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Line of Scrimmage: Breaking down the schedule

Had your fill of Peyton Manning discussion this offseason? The NFL doesn't seem to think so.

Can't get enough of Tebow Mania? Well, your fix will just have to wait.

Tebow's old team and Manning's new one will unsurprisingly be the centerpiece of the opening portion of the league's 2012 regular-season schedule that was unveiled Tuesday, a ceremony that's become an event in itself and further confirms the public's unquenchable zest for America's most popular sport.

Manning's Denver Broncos will be paraded on the national stage in each of the first two weeks and are featured on prime time on four occasions before the campaign even reaches the halfway point.

Manning's official Denver debut will take place at home with a blockbuster "Sunday Night Football" encounter against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a rematch of this past January's AFC wild card playoff thriller won by the Broncos on an 80-yard touchdown pass by Tebow, who's now taken his polarizing skill set and enormous mass appeal to the star-struck New York Jets, on the first play of overtime.

The Broncos follow with a Monday night trip to Atlanta and also have showcase games with AFC West rival San Diego (also on a Monday) and the outlaw-branded New Orleans Saints sandwiched around a Week 7 bye, an obvious indication of the league's desire to market the most highly billed free agent in its history to the max.

It's an idea that certainly makes sense. Not only will Manning be eyeballed and scrutinized more than any player this coming season because of the legendary quarterback's new digs and his injury-forced one-year hiatus from the game, but due to his still-ambiguous physical condition caused by multiple neck surgeries, it's wise for the NFL to bank on his health earlier than later.

In contrast, the Jets will be a virtual prime time pariah in the season's first half, with a Monday night home skirmish against defending AFC South champ Houston on Oct. 8 the team's only standalone contest prior to Thanksgiving. They'll be featured prominently down the stretch, though, with a marquee Turkey Day evening matchup against hated New England starting off a series of three national games in a five-week span for Gang Green, not to mention an intriguing early December clash against the Jaguars in Tebow's hometown of Jacksonville.

Could it be a signal that the league envisions Tebow wresting the starting quarterback's job away from the oft-maligned Mark Sanchez once winter begins to kick in? Since Sanchez's leeway will be at its strongest early on in the season, it's again a smart calculation by the schedule-makers and networks to believe the chemistry-challenged Jets' chances of being embroiled in another controversy are greater later on.

Denver was one of eight teams to receive the maximum allotment of five night games, a list that also includes the reigning world champion New York Giants and previous Super Bowl winner Green Bay. NFC runner-up San Francisco also was stacked to the limit along with perennial ratings-grabbers Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago and usual AFC contender San Diego.

The Jets are slated for four prime time outings, as are 2011 AFC Championship participants New England and Baltimore and four other postseason entrees from last season -- Atlanta, Detroit, Houston and New Orleans (which shoots down the theory that the NFL would attempt to bury the Saints and curb the prevailing firestorm over the bounty scandal). Dallas, also never a stranger to the spotlight, got four exclusive night broadcasts as well in addition to its annual national appearance on Thanksgiving.

Finishing at the bottom of the standings has its price as well. Nine clubs that will be selecting in the top 10 of the upcoming draft (Indianapolis, Washington, Minnesota, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Jacksonville, Miami and Buffalo) have only one prime time game on their schedule, although the Redskins will get some additional exposure from a Thanksgiving tilt with the Cowboys. Washington is also the lone member of the group not banished to the extended Thursday night package carried mainly by the less-viewed NFL Network, having an ESPN Monday home date with the Giants during Week 13.

The Manning effect didn't just extend to his former Colts team, as his former division was greatly impacted by the four-time league MVP's venture to the AFC West. The AFC South's eight night games are the fewest of any division, with the formidable NFC North leading the way with 15.

A few other observations and tidbits from this year's schedule:

TOUGHEST AFC SCHEDULE: Cleveland. Competing in the rugged AFC North is challenging enough for the long-suffering Browns, but road tests against the defending title-holder Giants, Dallas and Denver along with daunting home dates with Philadelphia and San Diego add up to the third-most difficult overall strength of schedule. Don't anticipate Mike Holmgren and his cronies turning it around this year.

Baltimore and Denver also have a doozy of a docket. The Ravens face eight playoff teams from a year ago, the most of any AFC inhabitant, though five of those games will be at home. Of the 10 contests the Broncos have outside the AFC West, seven are against clubs that reached the postseason in 2011, and they face the Patriots, Ravens, Bengals and Falcons on the road.

