The Rams and Chargers are in the spotlight.
So is Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
And the NFL is trying several experiments, including an unprecedented tripleheader on Christmas Day.
Highlights, wrinkles and Easter eggs of the league’s 2022 schedule:
In terms of viewers, NBC’s two biggest games last season involved Tom Brady. There was the Kickoff Game (Dallas at Tampa Bay) and Brady’s return to New England in Week 4. Both were blockbusters.
So this season, the NFL came back strong with another double dose of Brady. It’s Cowboys-Buccaneers in Week 1 again, and — although there’s nothing to equal the showdown with Bill Belichick — an early-season matchup between Kansas City and Tampa Bay. That’s probably the last meeting of Patrick Mahomes and Brady.
The whole country is going to get a good look at both Los Angeles teams this season.
The Rams are constantly in the national spotlight, with home games that include matchups against Buffalo (Kickoff Game), Las Vegas (Thursday night), Denver (Christmas Day), and both Dallas and San Francisco in those national Fox doubleheader windows.
And look how far the Chargers have come. It’s been a long time since they were maxed out in primetime windows, but they play on two Sunday nights, two Monday nights and in the inaugural Amazon streaming game on Thursday night.
The Rams and Chargers play each other in the last scheduled Sunday night game of the season. Remember the Sunday night finale in Week 18 has yet to be determined. But the fact that the league gave them that marquee spot is noteworthy.
If Allen isn’t the next Face of the NFL, at least the Buffalo quarterback is in the discussion.
The Bills are playing in the Kickoff Game for the first time, and they’re back in your living rooms on Thanksgiving Day, this time at Detroit. A lot of that is because of Allen’s budding superstardom. Three years ago, he led Buffalo to victory at Dallas on Thanksgiving in what is always the most-watched game of the season.
Not only that, but also he’s playing in one of the first ABC/ESPN side-by-side games. More on those below.
OK, what’s this side-by-side thing?
In Week 2 on “Monday Night Football,” Tennessee plays at Buffalo at 4:15 p.m. on ESPN, then it’s Minnesota at Philadelphia at 5:30 on ABC.
That’s right, ABC is back in the mix with a game. It’s an experiment by the NFL to put games side-by-side under the Disney banner.
The rationale is to try to keep up ABC’s involvement with the NFL. This year that network is going to simulcast four ESPN games, plus broadcast a game alone.
This is an experiment with an eye toward 2023, when there will be three side-by-side ABC/ESPN games.
Remember all those years of kicking off the season with “Monday Night Football” doubleheaders on ESPN, with the first game starting at 4 and the second at 7:15? Well, that didn’t go over so well on the East Coast when that second game was finishing around 1 a.m. Much of the country snapped off the TV in the second half, especially because the matchups were Raiders-Chargers, Broncos-Raiders and the like.
With this side-by-side system, instead of six hours of football, it will be closer to 4½. Viewers can tune in to the first 90 minutes of the early game, and then there’s overlap, followed by the finish of the second game. That way, nobody sleeps through their alarm the next morning.
Denver was a strong candidate to open against the Rams. That’s just the kind of juice that Russell Wilson brings.
Instead, the NFL opted for the Broncos to open at Seattle, with Wilson returning to face the Seahawks.
Why so soon? Most people are expecting the Seahawks to take a step back this season. Probably best to get that Wilson game in as soon as possible, when everybody’s hopes are still intact.
When we heard the term “cross-flex” before, it invariably meant the league was taking a good game away from Fox and giving it to CBS to bolster that network’s inventory. Last year, for instance, CBS got Chicago at Tampa Bay, Seattle at Green Bay and Dallas at the Chargers.
Part of that is an effort to balance the Fox and CBS packages, and part is to get some sunlight on some Fox games that might be under-distributed around the country.
Once again, CBS is getting a big game this season that would have otherwise gone to Fox: Rams at Tampa Bay. But there’s also a twist this year. For the first time, CBS is cross-flexing a big game to Fox: Kansas City at San Francisco.
One of the reasons for that is CBS has a robust inventory of really good matchups. The AFC is loaded with great young quarterbacks.
When the new media deals kick in next season, there’s a big change coming. The whole concept of the visiting team determining the TV network goes away. So it’s not, AFC’s on the road so it’s a CBS game; NFC’s on the road so it’s a Fox game.
Next season, every game is a free agent, a jump ball. No commitments, no obligations. The notion that this game belongs to CBS or Fox goes out the window.
Now, on the back end, the league will distribute at least a minimum number of games to the networks. So Fox will still get more NFC games, and more Cowboys appearances, but the old concept of game ownership is over.
Why the change? Moving forward, the league is getting away from the notion that Fox has the premium package and CBS has something less than that. Now both networks will have to pony up similar rights fees, some number between astronomical and otherworldly.
Fox is gearing up for maybe the biggest four-day stretch in the history of sports TV, starting with the New York Giants at Dallas on Thanksgiving. Sure, the Giants aren’t what they once were, but this is a classic rivalry, one with a distinct John Madden-Pat Summerall feel.
The next day, on Black Friday, Fox has the U.S. versus England in a World Cup soccer match.
The network will follow that Saturday with Michigan at Ohio State.
Sunday will have an NFL doubleheader that includes Rams at Kansas City.
Could Fox top 30 million viewers per day?
The NFL Network schedules includes a Christmas Eve game between Las Vegas and Pittsburgh.
Imagine that, Raiders-Steelers coming 50 years plus one day after the legendary Immaculate Reception game.
The weird thing about this is it’s a standings-based matchup, so the NFL didn’t know until the very last game of the season that this game would happen.
The Raiders played the Chargers in the final Sunday night game, and by winning, finished second in the AFC West. The Steelers finished second in the AFC North.
Now, four days before the one-year anniversary of the sports world losing Madden, an Immaculate Rematch.
The NFL is staging its first Christmas Day tripleheader, with Green Bay at Miami, Denver at the Rams and Tampa Bay at Arizona.
Those road quarterbacks are Aaron Rodgers, Wilson and Brady.
Keep this in mind: Christmas falls on a Monday next year. You can trust that the NFL has another tripleheader in mind for 2023.