Amid much fanfare, the NFL’s 2012 regular season schedule was released last night as the NFL continued its strive to make every single event in their offseason just that: an event. Now, here at Pro Football Focus we didn’t have much appetite for a three-hour live broadcast on the release of the schedule, but there’s no harm in picking out some of the best matchups that this season’s slate has thrown up.
So that’s exactly what we’ve done, running our eye over the schedule and picking out a matchup of note for every single team. Receivers versus corners, battles in the trenches, opportunities for redemption, and pivotal games that could swing a season … we take a look at them all here.
Buffalo Bills – Week 1, Mario Williams vs. Wayne Hunter
If Hunter makes it out of training camp as the Jets starter at right tackle, then Week 1 could set the tone for Williams and the AFC East. The Jets’ RT was woeful in 2011 and 2012 couldn’t get off to a much worse start for him than facing Williams, if history has taught us anything. The last time Hunter played Williams (Week 11 in 2010), he yielded a sack and five pressures to the Bills’ new defensive star, despite only lining up opposite him on 18 passing plays. A great chance for the prize of free agency to make a hot start.
Miami Dolphins – Week 13, Containing Gronkowski and Hernandez
In two games last season, the Patriots’ two-headed monster at tight end accounted for a combined 303 receiving yards and hauled in two touchdowns in the Week 1 loss. There were only three incompletions in each game targeting this pair with it simply not mattering who was trying to cover the dynamic duo (11 different defenders were in primary coverage at least once). New Defensive Coordinator Kevin Coyle needs a fresh line of thinking to keep these two quiet in 2012.
New England Patriots – Week 5, Defensive Backfield vs. Peyton Manning
The media attention is on the duel of the quarterbacks in this game, but if the Patriots’ secondary plays as it did during the 2011 regular season, this one could get ugly. This is not the same defensive backfield that used to give Peyton Manning fits and if there isn’t a significant improvement on last season, then the new Broncos quarterback could tear them to shreds. The Patriots don’t face many (if any) upper echelon QBs in the regular season, so this game could be a barometer for them come playoff time.
New York Jets – Week 12, Nick Mangold vs. Vince Wilfork
This one-on-one matchup is always a highlight of the testy affairs between the Jets and the Patriots. The league’s premier center against one of the league’s premier nose tackles; it doesn’t get much better than this. Thanksgiving signals the start of the run-in, but will this be a decisive game in the AFC East or will the wheels have already fallen off of the Jets’ chariot by this point? If they’re still in the hunt, they’ll need Mangold to neutralize Wilfork if they’re to overcome New England.
Baltimore Ravens – Week 3, Offensive line redemption vs. Patriots
The Ravens’ offensive line doesn’t have to wait long to redeem themselves after capitulating in their AFC Conference Championship game display against New England, being handed a home rematch in Week 3. All five starters that day graded -1.0 or worse and, short of only the departed Ben Grubbs, this quintet will be desperate to set a stronger foundation for the offense this time around. Maybe then they won’t be leaving things to the foot of a kicker come crunch time.
Cincinnati Bengals – Andy Dalton vs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh
The Bengals eyes should only be on what’s in front of them and that means taking aim at Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Cincinnati was 0-4 in these games last season and Andy Dalton struggled badly against these two powerful defenses notching up a combined PFF grade of -7.1 in those four games combined. Games versus these two teams appear to be the Bengals’ toughest before their bye week, so a step forward from Dalton and the Bengals could have early control of the AFC North.
Cleveland Browns – Week 4, Jabaal Sheard vs. Michael Oher
In two games against the Ravens last season, Sheard recorded eight total pressures (one sack and seven hurries). Ravens’ right tackle Michael Oher has never re-settled after having his development disrupted by moving to the blindside and Sheard should be looking take advantage again. He’ll get a national media spotlight for this game on an early-season Thursday night game and will be looking to cause Joe Flacco no end of problems.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Week 2, Mike Wallace vs. Darrelle Revis/Antonio Cromartie
Who will track Wallace in Week 2? Will the Jets treat him as a No. 1 receiver and have Revis track him or will they treat him as a vertical threat and place Cromartie on him? The presence of Antonio Brown makes it more likely that Wallace draws Cromartie’s coverage with Revis taking the more rounded receiver. One thing is for sure this is just another in a long list of quality matchups between top receivers and top corners, and an opportunity for Wallace to establish himself in the top tier of receivers that he wants to be paid alongside.
