NFL schedules get off to strong starts with Week 1 twinbills

Sports

FILE – In this Jan. 16, 2021, file photo, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) runs during an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Green Bay, Wis. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst says the team remains committed to Rodgers “for the foreseeable future” one year after trading up in the first round to draft the three-time MVP’s potential successor. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps, File)

An additional week of regular-season games will benefit NFL fans right from the start.

In order to keep an equal number of doubleheaders between CBS and Fox, the league has decided to make Week 1 a doubleheader for both networks, which is also what they do on the final week.

Blake Jones of the league’s scheduling department said the success of the doubleheaders during the final week was one of the driving forces behind adding it to the opening week. It also means Fox and CBS will each have 10 doubleheaders during the season.

“It is an amazing amount of football and everyone gets four games (two each on Fox and CBS),” Jones said. “It is also not favoring one network over the other. Both can showcase their games and give our fans something special.”

The featured games in the 4:25 p.m. window on Sept. 12 will be Green Bay at New Orleans on Fox and Cleveland at Kansas City on NBC.

Fox has traditionally had the Week 1 doubleheader, but Fox Sports executive vice president Michael Mulvihill doesn’t mind sharing the day.

“It is a fun way for the season to start. It’s really a feast,” he said.

Jones said the scheduling department did deep dives on close to 500 combinations that were run through the league servers before narrowing it down the last couple weeks. It wasn’t until last Saturday evening that the final schedule was presented to Commissioner Roger Goodell and signed off on.

The final schedule this season was number 102,846 from Server 2020Controller03-4XLarge, which is based somewhere in Europe. Jones said the league announcing a schedule release date in advance created some pressure, but nothing extra compared to previous years.

“It is healthy, realistic pressure. We haven’t announced a date in previous years, but we have been working under target days for so many years,” he said. “We had been talking about when the extra game was going to be added for a few years so we already had the framework and were able to hit the ground running.”

Here are other takeaways from the networks about their packages:

GRAND OPENINGS (AGAIN)

Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium and Las Vegas’ Allegiant Stadium were in the spotlight when they opened last season, but both will get star billing again with fans finally being allowed in the buildings.

The Rams opener against Chicago is the NBC Sunday night game on Week 1 while the Raiders will host Baltimore to kick off this season’s “Monday Night Football” package on ESPN and ABC.

ESPN executive vice president of programming Burke Magnus said they requested giving Vegas another chance to have a proper opener.

“To put Baltimore there with Lamar Jackson, that’s two good teams and we get a chance to showcase Vegas,” he said.

The SoFi showcase also gives NBC a prime opportunity to promote itself as the Super Bowl network since the season will end in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, 2022.

THE RODGERS COMMUNDRUM

Green Bay will be featured on Fox 11 times — including Christmas Day against Cleveland — along with two Sunday night games on NBC and a Monday night appearance. Whether or not that includes Aaron Rodgers as the Packers quarterback remains to be seen.

If the reigning NFL MVP is traded, Mulvihill said Fox has the ability to adjust the number of times the Packers are featured by adjusting doubleheaders or moving around kickoff times.

“The Packers are an important brand for us and the best outcome would be the reigning MVP back in Lambeau Field,” he said. “We had to move around some things last year when the NFC East teams struggled. We are pretty insulated and in position to keep that 4:25 p.m. window good.”

Besides Week 1 and Christmas Day, Green Bay is Fox’s featured game on Nov. 7 when it visits Kansas City.

Jones said there were discussions about Rodgers future in Green Bay when reports first surfaced during the draft and that they were prepared for any last-minute changes had they occurred the last two weeks.

THE GEM GAME

NBC was the winner of Tom Brady’s return to Foxborough and the most anticipated matchup of the regular season. “Sunday Night Football” will have Tampa Bay’s trip to New England on Oct. 4, which is one of three scheduled appearances by the defending champions.

“This is going to be the most anticipated game in a long time. That is the one we really wanted. Everything we got after that is gravy,” said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of “Sunday Night Football”.

NBC will close the regular season with six straight division matchups, which hopefully should bolster the schedule during the second half and create more compelling matchups with playoff spots on the line.

MORE MONDAY DIVISION MATCHUPS

“Monday Night Football” will have eight games that are divisional matchups. That includes three in the first five weeks and four in the final five weeks, including the Browns and Steelers on Jan. 3.

ESPN and ABC will get two Saturday games to kick off Week 18 on Jan. 8, which will be determined by the time Cleveland and Pittsburgh kick off.

“We have all the playoff teams and seven games feature both teams that were above .500 last eason. If you break it down, this schedule is better than past years in every data point,” Magnus said.

CHIEFS ANCHOR CBS

Two-time defending AFC champion Kansas City are on CBS 10 times, with seven appearances being in the early 1 p.m. window.

The Chiefs will be in the network’s late window two times in the final three weeks — Dec. 26 against Pittsburgh and Jan. 9 vs. Denver.

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus is also pleased that they were able to get Dallas’ visit to New England on Oct. 17 as well as Chicago at Tampa Bay the following week.

“I couldn’t be more pleased. I think this is the best schedule we have had in recent memory,” McManus said. “Cleveland-Kansas City is a good divisional playoff rematch and the day starts off strong with Pittsburgh-Buffalo.”

BACK TO OHIO

Considering that the September Thursday night games that are aired only on NFL Network are usually some of the least appealing matchups, Mark Quenzel was pretty happy with the early slate.

The New York Giants face Washington in Week 2 (Sept. 16) with Trevor Lawrence and Jacksonville traveling to Cincinnati to face Joe Burrow’s Bengals two weeks later. It will also be a bit of a homecoming for Jaguars coach Urban Meyer, who led Ohio State to a national championship and also attended the University of Cincinnati.

“It will be a great story with the last two number one picks and Urban Meyer returning to Ohio,” said Quenzel, the senior vice president and head of content with NFL Network.

NFL Network and Fox are teaming up for one last season of Thursday nights before they move to Amazon exclusively next season.

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Follow Joe Reedy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joereedy

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More AP NFL coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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