The experience of attending an NFL game is not always the most pleasant one. The fans are rougher and rowdier than you'll find at other North American professional leagues, you spend a depressingly large amount of time waiting for television to come back from commercial and there aren't many angles you'll see that aren't better than what you can see at home. (Often, those watching from their couch can see the game more clearly than the ones playing it.)
But it's still something everyone should experience. You can learn a ton about a city, and its people, by tailgating with them for a full NFL Sunday: After spending a grueling, sad Sunday in Cleveland last September, I sort of feel bonded with that franchise and their fans. I'd been an Arizona Cardinals fan my whole life, but it wasn't until I at last flew out to Glendale for a game -- a playoff game, no less -- that I finally understood what it meant to be a fan of that team. (It's pain, mostly.) You can see everything on TV. But sometimes you have to be there.
Thus! With the NFL season starting in two days, I thought it was time to put together our annual Ultimate NFL Road Trip. The trick, as it was with baseball and college football, is to see as many stadiums/games in as short a time as possible. With baseball, we put together a schedule that allowed us to see all 30 stadiums in 30 days. (31, actually.) You can't do it that fast in the NFL -- apparently NFL players require more days off than baseball players -- but as you'll see below, you can conceivably see all 31 NFL stadiums (32 if you count the Jets and Giants having different stadiums, which they don't) by Thanksgiving, before it gets too cold. All stadiums and fan bases are different. Here's a chance to see every single one of them.
With baseball, we attempted to hit all stadiums without ever driving a car: It was just plans, trains and cabs. That would be the opposite of how college football worked, where you just want to grab an SUV and go. We'll split the difference here: There would be no way to drive to all of these games -- getting from Sunday afternoon games to Monday night games wouldn't give you enough time for that San Francisco to East Rutherford jaunt -- so we'll calculate how much it would be to fly to each appropriate airport, and then go under the assumption that you can find your way to the stadium, and shack up with whoever comes along. If you want to account for cabs or hotels, or if you just want to drive the whole thing, that is your prerogative: Add budget accordingly. All that matters is that you get the full gameday experience. I bet you can find more fans willing to have you sleep under their tailgate tent than you might think. We're trying to keep this as cheap as possible. We're just listing the flight fare here. (Taxes not included.)
So let's go to it.
Thursday, Sept. 4: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks, Century Link Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $220.40.)
We're starting the counter at zero in Seattle, so start walking right now. (Seattle is far away. Walk fast.) No better place to start the season than at the stadium of the defending champions, the most electric home atmosphere in the game. It'll be rollicking tonight.
Flight: Seattle to Kansas City (via Phoenix). American Airlines. $142.
Sunday, Sept. 7: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs, Arrowhead Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $32.74.)
Tough to beat Seattle and Kansas City as rollicking stadiums to kick off the 2014 season. It is turning into quite the sporting year for K.C.
Flight: Kansas City to Phoenix (via Denver). Frontier Airlines. $179. (Warning: When we did this for baseball, every time we listed Frontier Airlines, readers informed us of just how unreliable this airline is. While all airlines are inherently unreliable, Frontier appears to stand out. Worth keeping in mind. There's a United flight that's 50 bucks more.)
Monday, Sept. 8: San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals, University of Phoenix Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $51.28.)
This is the second of the two "Monday Night Football" openers, and we chose it because it gives you more time to tailgate. Also, the Cardinals' new-ish stadium is surprisingly loud, particularly with the roof closed. (Which, considering it's supposed to be 102 next weekend, you can count on it being.)
Flight: Phoenix to Baltimore (via Houston). United Airlines. $232.
Thursday, Sept. 11: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens, M&T Bank Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $119.60.)
Going this early means you don't have to watch Ray Rice.
Flight: Baltimore to Buffalo (via Detroit). Delta Air Lines. $203.
Sunday, Sept. 14: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills, Ralph Wilson Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $120.)
You don't get to boo Jon Bon Jovi anymore -- not that you can't go ahead and do that anyway -- but considering the uncertainty of this franchise, it's probably a good idea to check out this cranky, lovely old stadium while you have the chance. The NFL will lose a large chunk of whatever charm it has left if it ever leaves Buffalo. Come and scream with the locals.
Flight: Buffalo to Indianapolis (via Detroit). Delta Air Lines. $164.
Monday, Sept. 15: Philadelphia Eagles at Indianapolis Colts, Lucas Oil Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $55.76.)