Houston Texans – Week 5, Running game vs. Jets’ run defense
Ever since Rex Ryan took over in New York, the Jets’ defense has been somewhat of a bogey team for the Texans’ running game. In two games in 2009 and 2010, the Texans only collected only 3.2 yards per carry (backfield carries) against Ryan’s defense. Arian Foster did score twice in 2010, but the Texans were 0-2 in those two games. They’ve made strides since, but can they emphasize this by gaining yards on the stingy Jets defense and ending their losing streak to Ryan?
Indianapolis Colts – Week 15, Run defense vs. Houston ground game
This is being lined up as the mother of all rebuilding seasons in Indianapolis, but they still need to make progress on last year. Bringing in a defensive coach like Chuck Pagano, one of those steps needs to be improving the run D. The Texans have absolutely gutted the Colts in the last two seasons–gaining 177.5 yards per game. After a long season can the Colts step up against this run game late in the schedule? This will offer some indication in terms of how well they’re progressing.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Week 1, Blaine Gabbert vs. Christian Ponder
OK, so these two won’t actually meet on the field, but the schedulers have handed a sure-fire win to one of these second-year QBs coming off seasons where both struggled. The Jaguars have a tough run in to the bye week, facing two playoff teams on the road, so a Week 1 win and good performance for Gabbert could be crucial if he is to avoid mounting pressure for him to be hooked.
Tennessee Titans – Week 3, Chris Johnson vs. Detroit
The Titans’ ground game nose-dived last season and Chris Johnson’s productivity went with it. Getting him back on track is the stated aim of the Titans’ this offseason and, if they are to return to former glories, the Lions offer an early season opportunity to prove that point. The aggression of the Lions’ defense (led by former Titan DC Jim Schwartz) in getting upfield opens the vertical creases that Johnson at his best exploits to devastating effect.
Denver Broncos – Week 1, Peyton Manning vs. Steelers’ Defense
Both local and national media will be filled with comparisons between Manning and Tim Tebow all season long and the NFL schedulers have offered up an immediate and direct comparison with the Broncos opening up on Sunday Night Football with the Steelers. Manning last played the Steelers back in 2008, a 24-20 win for the Colts but a -3.9 grade for Manning with a completion percentage of only just over 50% shows you how hard he found it. Do we need to tell you what happened the last time Tebow faced the Steelers?
Kansas City Chiefs – Week 2, Eric Winston vs. Mario Williams
Two former Houston Texans suiting up elsewhere meet in Week 2 as one of the best right tackles in the league faces off with one of the best defensive ends. We don’t grade training camp and in-season practice sessions so this is untouched ground. One thing is for sure, the Chiefs are far better placed in this matchup now than if Barry Richardson was still starting.
Oakland Raiders – Week 3, Jared Veldheer vs. James Harrison
After a rookie season of struggles at both left tackle and center, Veldheer made positive strides in 2011. The next step is to take him into the group of one of the better left tackles in the league and he will face a stern early test at home against the Steelers and James Harrison in one of the toughest matchups any left tackle can draw. He didn’t yield a sack after Week 12 last season, leaving us to wonder how long could he continue that streak into 2012?
San Diego Chargers – Week 14, Jared Gaither vs. James Harrison
Three straight weeks the Chargers face AFC North opponents culminating in a road trip to visit the Steelers where Jared Gaither will renew acquaintances with former divisional foe James Harrison. Back in 2009, when Gaither was the Ravens’ left tackle, he had one of the best games of his career against the Steelers, recording a +5.4 grade in a 20-17 Ravens victory. Harrison was limited to a hit and two pressures (only one pressure coming against Gaither) and Gaither amassed an outstanding +3.9 run-blocking grade with the Ravens collecting 6.0 yards per carry on rushes off left tackle and left end. A titanic late season matchup between these two awaits.
