and officials familiar with the league's planning say looking at the past gives a good indication of what the league would do if changes are merited. The NFL postponed a week's slate of games after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and added those games to the back end of the season, pushing back the postseason and the Super Bowl. When the New Orleans Saints couldn't play at the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, they went on the road, playing home games in San Antonio and Baton Rouge and even at Giants Stadium. When heavy snowfall collapsed the Metrodome roof on the weekend of a game in 2010, the NFL moved the game from Minneapolis to Detroit. And Hurricane Irma caused the postponement of the season openers for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins in 2017. They played that game in Week 11, when both teams were originally scheduled for a bye. In other words, everybody should be prepared to be flexible and open to unorthodox solutions this season.
2) Welcome to prime time, Tampa Bay. This is a familiar spot for Tom Brady, but not so much for his new team. The Bucs are in prime time five times this season (they were there once last season) and they're in the 4:25 p.m. ET window another four times, including a blockbuster of a season opener at New Orleans on Sept. 13. That puts the Bucs in the same company as teams like the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens, who have the league's reigning most valuable player in Lamar Jackson. Apparently, the schedulers think seeing how Bill Belichick lives without Brady will be just as compelling as Brady himself. The Patriots, who currently have Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyeras their headline quarterbacks, are in prime time five times, too.
3) The Chiefs' schedule is a gift from the football gods to fans who are desperate to watch sports. Although there is no Super Bowl rematch with the 49ers, the Chiefs play nearly every other opponent you would hope to see Patrick Mahomes face, including the matchup we dreamed of seeing in the AFC Championship Game last season: the Chiefs versus the Ravens. Sit back and enjoy.
4) The NFL apparently isn't too worried about construction delays at the new stadiums in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. If they were, the schedulers could have put the Rams, Chargers and Raiders on the road for the first few weeks. Instead, the Rams open SoFi Stadium on the first Sunday night of the season against -- who else? -- the Dallas Cowboys. In Week 2, the Raiders open Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Monday night against the Saints, while the Chargers host the Chiefs at SoFi.
5) We didn't know at this time last year that Jackson would explode and make the Ravens must-see TV. So which team do the schedulers seem to think will emerge this year? Maybe it's the Buffalo Bills, who are the chic favorite to supplant the Brady-less Patriots in the AFC East. The Bills played in prime time once last season. This year, they have four appearances.
GAMES TO WATCH
You'll notice a trend here. There are a lot of great quarterback matchups this season:
1) Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs and 2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints (Week 1): Two youngsters, two elders, four of the best in the league, plus our first look at Brady in a Bruce Arians offense.
3) Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints and 4) Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens (Week 3): These are the Sunday and Monday night games, respectively, so don't expect your East Coast friends to be well rested that week.
5) San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots (Week 7):Jimmy Garoppolo versus Jarrett Stidham? Brian Hoyer? A really good look at how Belichick will try to beat top competition in the post-Brady era.
6) Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers (Week 9): This matchup is part of a brutal stretch for the 49ers that starts with the Patriots game, includes the Seahawks in Week 8 and this game the following Thursday night, which precedes a trip to New Orleans. They will have earned the Week 11 bye that follows.
7) Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 12): A Thanksgiving night treat. This is a classic rivalry that will pit Jackson against Pittsburgh's resurgent defense and, the Steelers hope, a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.
8) Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 12): We should have just listed the Chiefs' and Bucs' schedules, but who doesn't want to see Mahomes versus Brady for what might be the last time now that they are not in the same conference?
9) Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins (Week 13): Will this be Joe Burrow versus Tua Tagovailoa? We'll take it.
11) Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys (Week 16): The two best teams in the NFC East will meet, likely with the division title on the line.