The NFL will be officially releasing the 2011 regular season schedule later today at 4:00pm pacific on the NFL Network and NFL.com. At that point we'll find out when the San Francisco 49ers will be playing their 16-game regular season schedule. Every game is important, but it's also fun finding out when the 49ers will be appearing on national television. Even with their struggles over the last eight seasons, the 49ers have still been featured in prime time games several times a year.
Last year the 49ers were featured on Monday Night Football twice, Sunday Night Football once, and Thursday Night Football once. Those contests were at home against the Saints and Eagles, and on the road against the Cardinals and Chargers. Although it's primarily speculation, it would seem that the high expectations heading into 2010 were the reason the NFL decided to feature them so frequently in prime time, as well as the midseason London game.
The 49ers expectations are all over the map in 2011 in part because of new head coach Jim Harbaugh. The hype is fairly tremendous at this point and that could lead to incredibly high expectations. Of course, coming off a fairly awful 2010 could also impact their prime time chances. A look through their 2011 list of opponents reveals some potentially intriguing matchups for prime time...you know, assuming football actually happens.
First and foremost, I'd bet just about every penny I have that the 49ers road game against the Baltimore Ravens will be on some kind of prime time. The game will feature the first ever matchup of sibling head coaches as John Harbaugh is the Ravens head coach. I just can't see any reason not to focus in on that game. Additionally, given the unknown quantity that is the 2011 49ers team, I would not be surprised if this was early in the season. Of course, even if the 49ers are bad later in the season you still get the Harbaugh brothers matchup. So maybe they roll the dice on later in the season, figuring that if one or both teams is awful they still have the brother storyline.
Other than that, it seems like the NFL does whatever it can to get the 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals on primetime at least once a year. The 49ers and Cardinals have faced off in primetime in each of the last four seasons. It's a little harder to feature them this year, but I could see it happening again.
Beyond that, the next best bet would be the Dallas Cowboys. The 49ers and Cowboys are one of the long-time traditional rivals and both feature new head coaches. The NFL has to be hoping this rivalry can rekindle itself with changes in the coaching staffs.
The league and the networks could certainly surprise us with another prime time affair, but I think those three opponents are the most likely possibilities. For more on the 49ers schedule release, head over to Niners Nation.