The National Football League's orbit has expanded so astronomically that it will elbow The Big Bang Theory from Thursday to Monday for several weeks this fall.
Thursday Night Football premieres Sept. 11 on CBS with its lead broadcast team of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. The games will be simulcast on the NFL Network, which takes over the Thursday package at midseason with Nantz and Simms still in the booth.
"It says a lot about how important it is to CBS when you take Thursday night — arguably the most critical night of the week in primetime and with such a successful track record — and decide that you're going to supplant that lineup with pro football," says Nantz, who will pair with Simms for at least 25 regular-season games. "We're really going to do our best to present it as the leadoff to the weekend. Football starts here."
The 2014 NFL season will begin with a big bang, but a week earlier and on a different network, when the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks host the Green Bay Packers Sept. 4 on NBC.
"People want to knock off the champs, so Seattle's season is going to feel a little bit longer to them this year," says Cris Collinsworth, analyst for NBC's Sunday Night Football. "But they have a great advantage. Under the current salary structure in the NFL, until the fourth year you don't have to pay the quarterback [Russell Wilson, starting his third season] that top-end money. So they still have a lot of money to spend on the rest of that team, and it shows."
While Collinsworth says the Seahawks are widely considered the favorites in the NFC, they're not his pick. He's taking the Philadelphia Eagles. "[Second-year coach] Chip Kelly is bringing a new way of looking at offensive football," Collinsworth says. "[Quarterback] Nick Foles had an incredible year statistically a season ago, even outdoing Peyton Manning [of the Denver Broncos] and some of his record-breaking stuff on occasion. They're going to be better on defense, and they've got the best running back in the league in LeSean McCoy."
Nantz believes Seattle "can definitely repeat" and wonders if the Seahawks are "on the brink of building a mini-dynasty. However, just look right in their own division. There's San Francisco, and I'm sure [49ers head coach] Jim Harbaugh has been chewing on last season," since the Seahawks dispatched their rivals in the NFC championship game.
On the East Coast, anticipation is swirling around the Washington Redskins and whether quarterback Robert Griffin III can rebound after last season, when the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year struggled following knee surgery and sat out the final three games of a brutal 3-13 campaign.
Mike Tirico, play-by-play announcer on ESPN's Monday Night Football, sees a variety of challengers in the NFC, starting with the Chicago Bears ("if they improve their defense") and Green Bay. "I'd say about 60 percent of the NFC legitimately thinks they can earn [one of] the six spots in the playoffs."
The AFC is a different story. "There's New England and Denver at the top, then a bit of separation between those teams and the next group," Tirico says, including the Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, and Baltimore Ravens. The big reason the Broncos and Patriots are favored are their quarterbacks, Manning and Tom Brady, who are getting older but still potent. "They make as many plays, if not more, with their minds as they do with their arms," Tirico says. "It's truly the golden age of that position in the NFL, headlined by those two guys."
The Cleveland Browns hope their rookie quarterback will be golden, too. "Of course there's this Johnny Manziel fever," Nantz says of the Heisman Trophy-winning Texas A&M star. "Like Tiger Woods in golf, no matter what Manziel does, people want to know about it."
By the time the Browns make their Thursday debut (Nov. 6 at Cincinnati), The Big Bang Theory will be back in its usual slot on CBS. But the NFL has the option to share Thursday nights with CBS again next year. You don't need to be Sheldon Cooper to calculate those odds.