- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The Steelers, Giants, Broncos and Vikings were big draws for the five networks based on the release Thursday of the NFL schedule. So were Randy Moss and Brett Favre, so for the sake of the Packers and the networks No. 4 had better come back and not retire.
More than anything else, there was plenty of strategy involved in how the networks positioned themselves for the 2006 season. Because a team can be on prime time only four times, it was easy to see why the Colts ended up with three prime-time contests compared to four by the Steelers, Giants, Broncos and Vikings.
Starting in Week 11, flexible scheduling comes into play for Sunday games. NBC has the Sunday night schedule and has the ability to move games from the afternoon to prime time. That process begins Nov. 12.
Peyton Manning is always a top draw so he starts the NBC Sunday night season with a game against his brother, Eli Manning of the Giants, on Sept. 10 at Giants Stadium. The Colts have a Nov. 5 Sunday night game at New England that will be one of the highlights of the season. ESPN has a Monday night prime game on Dec. 18 featuring the Colts against the Bengals that could be high scoring if Carson Palmer is back fully from his knee surgery.
But from Nov. 12 through the end of the season, the Colts could be on call for another prime-time move. That could be the Nov. 19 game against the Cowboys in Dallas, the Nov. 19 game in Indianapolis against the Eagles or the Dec. 10 game against the Jaguars in Jacksonville.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the schedule is how well the Raiders fared even though they are coming off a 4-12 season. They play the Chargers in Oakland in the second of two ESPN Monday night games on Sept. 11. They have an NBC Sunday night game against the Broncos in Denver on Oct. 15. The Seahawks play host to them on ESPN Nov. 6 in Seattle on Monday night. Then, the Chiefs visit the Raiders Dec. 23 in a Saturday NFL Network game.
Like Al Davis, the prime-time networks are banking on Art Shell's re-instilling the Raiders' tradition and getting the franchise back to .500 (or above). Plus, Moss is still one of the most entertaining players in the game.
Compare the Raiders' schedule to their Bay Area rivals -- the 49ers. Like the Raiders, the 49ers were 4-12 in 2005. The only prime-time appearance for the 49ers is a Dec. 14 game against the Seahawks in Seattle, a Thursday night game on the NFL Network.
The other surprise is how the Packers, also 4-12 in 2005, still remain one of the better draws. They have two Monday night games on ESPN -- Oct. 2 at Philadelphia and Nov. 27 at Seattle. They have a Thursday night NFL Network game against the Vikings Dec. 21.
The Steelers head the list of big draws with four prime-time games, including three of their first four -- Thursday, Sept. 7 against the Dolphins in Pittsburgh; Monday, Sept. 18 against the Jaguars in Jacksonville on ESPN; and Oct. 8 at San Diego on Sunday night on NBC. Sandwiched in between those games is a key AFC North division contest against the Bengals on Sept. 24. and an Oct. 1 bye week. Tough start to the season.
Here's a look at the top 10 matchups of the 2006.
Terrell Owens' return to Philadelphia will be even more compelling than his first game against his former 49ers teammates last season. It's fitting the first game will be in Philadelphia. The Eagles have a good chance to be 3-0 or 2-1. They open with road games at Houston and at San Francisco and have a home game against the Giants on Sept. 17. The Cowboys' first two games are against the Jaguars and Redskins but they should be 2-1 heading into that Eagles game. The Philadelphia fans will be rabid. They will have a chance to boo Owens, and Owens will love being in the spotlight. Now, he's wearing the colors of the Cowboys. The Cowboys have three of their first four games on the road, so Owens will be used to the jeers instead of the cheers. This has a chance to be one of the loudest games of the year.
2. Denver Broncos at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Nov. 5
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen told the NFL where to go when the league asked him to open the Broncos' season in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Sept. 7. After all, the Broncos lost the AFC title game in Denver to the Steelers. That loss still hurts. In some ways, the NFL was easy on the Broncos. Instead of scheduling a December game in Pittsburgh, the Broncos got a break by playing Nov. 5. It will be a 4:15 game and cold, but it could be worse. At least, the Broncos won't be playing in the worst weather conditions. Since being dominated by the Steelers in the AFC title game, Denver has added two more Cleveland Browns defensive linemen to bring their number of former Browns to seven. Those linemen know the Steelers, but they haven't had much success against them. Maybe there will be safety in numbers.
3. Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots, Sunday Night, Nov. 5
The Colts' season usually is judged by how they do against the Patriots. Last season, the Colts beat the Patriots, 40-21, and thoughts of reaching the Super Bowl flashed through their heads. So did thoughts of an unbeaten season. The Colts added to the rivalry by stealing one of Boston's favorite sons, kicker Adam Vinatieri. His return should bring mixed feelings for the Patriots fans. First, they love him for being one of the clutch kickers in NFL history. Second, he's almost as popular as Tom Brady. But his return will have everyone wondering whether the Patriots did enough this offseason. The Patriots will have seven games in the books by the time they play the Colts. The Patriots opened free agency with $20 million of cap room but lost seven players and cut four. The Colts lost linebacker David Thornton and halfback Edgerrin James. By November, whomever they draft in the first or second round as running back should be a factor in their offense.