Indianapolis, because of its expansive airport and its (mostly) convenient downtown location, has become a popular city to host big events. (The Super Bowl it hosted a few years ago will not be its last.) And it's even more fun on gameday, because the bars aren't crowded. Plus, this game will have a lot of points.
Flight: Indianapolis to Atlanta, nonstop. AirTran. $135.
Thursday, Sept. 18: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons, Georgia Dome. (Cheapest ticket on Stubhub: $19.75.)
The Georgia Dome only has three NFL seasons left, as they build that crazy-looking stadium next door. You won't miss it much, but you should still see it.
Flight: Atlanta to New Orleans, nonstop. Delta Air Lines. $145.
Sunday, Sept. 21: Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints, Mercedes Benz Superdome (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $102.13.)
Well, it's New Orleans … so obviously you'll want to get there from Atlanta as soon as possible.
Flight: New Orleans to Newark (via Atlanta). Delta Air Lines. $162.
Monday, Sept. 22: Chicago Bears at New York Jets, Met Life Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $57.)
I put together two separate stops at MetLife Stadium, because a Jets home game is different than a Giants home game, but your mileage may vary. Anyway, Rex Ryan teams are always a bit more fun on national television.
Flight: Newark to Washington DC, nonstop. United Airlines $93.
Thursday, Sept. 25: New York Giants at Washington Football Team, FedEx Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $37.52.)
FedEx Field is notoriously the biggest ripoff in the NFL -- and this is a league that knows of such matters -- but you have to get it out of the way. I'm pretty sure Daniel Snyder is going to charge you for reading this paragraph.
Flight: Washington to San Diego (via Atlanta). AirTran. $166.
Sunday, Sept. 28: Jacksonville Jaguars at San Diego Chargers, Qualcomm Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $30.52.)
This might not be the most thrilling game, but we've gotta get San Diego out of the way and besides: San Diego in late September is gorgeous.
Now, here, we have our first repeat: Kansas City hosting the Pats on Monday night. Just the way the schedule works out. We're gonna give you a few days off to talk to your family now, but if you'd like to go to Arrowhead Stadium again, be my guest.
Flight: San Diego to Green Bay (via San Francisco and Chicago). United Airlines. $370.
Thursday, Oct. 2: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers, Lambeau Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $173.)
It's always a pain to get to Green Bay, but if you've ever been there, you know it's worth it. It'll be fun to watch the entire town take a whole Thursday off.
Flight: Green Bay to Detroit (via Chicago). United Airlines. $209.
Sunday, Oct. 5: Buffalo Bills at Detroit Lions, Ford Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $43.67.)
If you catch a break, maybe there will be an ALDS game just down the road at Comerica later that night.
Time for another Monday night off: The Washington football team is on Monday Night Football this week. No reason to give that guy any more money than you have to.
Flight: Detroit to Houston, nonstop. Spirit Airlines. $108.
Thursday, Oct. 9: Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans, NRG Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $88.)
Whatever "NRG" is, the stadium formerly known as Reliant is supposedly nice, and even low-key. (Well, for Texas.)
Flight: Houston to Tampa, nonstop. United Airlines. $143.
Sunday, Oct. 12: Baltimore Ravens at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Raymond James Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $36.80.)
Other than that big Jolly Roger boat thing, there isn't much to say about Raymond James Stadium (and there certainly isn't much surrounding the stadium). You can look at the Yankees spring training facility across the street, maybe?
Flight: Tampa to St. Louis (via Atlanta). Delta Air Lines. $201.
Monday, Oct. 13: San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams, Edward Jones Dome. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $33.)
Yet another stadium that's about to be replaced OR ELSE -- even though it is not even 20 years old yet and is the only reason the Rams moved to St. Louis in the first place -- it might be the most antiseptic in all of sports. Even during the Greatest Show on Turf days.
Flight: St. Louis to Boston (via Atlanta). AirTran. $156.
Thursday, Oct. 16: New York Jets at New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $141.65.)
Even though it's still Rex Ryan vs. Bill Belichick, this matchup doesn't have the same kick as it used to. Still: Thursday night in Foxboro? That doesn't sound unpleasant, particularly because it won't be that cold yet (and the Red Sox won't be around to distract anyone).
Flight: Boston to Chicago, nonstop. United Airlines. $99
Sunday, Oct. 19: Miami Dolphins at Chicago Bears, Soldier Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $199.25.)
The stadium has lost some of its charm since they landed an alien spaceship on top of it … but it's still the Bears.
Flight: Chicago to Pittsburgh (via Cincinnati). Delta Air Lines. $125.
Monday, Oct. 20: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers, Heinz Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $92.01.)
