The NFL schedule was released yesterday in another man-made holliday in the well-known conspiracy perpetrated by Hallmark/NFL.  Seriously, I’m all for NFL hollidays, but “Schedule Day” falls somewhere between “Preseason Finale” and “OTA Day.”  Anyways, the most intriguing part of the schedule is seeing the quality of the primetime games for Sunday, Monday, and now Thursday night. Even though Sunday night and NBC has the best of the primetime packages, their is still something to say about being on the showcase that is Monday Night Football… except for maybe last year.

Even as the schedule for MNF was released last year, we knew it looked like a down year for one of the most well-known franchises in sports.  And midway through last year, those fears were fully realized.  Did the NFL try to compensate for last year’s, at times, brutal MNF schedule?  Let’s check it out to see what the leaner, meaner MNF team will be tackling in 2012.

Week 1: Cincinnati Bengals @ Baltimore Ravens 
Week 1: San Diego Chargers @ Oakland Raiders 
Week 2: Denver Broncos @ Atlanta Falcons 
Week 3: Green Bay Packers @ Seattle Seahawks 
Week 4: Chicago Bears @ Dallas Cowboys 
Week 5: Houston Texans @ New York Jets 
Week 6: Denver Broncos @ San Diego Chargers 
Week 7: Detroit Lions @ Chicago Bears 
Week 8: San Francisco 49ers @ Arizona Cardinals 
Week 9: Philadelphia Eagles @ New Orleans Saints 
Week 10: Kansas City Chiefs @ Pittsburgh Steelers 
Week 11: Chicago Bears @ San Francisco 49ers 
Week 12: Carolina Panthers @ Philadelphia Eagles 
Week 13: New York Giants @ Washington Redskins 
Week 14: Houston Texans @ New England Patriots 
Week 15: New York Jets @ Tennessee Titans 
Week 16: Atlanta Falcons @ Detroit Lions

A disturbing trend unfortunately continues in this year’s MNF schedule.  Two years ago in 2010 there were 13 games featuring division rivals.  Last year, that number was reduced to 9 divisional games. This year, there are only 6 games between teams from the same division.  Not only does that heighten the risk of pitting two teams against each other who are out of the playoff picture, but it takes away the chance to showcase many of the league’s best rivalries.  Consider also that 2 of the 6 divisional games take place in the Week 1 doubleheader and 3 of the 6 involve the wretched NFC and AFC West.

To be honest, none of the other games really stand out as ones we can say with certainty will be “must see” although we’re finally spared Jets/Dolphins for the 13th straight year.  Only 4 games include two playoff teams from last season.  Of course, with the amount of turnover year-to-year in the playoffs, that could be a good thing for ESPN and MNF.

Naturally, ESPN’s two favorite teams, Denver and the Jets are both featured twice.  There’s also a myriad of other teams featured twice (Lions, Eagles, Chargers, Falcons, 49ers, Bears, and Texans), many of them up-and-coming contenders.

The best quarterback matchups look to be Peyton Manning vs. Matt Ryan (Week 2) or Philip Rivers (Week 6) and Mike Vick vs. Drew Brees (Week 9) or Cam Newton (Week 12)m but none of these matchups feature two elite quarterbacks going against each other.  Aaron Rogers and Tom Brady only appear once.  Bears @ Cowboys in Week 4 pits two marquee franchises, but two mercurial quarterbacks against each other.  Also, the last 4 Super Bowl champions (Giants, Packers, Saints, Steelers) and consistent contenders (Ravens, Patriots) each appear only once.

Thankfully, things couldn’t get much worse than last season when fans were treated to such gems as San Diego @ Jacksonville (sorry Blythe) and St. Louis @ Seattle late in the season.  And of course, the inability to flex games like NBC leaves the MNF schedule in the hands of the football gods.  In fact, behind Sunday nights on NBC and Thursday nights on the league-owned NFL Network, MNF might be 3rd best.