TAMPA — Lovie Smith's first season as Bucs head coach will open with two home games and close with two more, with two of the NFL's most difficult stretches of road games in between.
Smith makes his Bucs debut on Sept. 7 against Carolina, which not only won the NFC South, but beat the Bucs by 18 and 21 points last season.
But as Tampa Bay looks to improve on a 4-12 record in 2013, it will want to get off to a strong start, thanks to a very difficult final month — four of the six 2013 playoff teams it'll face come in the final five weeks of the season. The Bucs close with a home game against division champion Cincinnati, then go to Detroit, then to NFC South champ Carolina, then home against NFC North champ Green Bay and NFC wild-card New Orleans.
The Bucs drew just one prime-time assignment — a tough Week 3 game at the Falcons on Thursday, just four days after a home game against the Rams. That matches the fewest prime-time games in the NFL — 10 teams have at least five games in prime time or on Thanksgiving.
"As much as anything, I can't wait to see when we play our divisional opponents," Smith said Wednesday afternoon. "You kind of want to see how you match up."
He won't have to wait long, making a full lap through the NFC South in the first five weeks, opening at home against the Panthers, then going on the road for the Falcons and Saints in Weeks 3 and 5. Two more division games are in the final three weeks of the season, with a Week 10 game against Atlanta as the only division game in a nine-week span.
The much-anticipated return of Smith to Chicago — where he was coach from 2004-12 — is set for Nov. 23, and if the Bucs have made improvements from their 2013 season, it's a game that could easily be flexed into a Sunday prime-time slot. That game against the Bears also should be the Bucs' biggest risk of playing in cold weather, with Detroit (dome) and Carolina as the December road games.
Tough road games? Smith's first will come at NFC South rival Atlanta. That opens a stretch of three straight road games, with trips to Pittsburgh and New Orleans. From Week 11 to 15, the Bucs have four of five games on the road — at the Redskins, Bears, Lions and Panthers, with a home game against Cincinnati in the middle of that span.
There are four NFL teams that play three road games in a row, and six that play a run of four road games in five weeks. The Bucs are the only team that has both, separately, on the same 2014 schedule.
Around the league
The Seahawks kick off the season by hosting the Packers on Sept. 4, the third straight season Green Bay has traveled to face the defending Super Bowl champion. It's the first of four prime-time games opening weekend, including a Sunday matchup of AFC champion Denver and Peyton Manning hosting his former team, Indianapolis.
The NFL plays three games in London: Dolphins-Raiders on Sept. 28; Lions-Falcons on Oct. 26; and Cowboys-Jaguars on Nov. 9. The Detroit-Atlanta game will kick off at 9:30 a.m. in an experiment to test the NFL's audience draw on a Sunday morning.
A Saturday doubleheader in Week 16 has San Diego at San Francisco and Philadelphia at Washington.
For the first time, games in Weeks 5 -10 can be flexed from Sunday afternoon to night, with a limit of two. Beginning with Week 11, a Sunday game can be moved to prime time each week. Also, a select number of Sunday afternoon games are being "cross-flexed," moving between CBS and Fox to potentially draw more viewers.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.