After sifting through over 100,000 schedules with more than a quadrillion odds, the final schedule released Thursday by the NFL had Brady, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Wilson and his new Denver team getting primetime TV windows in Week 1.
The Bucs were given the opening spot on Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys, while Wilson’s debut for the Broncos would come against his former Seahawks in Seattle in the opening game Monday night.
“In the old days, we’d build this thing by hand, we were probably in the eighth or ninth week by the time we moved Russell Wilson to Denver,” said Mike North, the NFL’s vice president of broadcast planning. “Maybe we could tweak a thing or two, but maybe not stop and restart wholesale. Now thanks to the way technology enables us to attack this process, we can stop and take a break, reassess, talk to our partners, talk to our bosses, start over and in a couple of days we had a path All-new and a whole new plan that will maximize each of those Denver games, every one of Tampa Bay’s.
“Maybe we wouldn’t have done that before these brokers moved in.”
While changes to free agency and draft are always a factor that schedule makers have to contend with, this year’s retirement switch by Brady and new homes for Wilson and Deshaun Watson were high-profile homes that had a major impact on the schedule.
The Broncos and Bucs were among the 13 teams to have the maximum five windows in primetime, along with Super Bowl runners-up, the Rams and Bengals, and other big drag teams like the Buffalo, Dallas, Kansas City, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New England and the Chargers.
North said other deals like Trek Hill’s deal from Kansas City to Miami also played a part in the schedule with the Dolphins’ game against Pittsburgh 50 years after they beat the Steelers in the AFC title game in their perfect season, cementing his place on Sunday. Night game in the seventh week.
What was done manually on a cork board by an NFL official is now handled through a cloud of Amazon-provided computers that can run all kinds of permutations each night before the league chooses the schedule it thinks optimizes the best possible. It is fair to both teams and network television partners.
The league tries to balance out which networks are getting the most popular games. CBS was given a rematch between the Bills-Chiefs. A match between Brady and Patrick Mahomes will take place on Sunday night on NBC. NFC Championship rematch between the Rams and 49ers goes to ESPN Monday night; Amazon is getting dazzling backgammon players Mahomes and Justin Herbert in the first game of their new exclusive collection Thursday night; And Fox gets what could be the last match between Brady and Aaron Rodgers for the double header package.
Computers also have to examine about 26,000 “rules” that have been put in place to deal with pitching disputes, international travel before and after the five games played in England, Mexico and Germany and trying to spread the “pain” of schedule inequality such as long runs. Ground trips or the number of matches played against the teams ahead.
“It’s, you know, a miracle, frankly, that we made one by hand,” North said. “Software, hardware, technology, search engine, and AWS cloud computing allows us to look at more awesome options. We still come up with one and then hope to be proud of it. But it’s a very different process and we can’t do it without the technology at our disposal.”
There were some quirks in the schedule like the Bengals played all three road splitting games in prime time, and the Patriots played four straight games in prime time. North said the problem with Cincinnati was that the league wanted them to play in prime time against Miami, Buffalo and those at home, which kept other games on the road.
The Patriots and Bells were laid out early on the Thanksgiving schedule, with New Englanders playing Minnesota for the night. With two of the six teams playing at Thanksgiving usually the following Thursday night as well, the NFL picked the Patriots Bills.
The Patriots also requested back-to-back games from the West, and the NFL slotted into the Arizona and Las Vegas games in the following two weeks and picked those games at prime time.
Another testament: The New York Jets opened their season with games against North Asia: at home against Baltimore, in Cleveland, at home against Cincinnati and in Pittsburgh. The only other teams to open a season against an entire division since the league expanded to 32 teams were New Orleans in 2004 and the Giants in 2002 – both versus NFC West.
This year’s schedule has a few new wrinkles from triceps on Christmas Day to a staggered two-header game Monday night in Week 2 with a Tennessee-Buffalo game starting at 7:15 p.m. ET on ESPN and a Minnesota-Philadelphia game starting at 8:30 p.m. on ABC.
This is a change from previous years when ESPN aired a double header in the first week with games playing over and over with the second game starting at 10:20 PM ET
“We’ll learn a little something this year,” North said. “We’ll see what the fans tell us. Then next year, when we have three such opportunities to get ESPN and ABC side by side, we might try three different approaches.”
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