It’s not always who you play, but when you play them in NFL


That Patriots-Steelers matchup Sunday sure looked like a Game of the Year candidate. Then all of the air went out of it when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger damaged his knee.

Don’t get us wrong, it still could be a terrific meeting of the AFC’s two best teams. It also could be a major dud: Tom Brady vs. Landry Jones doesn’t have much spice.

The Steelers can talk bravely as much as they want, and they should. As linebacker Arthur Moats says, “Responding to adversity, that’s what we do. Yeah, we know Ben isn’t playing, but we have confidence in Landry. You know he’s going to go out there and let it fly.”

But the reality in the NFL is that often it’s when you play a team that matters as much as who the opponent is. Facing the Steelers in Heinz Field is daunting for most anyone when Big Ben is on the field. Patriots luck prevails this week.

The obvious cases of when over who tend to come in the heat of September — anyone really eager to play outdoors in Florida or Nashville then? — or in the bitter cold of winter. Tundra is a dirty word to folks outside of Green Bay, Buffalo and New England.

For years, reporters covering the Jets immediately looked for two games when the schedule came out: when the team was in Miami (hopefully late in the year) and when it was in Buffalo (September, please).

Then there’s the chore of facing a well-rested team coming off a bye. Rarely are both opponents in a specific game in that situation: It happens only once in 2016, when Pittsburgh is at Baltimore on Nov. 6.

Indeed, the Eagles play three opponents who had a bye the previous week, including the Vikings on Sunday . The Panthers, Giants, 49ers, Cardinals, Jaguars, Bengals and Texans each play two opponents who were idle the week before.

Fair? Perhaps even less fair is that nine clubs never take on a team coming off a bye: Dallas, Washington, Green Bay, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Miami, Buffalo, Indianapolis and San Diego.

At least the Rams get a break there. Few teams have had more potential to be plagued by the when than the Rams.

Aside from their nomadic existence as they moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles, then had three different Southern California locales to work out of, they had a road game in Detroit in Week 6. Immediately after the loss to the Lions, they headed to London for their annual (until they get their new palace in Inglewood, California) hosting venture.

Meanwhile, the Giants were winning last Sunday at home against Baltimore.

Plus, the Giants-Rams mid-afternoon kickoff in London translates to 6:30 a.m. on the West Coast.

“Let me go back. Clearly, coming off a difficult loss in Detroit, and then leaving almost immediately after the game for here was a challenge for us,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher says. “But, they knew well ahead of time, and they accepted it. We got here, they settled down. We tried to keep them awake, but we weren’t as successful as we thought, but they got rested up.

“Yeah, it was different in that we came over on Monday following a home game (last season) … in the National Football League, it’s an inherent challenge to go from the West Coast, and then play a 1 p.m. (ET) game, which is in essence a 10 a.m. game on the West Coast. That in itself was a challenge for us that we dealt with last week.”

Often not apparent when deciphering the schedule are advantages that crop up. Facing a team in turmoil should provide an edge, something the Jets got in Week 2 at Buffalo, when they won for the only time so far. Or what the Bills experienced last Sunday when the Niners’ circus came to town with Colin Kaepernick making his first start. Rex Ryan’s club, which has turned around its fortunes since that Jets loss, romped past San Francisco.

There are always contrasts, though.

Star running back Adrian Peterson might be back with the Vikings for the final six or so games, so opponents would want to get Minnesota while he is rehabbing his knee injury. Problem is, the Vikings are 5-0 anyway.

And Dallas is 5-1 without Tony Romo, so taking on Dak Prescott has been anything but an edge for the opposition.

Still, timing is a tremendous factor in the outcome of NFL games. If you are banged up and your bye isn’t until Week 10 or 11, your playoff chances might be gone by then.

And if you come out of the gates like a hot rod and then have an early bye, well, that’s not so good, either. Remember, Philly won its first three games and looked very strong. Then the schedule told the Eagles to take a week off.

They are 0-2 since.

By Barry Wilner

AP Pro Football Writer

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