The best part of being in one of the great football towns in America these days? Bane can't blow the place up anymore.
Flight: Pittsburgh to Denver, nonstop. United Airlines. $181.
Thursday, Oct. 23: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos, Sports Authority Field at Mile High. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $124.)
If Peyton Manning is still healthy, the Broncos should just about be ready to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by now.
Flight: Denver to Jacksonville (via Chicago). United Airlines. $216.
Sunday, Oct. 26: Miami Dolphins at Jacksonville Jaguars, EverBank Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $47.20.)
Hey, you've got to knock out Jacksonville at some point. Might as well be during this intrastate "rivalry."
Flight: Jacksonville to Dallas (via Atlanta). Delta Air Lines. $177.
Monday, Oct. 27: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys, AT&T Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $26.15.)
If your flight is running late, you can always watch the game on the scoreboard from the plane flying above.
Flight: Dallas to Charlotte (via Houston). United Airlines. $165
Thursday, Oct. 30: New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers, Bank of America Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $66.26.)
This could be a key NFC South matchup, though you'll probably just wish you were in New Orleans instead.
Flight: Charlotte to San Francisco (via Boston?). JetBlue Airlines. $181.
Sunday, Nov. 2: St. Louis Rams at San Francisco 49ers, Levi's Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $112.25.)
Your first chance to see the 49ers' sparkling new ode to the technology industry in Silicon Valley. Just make sure "Levi's" is punctuated correctly.
Flight: San Francisco to Newark, nonstop. Virgin America. $169
Monday, Nov. 3: Indianapolis Colts at New York Giants, MetLife Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $109.)
If you wanted to skip this one because you've already been to MetLife -- and because it's basically a red eye flight -- you can, but if you've made it this far, you're surely completist enough to one to see this all through.
Flight: Newark to Cincinnati (via Philadelphia and Washington). US Airways. $247.
Thursday, Nov. 6: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals, Paul Brown Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $56.50.)
It took you this long to go see Johnny Manziel. You'll get to see him again next week, though. Also: Totally hard to get to Cincinnati by plane!
Flight: Cincinnati to Oakland (via Los Angeles and Portland). Alaska Airlines. $310.
Sunday, Nov. 9: Denver Broncos at Oakland Raiders, O.co Coliseum. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $56.56.)
Man, getting in and out of Cincinnati is a bear. This is a rough weekend, going from the Midwest to the West Coast, then all the way out East. Hang in there, we're almost done.
Flight: Oakland to Philadelphia (via Seattle). Alaska Airlines. $285.
Monday, Nov. 10: Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles, Lincoln Financial Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $97.54.)
Another red eye flight, but well, well worth it. By this point, I fully expect Chip Kelly to have the Eagles scoring 94 points a game.
Flight: Philadelphia to Miami, nonstop. American Airlines. $148.
Thursday, Nov. 13: Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins, Sun Life Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $30.52.)
Did you realize the Bills swept the Dolphins last year? The Dolphins probably don't even remember that, but hey, you never know, maybe they want a bunch of revenge or something. We're stretching here. It has been a long trip.
Flight: Miami to Cleveland, nonstop. US Airways. $213.
Sunday, Nov. 16: Houston Texans at Cleveland Browns, FirstEnergy Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $31.09.)
Johnny Manziel will either be out for the season after suffering some sort of debilitating injury, or leading the Browns to the Super Bowl his rookie year by this point. Or he'll just play every game shirtless. Sky's the limit with this guy.
Flight: Cleveland to Nashville (via Detroit). Delta Air Lines. $124.
Monday, Nov. 17: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans, LP Field. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $74.99.)
Are the Titans the dullest team in the NFL this year? They might not be at the beginning of the season, but by this point? Very possible.
You can take off the Thursday night game, because who wants to go to Oakland again? This means you have just one stop left.
Flight: Nashville to Minneapolis (via Charlotte). US Airways. $300.
Sunday, Nov. 23: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings, TCF Bank Stadium. (Cheapest ticket on StubHub: $110.51.)
The Vikings will be playing at the University of Minnesota's stadium this year while they're waiting for their fancy new stadium to be built, so this is a one-time only deal. You'll love that stadium, though. And it's weirdly fitting to end this insane trip … at a college football stadium.
So, how much did it cost? Let's plug the numbers in. Going with the lowest current price on StubHub and the lowest current flights (and assuming that you find some lodging and cab fare, however you do that), the answer is …
OK, so that's a little bit more than the NFL Sunday Ticket package.