4. New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, Monday night, Oct. 23 on ESPN and Sunday, Dec. 3 in Giants Stadium
NFC East games are the ticket to big ratings in 2006. The division is the most competitive in football, and it has some of the biggest rivalries. Plus, they are in some of the biggest television markets in the country. Even though the Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins are marquee teams, the Giants should be a steady playoff contender after building around Eli Manning, who has plenty of weapons -- halfback Tiki Barber, receivers Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress and tight end Jeremy Shockey. The Giants will try to put on a relentless pass rush to challenge the immobility of Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Though Giants coach Tom Coughlin and Cowboys coach Bill Parcells are good friends, this is a rivalry that is growing because of the players and the big names on both teams. The Oct. 23 game is one of ESPN's better Monday night games.
5. San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 19 and at San Diego, Sunday, Dec. 10
It's hard to figure who will be the Broncos' main challengers in the AFC West. Will it be the Chiefs, who traded for Herman Edwards to coach in place of retired Dick Vermeil? Will it be the Raiders now that Shell is back? The Chargers probably are their biggest challengers, and the Broncos get the break by getting the first game in Denver. The way this series works is that the Broncos usually win their home game, but struggle in San Diego later in the season. Last year, the Broncos played the season finale and won by busting up Drew Brees' shoulder and sweeping the series. Philip Rivers takes over at quarterback so by this late-season matchup, the Chargers should know where they fit in the AFC West. With their defense, they should be pretty good.
6. Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Oct. 22
The Vikings tore a big hole in the free agency rules by using poison pills to take Pro Bowl guard Steve Hutchinson away from the Seahawks. Hutchinson was considered the top priority to re-sign by the Seahawks. They didn't want to lose him. In response, the Seahawks came back and used poison pills to steal Vikings wide receiver Nate Burleson on a seven-year, $49 million deal. There is a little bit of a building rivalry between these two NFC teams. Of the seven new first-time coaches, Vikings coach Brad Childress might have the best chance to go to the playoffs. He takes over a talented team that has been building through free agency and the draft the past couple years. It might hurt them that they traded away quarterback Daunte Culpepper, but the Vikings will know by October whether Brad Johnson can hold up as their quarterback. This could be Mike Holmgren's last year in Seattle. The team is trying to work on a contract extension, but the one game he won't want to lose is this one.
7. Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Sept. 10 and in Atlanta, Sunday, Dec. 24
This is a big one that will slip under the headlines during the first week of the NFL opening weekend. Still, the Panthers finally figured out how to stop Falcons quarterback Michael Vick last year. The Panthers swept them twice after years of losing. They changed their defense in order to get faster and be able to blitz. Vick's mobility drives them crazy, but years of drafting and signing free agents have given them the man-to-man coverage ability to contain the Falcons. Falcons coach Jim Mora will be motivated to fix what went wrong in Atlanta's two losses to the Panthers.
8. Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots, Sunday, Oct. 8 and at Miami, Sunday, Dec. 10
It's surprising prime time didn't pick up either of these games, but the second game in Miami should on NBC's radar to move to prime time. The Dolphins have a chance to take the division away from the Patriots. Nick Saban pulled nine wins last season from a team that didn't have a lot of talent and made the best of having Gus Frerotte at quarterback. Now, the Dolphins have Daunte Culpepper and a month of the regular season to get him ready for the Patriots game. Saban and Patriots coach Bill Belichick are friends. Saban learned the NFL under Belichick. He's building a similar team and he has had one of the best offseasons. Still, the Patriots have home-field advantage in their first meeting and need to take advantage of it.
9. Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday, Sept, 24 and in Cincinnati, Sunday, Dec. 31
The Steelers have a huge advantage in this game. First, there is no guarantee Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer will be playing in this game. It's in Week 3, and he's coming off major knee surgery from an injury suffered in the Bengals' playoff loss to the Steelers. The Bengals are still searching for a backup quarterback. It could be Joey Harrington or Tommy Maddox or Jamie Martin starting in this game. Advantage, Pittsburgh. Steelers coach Bill Cowher won't let the Steelers forget that they lost a home game to the Bengals last season.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Sept, 24 and at Jacksonville, Sunday, Dec. 10
Give the NFL credit for listening. The criticism over the past few years of schedules is that too many of the key division games are delayed until November. You shouldn't have to wait 10 weeks for the top teams in the division to play. The Jaguars and Colts are the top two teams in the AFC South. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio has a tough, physical defense that gives the Colts trouble. Peyton Manning will have the Colts focused on trying to get off to a good start in a tough opening slate. The Colts open at the Giants and have home games against division rivals Houston and Jacksonville. With two home games early, the Colts have to win to be in control of the division. There will be pressure on the Colts to win this game, but the Colts respond to pressure during the regular season.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Featured among the top matchups in 2006 is a certain WR squaring off against his former team twice, including Christmas Day.