EASIEST AFC SCHEDULE: New England. Last year's conference champions made out like bandits thanks to the rotation, with the AFC East taking on the entire AFC South and NFC West, arguably the two weakest divisions going. The Pats have only four games against 2011 playoff qualifiers, plus one of their road efforts comes against St. Louis in London, where the Rams won't have any home- field advantage as the designated host.

Buffalo's schedule also looks pretty favorable, with only four postseason combatants from last year on tap and a No. 29 ranking in overall strength. The Bills still have to play a home game in Toronto once more, but having it come against a Seattle squad that'll be traveling over 2,500 miles and crossing two time zones could end up as a plus.

TOUGHEST NFC SCHEDULE: New York Giants. And that's how it should be, right? The current Lombardi Trophy owners' opponents were a combined 140-116 last season, giving Big Blue the highest strength of schedule in the league, and the slate is especially rough in the second half. Five of the last six games following a Week 11 bye come against heavyweights Green Bay, New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia, so the Giants may not be able to afford any stumbles out of the gate.

The Eagles, one of New York's chief competitors in the NFC East, don't exactly have a cakewalk, either. Philadelphia takes on eight foes that advanced to the playoffs last season, the highest number of any conference member. Five of those come at home, but remember the Eagles went just 3-5 at Lincoln Financial Field in 2011.

Arizona looks to have the bumpiest road in the West, with road stops at New England, Green Bay, Atlanta and the Jets and three trips to the Eastern Time Zone for early kickoffs.

EASIEST NFC SCHEDULE: Atlanta. Though the Falcons won't have the benefit of meeting a depleted New Orleans team in its quest to reclaim the NFC South, as the two division powers don't tangle until mid-November, only four of Atlanta's 2012 foes posted winning records last year. Getting the Giants, Broncos and Cowboys all at home is also a positive.

St. Louis could be this year's NFC member that's set up for better results. After being victimized by a murderous first-half sequence last season, the Rams should have it a bit softer this time around, as the initial three home dates (Washington, Seattle, Arizona) and a Week 6 visit to Miami that comes off a 10-day layoff all seem winnable. Coach Jeff Fisher's troops do lose a true home game because of the London trip and will have three of their last four on the road, but travels to Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Seattle aren't exactly terrifying.

TOUGHEST OPENING STRETCH: Tennessee. The Titans open up at home against New England before visiting San Diego and hosting rising Detroit, then have to go to Houston to battle AFC South favorite Houston. Tennessee also must go up against annual conference contender Pittsburgh on a short week in mid-October and doesn't have its bye until Week 11. Ouch.

EASIEST OPENING STRETCH: Cincinnati. The Bengals begin with a tall task, a Monday night visit to Baltimore, but then face Cleveland twice, Washington, Jacksonville and Miami over the next five weeks. Those teams were a combined 24-56 last season, which could enable Cincy to get an early leg up on the Ravens and Steelers in the treacherous AFC North.

A SHOW OF MERCY?: There's little question that the penalties Roger Goodell handed down to the Saints for their "Bountygate" crimes were awfully steep, but the commissioner and league office could have been a lot harder on the team from a scheduling standpoint. Of the six games acting head coach Joe Vitt will miss for his role in the cover-up, only one (a Week 4 trip to Green Bay) comes against an opponent that made last year's playoffs. New Orleans could be at or close to full strength for its two pivotal meetings with rival Atlanta in November, as well as important conference bouts with Philadelphia, San Francisco, the Giants and Dallas. Maybe the guy does have a heart after all.

REVENGE GAMES

The following are rematches from last season's playoffs:

Steelers at Broncos (Week 1)

Patriots at Ravens (Week 3)

Broncos at Patriots (Week 5)

Giants at 49ers (Week 6)

Ravens at Texans (Week 7)

49ers at Saints (Week 12)

Packers at Giants (Week 12)

Giants at Falcons (Week 15)

Three of those contests will take place at the gold-standard Sunday night time slot, with the Pittsburgh-Denver opener, the New England-Baltimore AFC Championship sequel and the Green Bay-New York battle all set to be covered nationally by NBC.

Of course, the 2012 season lid-lifter between Dallas and the Giants on Sept. 5 also could fall into this category, with New York having knocked the Cowboys out of the NFC playoffs with a pair of head-to-head victories in the final four weeks of last year's campaign.

"IT'S PERSONAL" GAMES

Lions at 49ers (Week 2) -- Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh renew acquaintances for the first time since last year's postgame sideline spat on "Sunday Night Football."

