Winners, losers of the 2018 NFL schedule

Woodson predicts hot start for Steelers (1:31)

Darren Woodson projects the Steelers' 2018 schedule, suggesting an 11-5 season in Pittsburgh. (1:31)

Wipe the champagne off your mouth. Clean up the windows you broke. The party's over, and now it's time to assess damage from the NFL's annual schedule-release frenzy. Let's dig in, shall we?


Fox/Thursday Night Football

The NFL took care of its newest prime-time partner with a Thursday night schedule that looks awfully competitive on paper. Fox will simulcast 11 Thursday games with the NFL Network, beginning with a sharp Week 4 matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams. Eight of the 11 games feature at least one 2017 playoff team, including both Super Bowl LII teams. Rivalry games include San Francisco 49ers-Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers-Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts-New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants. According to an NFL.com report, Fox asked the league to shift some of its premier Sunday afternoon games to Thursday night to boost the package. The league appears to have obliged.

United Kingdom fans

I've pilloried the NFL's London schedule from time to time, so it's only fair to note that the 2018 version might be the best the league has sent across the pond. It includes the Super Bowl champion for the first time; the Eagles will take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 8. The Seahawks will play the Raiders in Week 6, and the Tennessee Titans will face the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 7. All six of those teams could reasonably be considered 2018 playoff contenders. They also, as you might have noticed, will play in three consecutive weeks -- creating an intense time period for the NFL's increasingly rabid UK fans.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Thanks to a random but significant quirk, the Steelers could have the AFC North wrapped up by midseason. How? They play five of their six division games between Week 1 (Cleveland Browns) and Week 9 (Baltimore Ravens), and only one more over their final eight games. If the Steelers perform well in those games -- and, overall, they have the NFL's easiest first half of the season based on opponents' 2017 winning percentage -- they could bury the Browns, Ravens and perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals early and provide all three little chance to make up ground. Pittsburgh's final division game will come in Week 17, at home against the Bengals.

Team travel

No teams will play on the road following a Monday Night Football road game, a common complaint that taxes teams' recovery and preparation -- and possibly adds to their injury list as well. It happened five times in 2017, according to NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy. The NFL also reduced its number of three-game road trips from seven last season to three in 2018. As a result, per ESPN's Brian Burke, the league was able to bring rest differentials closer than in previous years. The Colts have the worst rest differential in 2018, at minus-11 days relative to their opponents. In 2017, the Giants had a league-worst minus-22 rest differential.

San Francisco 49ers/NFL

The NFL is a better place when the 49ers are competitive, and it's clear that the league is all-in on Jimmy G mania emanating from the Bay Area. After new quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo won all five of his 2017 starts, the 49ers became one of 10 teams to receive the maximum number of five prime-time games. Their schedule starts off tough, with trips to Minnesota and Kansas City in the first three weeks. But as the Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals rebuild, it's fun to imagine the 49ers' Week 17 matchup with the Rams as an NFC West title game.

Next-morning eyelids

The NFL moved up its kickoff times for all three prime-time packages, and if its average game times match historical norms, all games should be final by 11:30 p.m. ET. ESPN's Monday Night Football will kick off at 8:15 p.m. ET, instead of 8:30. Games on Thursday and Sunday nights will kick off at 8:20 p.m. ET, instead of 8:30 p.m. ET and 8:25 p.m. ET, respectively. Games averaged about 3 hours. 5 minutes last season. It isn't a momentous time change, but when that alarm goes off the next morning, every minute counts.


New Orleans Saints history buffs

If you're a Saints fan who wants to see history at the Superdome, the NFL gave you a tight window. Quarterback Drew Brees needs 1,496 passing yards to break Peyton Manning's record for career passing yards. Assuming Brees is in good health, and working off his 2017 average of 270 passing yards per game, we can project it to happen in their sixth game (hat tip to Vince Masi of ESPN Stats & Information). Unfortunately, the Saints are on the road for both their sixth and seventh games (Weeks 7 and 8). So the best chance for a home celebration of Brees' record is Week 5 against the Washington Redskins, on Monday Night Football. Brees will need to average 299.2 passing yards per game over that period to do it. The good news is that the Saints have the easiest first quarter schedule in the NFL; the combined 2017 winning percentage of their first four opponents is .281.

Seattle Seahawks

Here's a crazy and unfortunate twist for the Seahawks, courtesy Jason McCallum of ESPN Stats & Information. It's no surprise that the Seahawks annually rack up tens of thousands of travel miles from their Northwest outpost. The NFL schedule gives them one respite every eight years: a trip to Oakland, which is a mere 801 miles away. The 2018 season is that eighth year, but the game will be played in London. What could have been a quick sub-1,000 mile trip instead will cover 4,789 miles and about 10 hours of flight time.

NFL (when matched up with concert tours)

By our unofficial count, 13 previously scheduled concerts at NFL stadiums appear to have forced the league's schedule hand. Tour stops by pop stars Ed Sheeran (eight), Taylor Swift (three) and Beyoncé/Jay Z (two) all pushed out NFL tenants. Stadium availability is always one of the factors in creating a 256-game schedule that meets the rest of the league's criteria, but these tours were an especially foreboding obstacle in 2018.

Green Bay Packers

Reasonable people can disagree about the team with the toughest stretch of the season. But for now, I'm nominating the Packers. Starting in Week 8, they'll play four of five games on the road. Two of those trips will be to the West Coast -- at the Rams and Seahawks -- and one to the Northeast, where they'll face the Patriots. (As it turns out, the game will be quarterback Aaron Rodgers' first-ever in New England.) Three of those road games will be in prime time -- against the Seahawks, Patriots and Vikings. If the Packers emerge from the stretch in strong playoff position, they will have demonstrated themselves to be true Super Bowl contenders.