- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The NFL announced the five-game featured television schedule for the opening of the 2007 season on Monday.
The key games at night were strong on division rivalries. Fox and NBC received big interconference matchups. What's apparent is the balance of the featured games. An offensive showdown between the Saints and Colts offsets a defensive battle between the Bears and the Chargers.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell disclosed a partial list of the league's TV schedule at the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix.
A year ago, the thought of a Saints-Colts season-opening game would have sent shivers of fear down the spines of network executives. The Saints were expected to be horrible. Sean Payton was taking over a team that changed 27 players on its 53-man roster and had a quarterback, Drew Brees, coming off major shoulder surgery. Many forecasted the Saints to be a four-win or fewer team.
The Saints turned out to be the darlings of the league. Not only did Payton earn Coach of the Year honors, but he put together one of the most exciting offensive systems in the game. Thanks to Payton, Brees, Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, the Saints should have an interesting, high-scoring matchup against the Colts and Peyton Manning on Sept. 6. Manning usually does well in games against the Saints.
With his father Archie a former Saint, the game should have a sentimental tone. Manning is coming off his first Super Bowl victory and would love to have a four-touchdown game to kick off the 2007 season. Kickoff for this Thursday night game will be at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Fox's Sunday afternoon feature game should be a dandy. The Chargers have one of the most aggressive 3-4 defenses in the league, but they will be adjusting to the loss of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Bears have one of the fastest 4-3 defenses in the league, but their team will probably be in the headlines all week. Linebacker Lance Briggs wants out after being named a franchise player. Most people expect him to hold out until the opening week of the season. His return or holdout will be a major topic of conversation during the week. Kickoff will be at 4:15 in San Diego.
Networks can never go wrong with division games to open the season, so NBC and ESPN must feel as though they came up as winners. NBC's first Sunday night game features the Giants and the Cowboys, which should have a potential for a monster rating.
Despite the retirement of Bill Parcells, the Cowboys are usually a huge draw. Phillips will try to install more blitzes in the Cowboys 3-4 defense. Giants coach Tom Coughlin knows the pressure is on. Going on the road for an opening game in Dallas at night isn't an easy way to open an important season. Kickoff is at 8:15 p.m.
ESPN opens with its traditional Monday night doubleheader. The first game will be a physical one between the Bengals and the Ravens, two AFC North rivals who will be getting into each other's faces during the game. That game starts at 7 p.m. The second game is a little bit of a shock, but the 49ers and Cardinals are potentially two surprise teams built around young quarterbacks -- Matt Leinart of the Cardinals and Alex Smith of the 49ers. Kickoff for that game will be at 10:15 p.m. ET.
For the second straight year, the NFL Network will host a Thanksgiving night game when the Colts head to Atlanta to face the Falcons.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
5hEric D. Williams