Dallas Cowboys – Week 1, Brandon Carr vs. Giants’ WRs
The NFL’s schedulers certainly aren’t letting the Cowboys hide from that Week 17 debacle are they? The Cowboys will hope that the big difference in Week 1 is the change at cornerback from Terence Newman to Brandon Carr. Newman gave up a colossal 174 yards at in excess of 20 yards per reception; can Carr step up and help to spoil the Giants’ curtain raiser?
New York Giants – Week 14, Defense vs. New Orleans
The Giants’ Super Bowl run last season papered over a lot of cracks, one of which was a simply dreadful defensive performance against the Saints around a month before they started their hot streak. New Orleans may be deprived of their head coach and offensive guru now, but the Giants will still have to face-off with Drew Brees and his array of receiving threats. The Giants got almost no pressure, covered badly and yielded 6.8 yards per carry. This game could prove pivotal for playoff seeding.
Philadelphia Eagles – Week 2, Demetress Bell vs. Terrell Suggs
The loss of Jason Peters is potentially devastating for the Eagles and how his replacement fares should have a strong bearing on the Eagles’ success in 2012. Bell faces three quality sets of defensive end/outside linebackers before the bye week and it gets underway in Week 2 against the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year. In his last game against the Ravens in 2010, Bell’s overall grade was a solid -0.3, yielding only three pressures on 47 pass blocks. If the Eagles could settle for something of the same right now, they probably would.
Washington Redskins – Week 6, Trent Williams vs. Jared Allen
Before he took one puff too many and cost himself the final four games of the regular season, Williams had elevated his play significantly in 2011. Aside from the trust issues that suspension raises within the organization that breaks your momentum and Williams will need to re-find that form. He at least has a month to prepare for his first matchup with a premier pass rusher playing exclusively on his side of the line; Jared Allen is just one of a series of top pass rushers Williams will face in 2012.
Chicago Bears – Week 4, Brandon Marshall vs. Brandon Carr
An AFC West matchup is reborn during the Bears first of three Monday Night games in the 2012 season. Over the last four seasons, these two have seen each other four times, three times in AFC West matchups in 2008 and 2009. Their stat line over that time was 15 receptions on 23 targets, for 214 yards, two touchdowns for Marshall and one pick by Carr. Bears fans will hope Marshall continues to have the upper hand.
Detroit Lions – Week 12, Calvin Johnson vs. Johnathan Joseph
Never let it be said that we just focus on the line play, the 2012 season appears to be offering up some great matchups between top corners and top receivers. In Week 12, Calvin Johnson will face off with one of the few corners that tracks the opponents’ No. 1 receiver in the shape of Joseph. Back in 2009, Johnson collected five receptions for 69 yards in Joseph’s coverage, including a 38-yard grab.
Green Bay Packers – Week 6, B.J. Raji vs. Chris Myers
One of the greatest mysteries last season was the almost complete disappearance of B.J. Raji from about Week 3 onward. The Packers’ defense lived off big plays for most of the year, lacking the solid play up front–particularly from Raji. Against the persistent and physical Houston offensive line led by Chris Myers, Raji will need to re-discover his best form from 2010 or risk the Texans running right over him.
Minnesota Vikings – Week 4, Christian Ponder vs. Detroit Lions
Mistakes plagued Christian Ponder’s 2011 rookie season and those mistakes saw him benched in the Vikings’ Week 14 loss in Detroit. Ponder made enough good throws in a number of games to win them, but backed them up with some catastrophic errors. He gets to right some of those wrongs early in the season and stamp his authority on this Vikings’ team, thus quelling any murmurs of the team looking for another option at quarterback. Of course, if he is unable to, there could be a lot of groans aimed his way.
