In 2011, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their return to Monday Night Football after a two-year absence from the series, and they did so in triumphant fashion. On October 3, the Buccaneers held off the Indianapolis Colts, 24-17, to win the Week Four MNF affair at Raymond James Stadium.
That contest was actually Tampa Bay's first prime-time game since the 2008 season, when the defending NFC South champs were scheduled for a Monday night game at division-rival Carolina in Week 14 and a pair of Sunday-nighters against Seattle and San Diego in Weeks Seven and 15 (the latter of which was eventually flexed back to the afternoon). Consecutive non-playoff seasons in 2008 and 2009 kept the Bucs off the prime-time landscape for a couple years, but the team's impressive 10-6 campaign in 2010 brought it back to the national spotlight.
And 2012? Even though the Bucs had a much rougher season than expected this past fall, they already know they will be playing at least one time under the lights in the coming season. Actually, the 2-14 St. Louis Rams can say the same thing, as can the 15-1 Green Bay Packers.
This week, the league announced that the NFL Network will have broadcast an expanded lineup of Thursday night games in 2012. One side bonus from this new Thursday lineup: Every team in the league will get at least one prime-time game.
In fact, all 32 teams will play on a Thursday at some point next fall. With 13 contests on the NFL Network and a trio of Thanksgiving games on partner networks, there are exactly 16 Thursday games – and thus 32 game spots – to go around. It may take some fancy scheduling, but those spots will be spread equally around the league.
So, while the Buccaneers won't know when they're going to be playing in prime-time again, or even where, until the full schedule comes out this spring, they do know they'll have at least one opportunity to build on their relatively successful record under the lights.
Tampa Bay's win over the Colts last October pushed the team's all-time record to 9-9 in Monday Night games, and that improves to 10-9 if one includes a Saturday night victory over Baltimore in 2001 that was technically considered part of the MNF series. The league did not play a Monday night game in Week 16 of 2001 because it would have fallen on New Year's Eve, so the Bucs and Ravens got the usual MNF crew in Tampa that weekend.
The Bucs also have a .500 record all-time on Thursday night, but in a much smaller sample size. Tampa Bay has played on Thursday evening just twice before, and it was well before the arrival of the NFL Network. In 1980, the Bucs exacted a small measure of revenge for the previous year's NFC Championship Game by defeating the Los Angeles Rams, 10-9, on Thursday night in Week Two. Twenty years later, the Bucs dropped a 28-14 decision to Detroit on a Thursday night in Week Eight of the 2000 campaign.
As with the Bucs' Monday night record, there is one technicality. This past season, the Dallas Cowboys defeated Tampa Bay, 31-15, on a Saturday night in Week 15. That game wasn't played on Thursday, but it was a special entry in the NFL Network's Thursday Night Football series. That is the only time the Buccaneers have played in a game broadcast on the NFL Network.
Before this year's expansion of the series, the Network's broadcasts fell between Weeks 10 and 16. In 2012, the Thursday Night Football games will start in Week Two and continue through Week 15, skipping Week 12, which includes Thanksgiving. In recent years, the NFL Network had been broadcasting a third Thanksgiving Day game in the evening after the traditional outings in Dallas and Detroit. That third game will remain on the schedule but will now be shown on NBC.
There will be one other side effect to the new Thursday night lineup, and like the first one, it serves to even out the impact of such off-Sunday games. In addition to every team playing at least one Thursday game, the league has made it clear that every team will have a Thursday game after playing on the previous Sunday. While such abbreviated weeks add a layer of difficulty to the efforts of any club involved in the Sunday-Thursday double-dip, at least every team will be impacted equally.
And every team will get a shot in the national limelight, regardless of the previous year's standings. That's a positive development in the NFL's scheduling format, as every year features several teams that have stronger seasons than anyone expected. A Buccaneers' prime-time game during the playoff stretch run might end up being must-see TV.