2011 NFL Schedule: Top 10 Divisional Games
by Robert Ferringo - 7/8/2011
To this point, the 2011 NFL schedule is still intact. And if the rumors coming out of the current labor talks are true then the odds of an abbreviated schedule this season are pretty slim. That is great news for fans and NFL bettors alike and it means that we can start to turn our attention from salary floors and wage scales to rivalry games and divisional clashes.
Regardless of what the next month holds – there will certainly be a frantic free agency period, followed by a shoddy preseason, with some injuries and shocking developments sprinkled in – we can be certain that when the season kicks off there will be even more focus on divisional rivalries this year. This season has the feeling of a free-for-all, with 31 teams (sorry, but the Panthers are just pathetic) all believing that they have a shot at the Super Bowl. Even second-tier teams have to believe that the truncated offseason will help them narrow the gap and the uncertainty surrounding the 2011 NFL season gives the impression that anything is possible.
However, before a team can win a Super Bowl they have to survive the gauntlet of their own division. These rivalry games should be even more intense this season, given the feeling that much more is on the line. Every year there is one of two games that ultimately decide a division title. It could be a blowout of a rival in October or, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the last three seasons, two division opponents going mano-a-mano in a winner-take-all Week 17 matchup.
Below is a list of the 10 most important divisional games of the 2011 NFL schedule. These are the 10 games that I think will ultimately be turning points for the eight division titles and should make for 10 of the most emotional, most cut-throat, most intensely played games of the season:
Monday, Oct. 31 – San Diego at Kansas City (8 p.m.)
This game won’t be the final say in who wins the AFC West, but it will go a long way in deciding who does. The Chargers and Chiefs are by far the two best teams out West and this will be the second meeting in six weeks between these clubs. The Chiefs snapped a string of four straight division titles by the Chargers last season and did so in part because they managed a split in the season series, beating San Diego on Monday Night Football in Week 1 despite being outgained in yards, 389-197. San Diego got its payback later in the season, whitewashing KC, 31-0, out in California. Whoever wins the first matchup will be going for the sweep here on Halloween.
Sunday, Nov. 6 – Baltimore at Pittsburgh (8 p.m.)
The Ravens and Steelers begin the season with a Week 1 showdown in Baltimore. That will set the tone for the first few months in the AFC North. But the winner of this early November clash will likely be able to roll that into some momentum coming down the stretch. If it seems like every matchup between these two teams comes down to the final drive, it’s because that usually is the case. These two teams have squared off eight times in the last three years – twice in the postseason – and seven of those eight games have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Sunday, Nov. 13 – New England at New York Jets (8 p.m.)
There isn’t much about this game and this rivalry that I can tell you that you don’t already know. From Spy-gate to Wes Welker’s jokes about Rex Ryan’s wife’s feet, this rivalry has set the bar over the last decade for nastiness. The Jets have been full of bravado over their Super Bowl aspirations these past two years. But to be the best you have to beat the best, and the Patriots have won seven of eight division titles. New York did manage to end New England’s season in Foxboro last January, and they have won four of the last six matchups.
Sunday, Nov. 13 – New Orleans at Atlanta (1 p.m.)
These two teams have a rematch in the Bayou on Monday Night Football on Dec. 26. And while there is a strong chance that game will serve as a de facto NFC South title game, I am going with the first matchup. I feel like whomever wins this game will have the inside track to win the division. There has never been a repeat champion in the nine years that the NFC South has existed. That’s bad news for the Falcons, who went 13-3 last year while taking the crown. The Saints have won four of the last five meetings, including their last two trips to Atlanta. This is one of football’s most underappreciated rivalries and this game has already been circled by both organizations.
Sunday, Nov. 20 – Philadelphia at New York Giants (8 p.m.)
The NFC East is routinely among the most unpredictable divisions in football. There hasn’t been a repeat division champion in more than six years, and outside of Philadelphia’s four-peat from 2001 to 2004 there hasn’t been a repeat division winner in the East since 1996. Last year the Eagles overcame a 21-point fourth quarter deficit en route to an improbable 38-31 win over the Giants. The “Miracle at the Meadowlands II” was punctuated by a 65-yard DeSean Jackson punt return for a touchdown as time expired and really drove a stake through the Giants season. This is their shot at revenge.
Thursday, Nov. 24 – Green Bay at Detroit (12:30 p.m.)
I know: this one is a shocker. But I actually think that the Lions may emerge as a dark horse in the NFC North this year. And while Detroit doesn’t have the savvy to claim a division title just yet, I think that they will definitely play a hand in which team in the North takes the crown. With the exception of the NFC East I see most of the divisions as two-horse races. But the Lions could be that under-the-radar team that throws a wrench in the plans, much like Tampa Bay did last year in the NFC South. Finally we should get a competitive Lions team to show up on Thanksgiving Day.
Sunday, Dec. 4 – St. Louis at San Francisco (4 p.m.)
You might as well flip a coin as to who is going to seize control of the NFC West. But my way-to-early projections have the Rams and Niners duking it out for the throne. Sam Bradford was dreadful last year in St. Louis’ most important game of the year – a Week 17 game at Seattle that decided the West title and the final playoff spot. But this game, another divisional road game in December, will be his chance at redemption. For the Niners, this season is a chance to make good on all of the 2010 hype. Crushing the up-and-comers would be a great way to reassert themselves in this division.
Thursday, Dec. 22 – Houston at Indianapolis (8 p.m.)
I am making a huge assumption here: that the Texans will actually still be in the mix in the AFC South this late in the season. Generally, by this time of the year the Colts are resting starters and preparing for an early playoff exit. (Did I say that out loud?) However, I don’t think that Indianapolis is going to run away with the South this year. Houston has been Everyone’s Sleeper Team for four years now and they have accomplished exactly jack. And the overwhelming odds are that they’ll be among the league’s most overrated teams again this year. But if there is going to be a challenge to Indianapolis’ dominance this year (the Colts have won seven of eight division crowns), it will come from Houston. And if they are serious about contending they will need to win games like this.
Saturday, Dec. 24 – Philadelphia at Dallas (4 p.m.)
This is a rare Saturday game, but it is a good one. All of the rivalries in the NFC East are among the best in the league. And over the course of the last two decades the Eagles and Cowboys have been the top dogs in this division. And in two of the past three seasons these two have either met in the playoffs or met in the last week of the regular season with the playoffs on the line. I expect Dallas to bounce back from a horrific 2010. But if they are going to take steps fulfill last year’s expectations they will have to defend their home turf against the marauders from Philly.
Sunday, Dec. 25 – Chicago at Green Bay (8 p.m.)
Nothing like the NFL’s classic, most venerable rivalry on Christmas night. This game is a rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game, in which the Packers held off a furious rally to beat the Bears, 21-14, in Soldier Field. Green Bay has won five of the last seven meetings, but the Bears are 4-2 in the last six meetings in December. The Bears may or may not be still contending in the North at this juncture, but whenever these two teams meet lately there seems to be something on the line. This will be the 184th meeting between these two franchises and a win will make for a great gift for one of these teams.
Robert Ferringo is a professional football handicapper and is coming off an exceptionally profitable 2010-11 season. He is looking forward to building on his stellar handicapping resume again this fall and you can purchase his football predictions here.
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