Warner, Cards to open season on Monday Night Football?

The NFL has mastered the off-season when it comes to public relations. The most popular sports league in North America gives fans information in morsels rather than chunks and such is the case with the 2009 NFL schedule.

So far, the league has released just one game — the Oct. 25 clash between New England and Tampa Bay — primarily because it’s held in London. The main NFL schedule isn’t released until April, usually about two weeks before the draft.

But to speculate about who will play whom is interesting, especially when it comes to the league’s opening weekend and Thanksgiving. The NFL has a few patterns in recent when it comes to their annual opening-weekend schedule. Those include:

— The Super Bowl champion opens the season at home on a Thursday on the league’s primetime, over-the-air network (now NBC).

— The initial Sunday night game involves a high-profile match-up often coinciding with a team opening a new stadium.

— ESPN airs two live games on its initial Monday night programming. The first game is a solid match-up, while the second involves two teams in the western United States because it airs at 9:15 p.m. Central.

Considering those patterns, it’s an educated guess to think that Pittsburgh will open at home on Sept. 10th. Possible opponents include San Diego, Tennessee, Baltimore or Minnesota. But I’m going to say Baltimore at Pittsburgh in an AFC title rematch.

The Sunday night match-up (also on NBC) is a slam dunk. There’s no way the league won’t schedule Dallas in the Cowboys’ new $1.1 billion football cathedral. It’s probable for Dallas to schedule a divisional opponent and you could make a case for any of them. But I’ll say N.Y. Giants at Dallas, if only because the Giants were the best regular-season team last year. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Philadelphia or Washington faces Dallas.

The first ESPN game last year pitted Minnesota at Green Bay, only because the Packers had planned to retire Brett Favre’s No. 4 jersey. Those dynamics changed when Favregate surfaced in June. This summer, the most compelling storyline will involved New England QB Tom Brady and his recovery from knee surgery. So look for ESPN to schedule the Patriots at home. I’ll say the N.Y. Jets at New England, but only if Favre returns this year. The consolation will be Atlanta at New England because Falcons QB Matt Ryan, the NFL’s reigning rookie of the year, played collegiately at Boston College.

The second ESPN game has to involve the Cardinals. It’s a no-brainer. Arizona plays two other teams on Pacific time — San Francisco and Seattle. Considering the 49ers are somewhat of an up-and-coming team playing in a sub-standard stadium, the bet is San Francisco at Arizona.

As for the Thanksgiving trifecta, two home teams are as automatic as death and taxes — Detroit (which encompasses both aspects on the field) and Dallas. The Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving game since 1934, and the Cowboys have since the 1960s. That may change past 2009, according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in his annual state of the NFL address last Friday.

“I understand it’s a great tradition in Detroit and in Dallas,” Goodell said. “It’s something that our owners have raised from time to time. It will not change for this season. As to whether the ownership feels the same, we will discuss it as we get later into the year. We certainly will raise it.”

Since both teams will continue their tradition for at least one more year, consider that the teams rotate networks and conference opponents annually. Last year the Lions hosted Tennessee on CBS. This year, the Lions play an NFC opponent on Fox. Although sentiment likely will be high for Arizona to play at Detroit, common sense dictates that this could be a rough match-up for several reasons. A divisional opponent is safe for television and competitiveness. The pick here is Minnesota at Detroit.

Dallas will play on CBS and either one of two AFC West opponents — San Diego or Oakland. Let’s see, a highly competitive Chargers squad featuring Texas native LaDainian Tomlinson who played collegiately in the Dallas-Fort Worth area or a sub-pair Raiders squad lacking star power. This is a lay-up: San Diego at Dallas.

Finally, the Thanksgiving night game on NFL Network usually features a compelling match-up. Sometimes that backfires, like Indianapolis at a Michael Vick-less Atlanta. Last year’s seemed a head-scratcher with Arizona at Philadelphia. That was like hitting the lottery in hindsight. This one is like predicting a needle in a stack of needles. But I’ll say Indianapolis at Baltimore because this might be one of the final match-ups pittting the best defensive player of this generation (Baltimore LB Ray Lewis) against possibly the best quarterback of this generation (Indy’s Peyton Manning). Plus, there’s always an emotional backdrop when the Colts return to Baltimore, especially when this year is the 50th anniversary of the Colts’ 1959 NFL title team. The NFL Network could ride that storyline for a week.


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