Jets vs. Dolphins (Week 3, Week 8) -- Ex-Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, now the Jets' offensive coordinator, gets two chances to pay back Stephen Ross.

Eagles at Cardinals (Week 3) -- The teams did meet last season, three months after the Kevin Kolb trade, but Kolb didn't play for Arizona due to a concussion. This one's early enough that the brittle quarterback may actually get on the field.

Packers at Seahawks (Week 3) -- Aaron Rodgers' former understudy Matt Flynn tries to take down his old mentor as Seattle's field general in a well-placed Monday night matchup.

Redskins at Buccaneers (Week 4) -- After being the fall guy for Tampa's 4-12 disaster last year, Raheem Morris is now the secondary coach in Washington.

Packers at Colts (Week 5) -- New Green Bay center Jeff Saturday spent 13 productive seasons as Peyton Manning's trusted bodyguard before becoming one of the casualties of the Colts' offseason purge.

Titans at Vikings (Week 5) -- The Vikings released guard Steve Hutchinson in March after an outstanding six-year run, and the seven-time Pro Bowler signed with Tennessee five days later.

Patriots at Seahawks (Week 6) -- Pete Carroll finally gets his chance to avenge his grudge against New England, which fired the peppy Seattle head coach all the way back in 1999.

Saints vs. Buccaneers (Week 7, Week 15) -- Bucs made ex-Saints stalwart Carl Nicks the highest paid guard in football during their March spending spree.

Patriots vs. Rams (Week 8) -- Brandon Lloyd spurned the Rams this offseason to reunite with Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who abruptly left St. Louis during the playoffs to rejoin Bill Belichick.

Bills at Texans (Week 9) -- Bills reeled in this year's biggest free-agent catch not named Manning by taking pass-rushing terror Mario Williams away from the Texans.

Broncos at Panthers (Week 10) -- Denver head coach John Fox takes on the team he directed for nine seasons and was hung out to dry by owner Jerry Richardson in 2010.

Chargers at Buccaneers (Week 10) -- Tampa Bay gave Vincent Jackson the long- awaited big pay day that San Diego general manager A.J. Smith denied the big- play wide receiver for two straight years. He'll be motivated to prove he's worth it on this day.

Chiefs at Steelers (Week 10) -- This mid-November Monday night encounter wouldn't have much sizzle if not for the Chiefs' abrupt and contentious firing of former head coach Todd Haley, who's now Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator and the proud owner of a new cell phone.

Raiders at Bengals (Week 12) -- Lots of subplots here. The Carson Palmer-Mike Brown feud extends to the playing field when the ex-Bengals quarterback visits his old stomping grounds in Cincinnati, while the man responsible for bringing Palmer to Oakland -- Hue Jackson -- now serves as the Bengals' secondary coach after being axed by the new Raiders regime in January.

Chiefs at Browns (Week 14) -- Chiefs running back Peyton Hillis returns to the site of his greatest success (2010) and failure (2011) as a professional.

Cowboys at Bengals (Week 14) -- Veteran cornerback Terence Newman spent his first nine seasons in Dallas before being cut loose in March and subsequently signing with Cincinnati.

Jaguars at Dolphins (Week 15) -- Jaguars brought in ex-Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne to push 2011 rookie disappointment Blaine Gabbert. If Gabbert's struggles continue, Henne may get his chance to prove his former team made a mistake by letting him go.

BEST NON-PRIME TIME GAMES

49ers at Packers (Week 1): The NFL's highest scoring team from last year goes up against the league's second-stingiest defense in terms of points allowed. And by the way, these two were a combined 28-4 and held the NFC's top two playoff seeds as well.

Saints at Packers (Week 4): If this one comes anything close to last year's meeting at Lambeau -- an unforgettable 42-35 season-opening win by Green Bay -- it'll certainly be worth tuning in.

Broncos at Patriots (Week 5): The scenario may be a little different than before, but it's still Manning vs. Brady. Enough said.

Panthers at Redskins (Week 9): A potential showdown between the last two Heisman Trophy winners, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and Washington's presumed new signal-caller, Robert Griffin III.

Steelers at Ravens (Week 13): Simply put, the best rivalry in the NFL going right now. Plus there could be plenty at stake between these two AFC North cohorts at this late stage.

WORST PRIME-TIME GAMES

These three Thursday night duds really don't need a detailed explanation as to why it be may best to explore some alternative programming:

Browns at Ravens (Week 4)

Buccaneers at Vikings (Week 8)

Colts at Jaguars (Week 10)