The NFL released its schedule for the 2012 season. Fans, players and analysts all over the country eagerly gathered around the Matrix, staring at their computer screens. The annual occurrence has turned into a celebration of what the league has become, an acknowledgement of offseason greatness - even though the huddled hordes knew what they were going to see.
The Arizona Cardinals players, coaches, fans and analysts were no exception. Most agreed, the Cardinals' schedule looks dubious considering that eight of the possible ten opponents a team can face in a season had a .500 record or better in 2011.
But that's the thing about strength of schedule: it's unreliable and, thus, a preface.
Teams are so different from one year to the next. The NFL is the league of hope where it's a common occurrence in the 21st century to see teams go from worst to first within a year's time. A team that may have been on a roll in 2011 might struggle to continue that roll in 2012.
Teams change so much in a calendar year, dynamics change, coaches come and go, players pack up and leave, sign contracts that steal their desire, become salary-cap casualties, get hurt or arrested, don't play as well, get old quickly, and/or lose their leadership capabilities. An NFL team is in a state of flux from one year to the next unless that team is built around a strong core group that brings stability and consistency to their respective locker rooms.
Now, with that in mind...I love the Cardinals schedule! Four of the first six-games the Cardinals will play in 2012 are at University of Phoenix Stadium. They open against Seattle at home on September 9th and then welcome Philadelphia, Miami and Buffalo over the next month. Hosting a division rival in the first week is something I've always liked, especially when a true home-field advantage exists. And the three non-divisional opponents that come to Phoenix are all east coast teams. With a three-hour time difference, those games would have been brutal trips back east for the Cards.
Also, and this point can't be overstated, the Cardinals 7- 2 finish over the last nine weeks of 2011 and the early home-field schedule of 2012 possess an intriguing synergy for a team that will need confidence early. Although I am not a big believer that corporately a team can carry momentum from one season to the next, I know that individual players can carry the confidence they gained from one year to the next. And that truism could be amplified by playing so many home games early.
I love the fact the Cardinals will get their bye week late as opposed to early, especially because of all the home games they play early. The Cardinals have a Week 10 bye and although you can never assume the health of an NFL team, one can logically deduce that most players will be beat down by November and welcome the break. The bye also happens between two tough road trips: at Green Bay and at Atlanta, two playoff-caliber teams.
The Monday night game against San Francisco is another highlight. The Red Sea will be in a tumult on October 29th when Jim Harbaugh and co. play the Cardinals for the first time. The 49'ers won the division last year and advanced to the NFC Championship Game and did it with a bold bravado that belies the hard-fought battles and troubles of past division champions. They are respected but not well-liked within the division and that will only add to the drama of a nationally-televised maelstrom.
Finally, the Cardinals finish the season with three physical games, two of which are home: Detroit, Chicago and at San Francisco. Nobody knows what kind of teams the Lions, Bears, 49'ers and Cardinals will have by weeks fifteen, sixteen and seventeen. But from what we know, expect and project, these three games could be meat- grinders, where blades of grass and soiled silks turn bloody. Looking at how Big Red will finish the season makes me think of knuckles, buckles, dirt and blood - a pigskin-stew that makes me want to smear on the paint and attack otherwise good and peaceful people. The last game of the season in San Francisco could be for the NFC West championship.
Then again...remember the preface.