Atlanta Falcons – Week 10, Taking down the Saints
Much like other teams that failed in the playoffs, the Falcons’ focus is not the regular season. They know how to win here, but what they really need is to get over the postseason hump. The key step for the Falcons this year is taking down a wounded New Orleans Saints team in their own building. In Week 16 last year, their defense allowed 7.1 yards per attempt on the ground and 7.9 yards per attempt through the air. This might be an area to improve upon as they roll into the Big Easy in Week 10 and it’ll be a big test for new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Carolina Panthers – Week 2, Cam Newton vs. New Orleans
Last season, Cam Newton’s passing grade in home games against Atlanta and New Orleans was a combined -9.5, throwing three picks and only completing 50% of his passes. Newton showed that he personally can succeed in the NFL, but personal success counts for little without team success. If Newton and the Panthers are to take the next step, he needs to be more consistent as a passer and lead them to victories over the best teams within the division. The first chance for that is against the listing New Orleans Saints in Week 2.
New Orleans Saints – Week 1, Defying the Sanctions
There may not be a more important week for the Saints this season and beyond than Week 1. Hosting the Redskins this should be a game that they win quite comfortably, but how much will the sanctions on their playing and coaching staff affect their preparation and mentality entering this game? Their head coach will be suspended, their interim head coach will be suspended and they could be short of some defensive players as well. If Drew Brees and his receivers can continue to produce, then in spite of those losses, it could be business as usual for the Saints. If not, they could hit the kind of free fall that redefines an organization.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Week 1, Run defense vs. Carolina
New head coach Greg Schiano is coming in to the NFL with a reputation as a coach who wants to build around the ground game. His first challenge, however, is fixing the Buccaneers’ run defense which was gutted last season and that was typified by their Week 16 demolition at the hands of the Panthers. Utilizing Cam Newton and the read option to devastating effect, Carolina picked up 270 yards at 8.7 yards per carry. If the Buccaneers don’t fix that, any improvement in their offensive ground game will be wasted as they find themselves chasing games once again in 2012.
Arizona Cardinals – Week 13, Fitzgerald vs. Revis
The last time the Cardinals and Jets faced-off, Darrelle Revis was a second year corner splitting his time between covering the Cardinals’ dynamic duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. This year his sole focus will be Fitzgerald and we will (health permitting) be treated to a matchup of the best wide receiver in the league versus the best corner. The last time these two teams met, Fitzgerald picked up two catches for 20 yards while Revis nabbed an interception on four passes targeted into his coverage of Fitzgerald. You get the impression they’ll be a lot more action between the two in 2012.
St. Louis Rams – Week 1, Cortland Finnegan vs. Calvin Johnson
Two guys who got paid this offseason square-off in Week 1 and the Rams’ investment at corner will be immediately tested by the man they call Megatron. Finnegan was only the No. 2 corner when these two last played in 2008, so that encounter resulted in just a single target for Johnson in his coverage (a 20-yard reception). After finally getting the balance of aggression and discipline spot-on last year, the former Titan will be looking to show his new team just exactly why they paid him so much money.
San Francisco 49ers – Week 15, Carlos Rogers vs. Wes Welker
What might have been. Week 15 offers us a glimpse at what might’ve been the matchup in last season’s Super Bowl and gives us a contest between two of the preeminent slot performers on opposite sides of the ball. Carlos Rogers cashed in on his big year with the 49ers and in Week 15 his improvements will be tested as he challenges Wes Welker. Welker was targeted on 29.3% of his slot snaps last year, while Rogers allowed only 57% of his targets in the slot to be completed last season. Something has to give.
Seattle Seahawks – Week 1, Brandon Browner & Richard Sherman vs. Larry Fitzgerald
Two corners whose outstanding displays came out of nowhere last year for Seattle, but can they maintain them? Browner dropped out of the league before returning from Canada while Sherman broke out as a rookie. If both prove to be one-year wonders, the Seahawks are in for a long season. That will not be tested more strenuously than in Week 1 against Fitzgerald who finished last season by collecting 149 yards against the Seahawks, though he was 0-for-3 in Brandon Browner’s coverage in that Week 17 game.
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