The NFL now technically has four separate prime-time television packages on four different networks, with CBS and NFL Network basically splitting the Thursday batch. And so when the league finally released its full 2014 regular-season schedule on Wednesday, it gave us an opportunity to break down who got the best and worst run of games among the four.
1. NBC (full schedule here)
Sunday Night Football always has a clear edge over Monday Night Football and Thursday Night Football, and that again appears to be the case here. It makes sense considering that ESPN and NFLN don’t get as many eyeballs, but there’s little reason why CBS’ slate of prime-time games shouldn’t be just as strong.
The Peacock has 19 games in total, but the finale won’t be determined until that week thanks to flex scheduling. Inevitably, that’ll be the best game of Week 17. And NBC will now have the ability to do some extra flexing as early as Week 5. That’s a huge advantage.
Even without taking flexes into account (which we obviously can’t do right now anyway), NBC kicks ass. Of the 18 games currently scheduled, 12 are between teams that had winning records last year, nine are between 2013 playoff teams and eight are between fiery division rivals. Basically, if they have a game that doesn’t involve an “elite” team, it’s a rivalry game.
The only team on their entire 18-game schedule that had a losing record last year is the New York Giants, who went 7-9, are expected to be better this year and are a huge draw regardless. And those Giants games are against the Eagles and Cowboys, both of which are sure things in the ratings department.
It’s hard to find a bad game within this package. Maybe Pittsburgh-Carolina in Week 3? Everything else looks like gold. And if it turns to silver, it might be flexed anyway.
Best games: Packers-Seahawks (Week 1), Colts-Broncos (Week 1), Bengals-Patriots (Week 5), 49ers-Broncos (Week 7), Packers-Saints (Week 8), Seahawks-49ers (Thanksgiving).
2. CBS (full schedule here)
The league presumably recognized that Thursday night needed some better games now that half of them are airing on network television. And CBS deserved that, considering that it paid $275 million for eight bloody games.
But instead of giving CBS NBC-level flash, the league gave them eight divisional games. Thursdays have always been heavy on divisional games, but most of these are top-notch matchups. If they choose to take Eagles-Redskins over Chargers-49ers in Week 16, they’ll have two all-NFC East games, which is never bad. But San Diego-San Fran isn’t too shabby either as an alternative.
Depending on what game they air in Week 16, CBS will either have one or two games between teams that had winning records in 2013. The first is Chargers-Broncos in Week 8 and the second would be Bolts-Niners on that penultimate weekend of the regular season.
Colts-Texans and Jets-Patriots are better than they look on paper, but Bucs-Falcons and Vikings-Packers are not exactly enticing matchups. If I’m CBS, I’m a little disappointed. While about half of NBC’s games are between winning, playoff-caliber teams, that applies to less than a quarter of CBS’ sked.
Best games: Chargers-Broncos (Week 8), Chargers-49ers or Eagles-Redskins (Week 16)
3. ESPN (full schedule here)
With NBC getting a lot of heavily-hyped games and CBS getting plenty of divisional games, ESPN is left in a weird spot. The Worldwide Leader has only three divisional matchups on its 17-game regular-season Monday Night Football schedule.
In that regard, you can’t fail with Redskins-Cowboys, but Dolphins-Jets in December is real risky, especially without the ability to flex. And 49ers-Rams in October isn’t exactly sexy.
Only five of ESPN’s 17 games are between teams that had winning records last season. That’s only 29 percent, which pales in comparison to NBC’s rate of 67 percent (a number which is likely to grow with flex scheduling).
They do appear to finish strong with Falcons-Packers, Saints-Bears and Broncos-Bears in the final three weeks, but there are too many potential duds before that (Steelers-Titans, Texans-Steelers, Bears-Jets).
On the bright side, ESPN has itself a playoff game for the first time in the network’s history.
Best games: Seahawks-Redskins (Week 5), Panthers-Eagles (Week 10), Broncos-Bengals (Week 16)
4. NFL Network (full schedule here)
Because every team gets at least one Thursday game and CBS has paid for a premium package, NFLN is left with some real uglies. For example, Titans-Jaguars in Week 16, which may be the worst locked-in, late-season prime-time game in the history of the world. They don’t do much better with Browns-Bengals, Bills-Dolphins and Chiefs-Raiders in consecutive weeks midway through the season. If these weren’t divisional games, they’d have close to no value.
Just like CBS, depending on who they draw in Week 16, NFLN will have either one or two matchups (out of eight) between teams that had winning records and went to the playoffs last year. That’s expected, but it gives you a feel for how much CBS may have been shafted. But since ESPN is also in that range in terms of percentage of games between winning teams, maybe that just speaks to NBC’s dominance.
NFL Network could salvage things a bit with Saints-Panthers in Week 9, Cowboys-Bears in Week 14 and an underrated Cardinals-Rams game in Week 15, and whoever they get between Chargers-49ers and Eagles-Redskins on the Saturday of Week 16 should be good, but it’s still a pretty mediocre schedule.
And considering where these games are airing, that’s the way it should be.
Best games: Saints-Panthers (Week 9), Cowboys-Bears (Week 14)