Ron Rivera knew the question was coming. The Washington Redskins had just announced their 2020 schedule, which included a Week 16 matchup against the Carolina Panthers -- the franchise Rivera coached the past nine years.
Ever since Rivera took the Redskins' job, he knew he'd go up against his former team. So, when NFL Network's Peter Schrager broached the subject on "Redskins 2020 Schedule Release Live presented by Pepsi" on Thursday night, he was prepared.
Rivera initially looked confused, then flashed a big smile. "We play Carolina?"
After the laughter subsided, Rivera gave a truthful response. Given the perceived significance of the game, he assumed it would be much earlier in the season. That was not the case, and Rivera believes the contest loses a lot of its hype as a result. To him, "it's just another game."
"If it had been one of the first two or three games, I could have appreciated that," Rivera said on NFL Network's "2020 NFL Schedule Release Live" on Thursday night. "But being where they put it, right around Christmas time, I'm not sure it's going to have much of an impact or a meaning for me personally at that point."
Long before Washington hosts Carolina, it welcomes the Philadelphia Eagles to FedExField for the regular season opener Sept. 13. Rivera likes that the Redskins begin the year with the defending NFC East division champions, as it will provide a "great measuring stick" for where they are as a team.
Their first road test occurs a week later against the Arizona Cardinals, who began their rebuilding process in 2019 with the selection of quarterback Kyler Murray No. 1 overall. After finishing 5-10-1, the Cardinals traded for one of the league's best wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and made several noteworthy free agent signings. Factor in second-year offensive-minded head coach Kliff Kingsbury, and the Cardinals appear poised to make a big jump in the NFC West.
"I'm excited about the way we start the season, I really am," Rivera said. "I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to start coaching again."
Following a Week 3 trip to Cleveland and home games versus the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Rams, the Redskins enter one of the most crucial stretches of the 2020 campaign: travelling to MetLife Stadium to play the New York Giants, hosting the Dallas Cowboys and then playing the Giants again at FedExField following their bye week.
One of Rivera's mantras is that if you want to win the division, control the division. And with three NFC East games within a four-week span, that's by far the best opportunity to do so.
"Just the fact that in our first [nine weeks] of the season, we're going to play four of our six division games, so I think it's going to be very important," said Rivera, who coached in the NFC East as the Eagles' linebackers coach from 1999-2003.
"It's a good opportunity for us to test ourselves and see where we are and see the things we need to do to really become relevant in our own division."
After games against the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals, perhaps the toughest portion of the Redskins' schedule begins with a Thanksgiving Day game versus the Cowboys. As Washington's lone prime-time game, Rivera is excited for his players to compete on the national stage. However, the Redskins have not won at AT&T Stadium since 2015.
Over the next two weeks, Washington will travel to Pittsburgh and San Francisco, respectively. The former opponent has made six playoff appearances in the last decade, while the latter nearly won Super Bowl LIV.
While Rivera admitted those are some "really good opponents," he expects the Redskins to be playing their best football at that time. After months of learning, developing and fine-tuning, everything should come together down the stretch, Rivera said.
Rivera does not seemed too concerned about the road trips, either. Since the Redskins play Dallas on a Thursday, they'll have nine days before making the short trek to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers.
"And then we go out to San Francisco, which will probably be a very taxing trip, but it's just one trip to San Francisco," Rivera said. "The whole selling point is that it's not like we're playing three consecutive road games where we're going west, west, west, and that's the thing our guys have to understand."
The Redskins finally return home to play the Seattle Seahawks on Dec. 20, and a week later they host the Panthers in what Schrager called "the Ron Rivera Bowl." Then, it's off to Philadelphia for the regular season finale on Jan. 3, which comes two days after the anniversary of Rivera being named head coach.
In the months since his hiring, Rivera has looked inward to improve the franchise. First he had to build this coaching staff, and then those coaches evaluated the entire roster to "set the core" for 2020. The NFL Scouting Combine came next, followed by free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft. On April 20, the team's began its virtual offseason workout program in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The schedule release served as a respite from the rebuilding process. Instead of focusing on his players, Rivera discussed the external factors (opponents, dates, times, etc.) that could impact his first year in Washington.
But now that Rivera has seen the schedule, it's time to get back to work.
"I'm looking forward to it. I really am," Rivera said about returning to Redskins Park. "As long as we do what we're supposed to do, we continue to follow the guidelines, who knows? Maybe we can be back a little bit sooner than people think."