2010 schedule has plenty of highlights

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We can assume Ben Roethlisberger will be suspended when Pittsburgh opens the regular season Sept. 12 against visiting Atlanta.

What we don't know?

How many more games will Roethlisberger miss when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces his punishment for the Steelers quarterback in light of his alleged sexual misconduct.

Goodell's decision could come Wednesday, but the potential ramifications were felt Tuesday when the 2010 NFL schedule was announced. A four-game suspension would cause Roethlisberger to also sit for road contests at Tennessee and Tampa Bay along with a home matchup against AFC North archrival Baltimore. The Steelers then have a bye, which would give Roethlisberger an extra week of practice heading into his return.

If the suspension went longer, Roethlisberger could miss October games versus Cleveland, Miami and New Orleans.

The fact Pittsburgh traded Tuesday with Tampa Bay for quarterback (and ex-Steeler) Byron Leftwich indicates the franchise believes Big Ben's sentence won't be small.

On the bright side for the Steelers, Roethlisberger should be back for a December stretch of three consecutive home games against Cincinnati, the New York Jets and Carolina.

Here are some other thoughts on an NFL schedule whose heavily-hyped release was long overdue:

- WEEK 17 SHOULD MEAN SOMETHING: The NFL can't guarantee every season-ending game will be competitive as teams with their playoff standings secured rest starters, a la the 2009 Indianapolis Colts. But scheduling division matchups for Week 17 could force some squads to take the games more seriously because the results may carry extra weight in terms of playoff seeding and home-field advantage. The most intriguing matchups on paper are Dallas at Philadelphia, Arizona at San Francisco, Miami at New England, San Diego at Denver and Cincinnati at Baltimore.

- BELTWAY BRUTALITY: The Mike Shanahan era may get off to a rough start in Washington. The rebuilding Redskins could open 1-6 after playing a schedule that includes games against Dallas, Houston, Green Bay, Indianapolis and Chicago. Oh yeah, new Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb also will return to Philadelphia in Week 4 for the first time since being traded to Washington. Baltimore also gets no early-season favors. The Ravens open Sept. 13 against the New York Jets in the first Monday night game inside the Jets' new shared facility with the New York Giants. That's followed by another road game against defending AFC North champion Cincinnati. After a home game against Cleveland, the Ravens play at Pittsburgh, home against Denver and at New England. Ouch!

- A REAL THANKSGIVING DAY GAME FOR DALLAS: Finally, the Cowboys will host a team that shouldn't be a turkey in New Orleans. Dallas' past four T-Day opponents -- Oakland, Seattle, the New York Jets and Tampa Bay -- entered with a combined 10-31 record. Dallas won each game by an average of 25 points. Detroit isn't as fortunate in hosting New England. The Lions have dropped their past six Thanksgiving Day games by a 19.9-point margin despite having home-field advantage. While Detroit has made some improvements this offseason, the Patriots should extend that losing streak to seven. The third Thanksgiving Day game should be a winner: Cincinnati vs. the Jets in a rematch of last year's first-round playoff game.

- U.S. INVASION: Doh, Canada! The NFL will hold a regular-season game north of the border during the CFL season for the first time since Buffalo began playing its Toronto series in 2008. The Chicago-Buffalo game will be held Nov. 7, which is the final week of the CFL regular season. The timing is great for the Bills, which will now enjoy a legitimate home-field advantage in three December/January games at chilly Ralph Wilson Stadium rather than having to play one of them inside the Rogers Centre like the past two years. While the Argonauts are on the road that Sunday against Montreal and have a later kickoff, the CFL can't be thrilled about having another football league steal headlines in its largest and most important market. On a side note, the Bills have announced reduced ticket prices for the Bears game. Previous contests were grossly overpriced, eh? The NFL's other international game will be held Oct. 31 in London between San Francisco and Denver -- provided the hurricane ash over Europe has subsided by then.

- THE MITTS, ERR, GLOVES ARE OFF: The NFL also is set to potentially challenge Major League Baseball for television ratings. For the first time since adopting a Sunday night schedule, the NFL will air a prime-time contest opposite against what would potentially be the seventh game of the World Series. And it's a good one -- Pittsburgh at New Orleans.

- A STARCAPS SOLUTION: Minnesota vs. New Orleans on Sept. 9 isn't just a season-opening rematch of a fabulous NFC championship game. It also features three players -- Saints defensive end Will Smith and Vikings defensive tackles Kevin and Pat Williams -- who are facing possible four-game suspensions for taking a banned weight-loss supplement (Starcaps). The suspension of those three players as well as two other Saints who tested positive (the now-retired Deuce McAllister and current free agent Charles Grant) was upheld last season because of successful legal action by the Williams Wall. Whether the NFL can ultimately punish those players is still being fought in court, but here's a suggestion for compromise: The league should offer Smith and the Williamses the option of sitting out the season-opener in exchange for dropping its suspension push. All three players can cut their losses and eliminate the risk of a longer -- and more costly -- suspension if the NFL wins its case. The Vikings and Saints also would have sufficient time to game plan for the absence of those three defenders.

- NO FUN IN THE SUN: Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross' successfully petitioned the NFL to avoid scheduling 1 p.m. ET games during the early part of the regular season. Between road and prime-time home contests as well as a Week 5 bye, the Dolphins won't host a 1 p.m. game until Oct. 24 against Pittsburgh. Ross asked for the change because he felt South Florida's sweltering September and October weather was bad for fans and thus, bad for business. But such a move also cools the early-season advantage Miami traditionally had against opponents who withered in the heat and humidity. On the flip side, Detroit probably won't play a game in wintry weather. Four of the Lions' final six games are at home inside Ford Field; the other two are in Florida against Tampa Bay and Miami.

- MANNING VS. MANNING PART II: It's a DirecTV commercial made in heaven. Peyton and Eli Manning are set to make NFL history again as the only brothers to start at quarterback against each other when Indianapolis hosts the New York Giants on Sept. 19. The Colts won the first matchup, 26-21, in the teams' 2006 season-opener.

- FAVRE BOWL III and IV: They'll be happening on Oct. 24 in Green Bay and Nov. 21 in Minnesota if Brett Favre returns to the Vikings for one more season. Minnesota is letting Favre take his time in deciding whether he wants to keep playing. But should he come back, the Vikings had better hope Favre arrives in better physical shape than in 2009. Minnesota has a much tougher schedule this year with Detroit the only non-playoff team from last season among the first eight opponents.

- XBAH, HUMBUG: The NFL has scheduled a Christmas night matchup for the second consecutive year with Dallas heading to Arizona. While these types of holiday games are a treat for the fans and a boon for NFL business, I do feel for the families of Cowboys players whose holiday will be ruined by this scheduling.