The NFL took the shrink wrap off its 2012 schedule Tuesday, unveiling a 256-game regular-season slate that will permeate the prime-time lineup more than ever before.
By expanding its presence on Thursday nights, the league will offer at least two weeknight games in the schedule's first 15 weeks. However the defending champion New York Giants will host the Dallas Cowboys on Sept. 5, a rare NFL Wednesday night, to kick off the season and avoid a conflict with President Obama's address at the Democratic National Convention the following night in a move the league had previously announced.
The opening weekend also will feature Peyton Manning's debut with the Denver Broncos, who will host the Pittsburgh Steelers (ousted by Manning's predecessor, Tim Tebow, in last season's playoffs) on Sunday Night Football. Both games will air on NBC. Week 1 will conclude with ESPN's annual Monday Night Football doubleheader (Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens; San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders).
MORE: Full 2012 NFL schedule
NFL Network's Thursday night package kicks in the following week as the Green Bay Packers host the Chicago Bears in the league's longest-running rivalry. With the exception of a Thanksgiving tripleheader in Week 12 (Nov. 22), NFL Network will air 13 contests between Weeks 2 and 15, ensuring all 32 teams will appear in prime time.
NFL team-by-team schedules
Document: See your team's schedule for the 2012 season
"You enjoy those moments when you have the opportunity to be the only show in town - that's what you live for," says NFL Network analyst Bucky Brooks, who played in the league from 1994 to 1998, of the added Thursday night games. "And it's like a mini-bye - you have 10 days before the next game."
The New Orleans Saints' schedule is sure to be scrutinized in the wake of the team's bounty program scandal. The club's bye week lands in Week 6, meaning interim head coach Joe Vitt's six-game suspension won't be completed until after the team's Week 7 date at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 21. General manager Mickey Loomis' eight-game suspension will be served after the team hosts the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 5, a Monday night.
In what have become standard features, two international matchups are on the docket with the St. Louis Rams "hosting" the New England Patriots in London on Oct. 28, while the Buffalo Bills will welcome the Seattle Seahawks to Toronto on Dec. 16.
For the third consecutive year, Week 17 (Dec. 30) will be composed of divisional matchups in an effort to maximize playoff ramifications in the regular-season finale.
Flex scheduling again will be implemented in Weeks 11 to 17 to maximize the best prime-time matchups.
Super Bowl XLVII will be played in New Orleans on Feb. 3 and televised by CBS.
By Nate Davis