2012 NFL Must-See Match Ups

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Here are some of the upcoming NFL regular-season games you won't want to miss

<p> Athlon Sports presents its list of NFL regular-season games you don't want to miss in 2012</p>

The NFL released its 2012 regular-season schedule on Tuesday night, laying out the slate of 256 games that will start in September and carry through December. Here are some of the games that caught our attention.

2012’s Must-See NFL Regular-Season Match Ups
(listed in chronological order)

Sept. 9, San Francisco at Green Bay
The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants get the spotlight on Wednesday, opening up the 2012 NFL regular season by hosting Dallas at home, but the game to watch in Week 1 may just be this one. The top seeds from last season’s NFC playoffs meet in Green Bay as the Packers (No. 1) welcome San Francisco (No. 2) to Lambeau Field.

This figures to be a contrast of strengths as reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense (No. 1 in the NFL in scoring in 2011) will face off against All-Pros Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and the rest of the 49ers’ stout defense (No. 4 in total defense). The game also features a battle of coaching acumen between Mike McCarthy, who was the 49ers offensive coordinator before becoming the Packers’ head coach, and Jim Harbaugh, the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 2011.

Sept. 9, Pittsburgh at Denver
Peyton Manning will make his Denver Broncos debut at home on Sunday night, which is a must-see event in and of itself, but the NFL didn’t do him or the Broncos any favors with their opponent. Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers come back to Sports Authority Field at Mile High, where their 2011 season came to a stunning end, thanks to a 80-yard Tim Tebow-to-Demaryius Thomas connection just 11 seconds into overtime.

Tebow is now with the New York Jets, but the Broncos replaced him with Manning, the four-time NFL MVP. With Manning under center, the Broncos’ offense figures to be more dynamic and dangerous in the passing game, but may not be clicking on all cylinders come Week 1. The Steelers’ defense, which was No. 1 in the NFL in both total and scoring defense last season, will not only offer a good barometer of what Broncos’ fans can expect in 2012 from the revamped offense, it also will apply all the pressure it can on Manning to see if he’s fully recovered from his neck injuries and lengthy absence from the field.

Sept. 30, Buffalo at New England
On the surface this Week 4 encounter may not seem like a must-see match up, considering New England is the defending AFC Champion and Buffalo finished 6-10. However, remember that the AFC East foes split their two meetings in 2011. The Bills won the first game in Week 3 of last season, overcoming a 21-0 second-quarter deficit and kicking a game-winning field goal with no time left on the clock to secure the 34-31 thrilling victory at home. The win also snapped the Bills; 15-game losing streak to the Patriots.

The Patriots got even in the regular-season finale, but it wasn’t easy. This time it was Buffalo who jumped out to a 21-0 lead in Foxboro in the first quarter before Tom Brady and the Patriots answered back. And they answered back in a big way, out-scoring the Bills 49-0 in the final three quarters to become the first NFL team in history to win a game by 20 or more points in which they trailed by 20 or more points.

The Bills finished the season ranked No. 26 in the league in total defense, but signed former Houston Texan Mario Williams as a free agent to help fix that. The former No. 1 overall pick signed a six-year contract that could be worth up to $100 million, the first-ever such pact for a defensive player. The Bills added Williams to show their serious about defense and getting back to postseason and this first match up against Brady and Patriots’ offense, which finished No. 2 in the NFL in total offense in 2011, in Foxboro will be as good a test as any.

Sept. 30, New Orleans at Green Bay
The winners of the previous two Super Bowls heading into last season served as the opening act for the 2011 regular season last September, a game won by the Packers 42-34. The Saints return to Lambeau again this September and fans can expect plenty of offensive fireworks.

The Saints finished 2011 No. 1 in total offense, with the Packers coming in at No. 3 and both teams averaged more than 34 points per game. This Week 4 meeting also means the Saints will have already played three games, so hopefully by the time they play the Packers they will have completely shifted their focus from their tumultuous offseason to on-the-field business.

Oct. 7 Denver at New England
Yes, it’s Manning vs. Brady, although No. 18 will be a different uniform this time around, but this game offers much more than that. First there’s the matter of the 45-10 beat down the Patriots gave the Broncos in last year’s playoffs. Denver gets to return to the scene of the crime, if you will, and try and exact a little payback.

There’s also the Josh McDaniels factor. McDaniels left the Patriots in 2009 to become the Broncos’ head coach. Among the things McDaniels did while he was leading the Broncos was trade then-quarterback Jay Cutler to the Bears, ship Brandon Marshall off to the Dolphins and then trade up back into the first round to draft Tim Tebow in the 2010 NFL Draft.

McDaniels never found success on the field as Denver went 11-17 in his two seasons before being fired following the end of the 2010 season. McDaniels resurfaced last season as the St. Louis Rams’ offensive coordinator, but was let go after the season following the dismissal of head coach Steve Spagnuolo.

The Patriots brought him back into the fold during last season’s playoff run, during he served as an offensive assistant coach. When Bill O’Brien left to become the head coach at Penn State, Bill Belichick tabbed McDaniels once again as his offensive coordinator. You have to think McDaniels has definitely circled this game on his calendar.

Oct. 7, San Diego at New Orleans
Three seasons ago, the Chargers finished 13-3, which tied for the second-best record in all of the NFL. Seemingly a team on the brink of putting it all together, Norv Turner’s squad has missed the playoffs the past two seasons. Both times they were done in by slow starts, struggling to a 2-5 start in 2010 and suffering a crushing six-game losing streak following their bye week last season.

Turner is still calling the shots and the Chargers, led by quarterback Phillip Rivers, appear to have the pieces in place to contend in the AFC West, although they did lose wide receiver Vincent Jackson to Tampa Bay in free agency. If the Chargers are to be taken seriously, they must get off to a better start. This match up against Drew Brees and the Saints in the Big Easy, along with a Sept. 23 visit from the Falcons will serve as early indicators of whether they are contenders, or once again, pretenders, in 2012.

Oct. 14, Green Bay at Houston
The Giants and the Patriots played each other in Week 9 of last season, and at the time few people, if any, thought we would see them face off again in Super Bowl XLVI. Could this Week 6 Sunday night contest between Green Bay and Houston serve as the precursor for Super Bowl XLVII?

It’s entirely possible, but even if they don’t see one another again the rest of the way, this figures to be a highly entertaining game as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will travel to Houston to face the Texans, a team that appears to be on the cusp of taking that next step as a contender. The match up of the Packers’ offense versus the Texans’ defense (No. 2 in total defense in 2011) will be a fun one to watch, as will Clay Mathews, Charles Woodson and company trying to slow down Matt Schaub, Arian Foster and Andre Johnson on their home turf.

Nov. 4, Carolina at Washington
This Week 9 offering is all about the quarterbacks. If everything goes according to plan in next week’s NFL Draft, the last two Heisman Trophy winners should be under center. The Panthers’ Cam Newton, who won the Heisman in 2010 and followed that up by being named Offensive Rookie of the Year last season, will have the experience edge over the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III, the reigning Heisman Trophy recipient, who is expected to be the starter by this point.

Both quarterbacks are similar in style, as they can beat you with their arm and their legs, and the Redskins and coach Mike Shanahan would like nothing more than for Griffin to follow in Newton’s footsteps in his first NFL season. Last season, Newton set numerous records, including most passing yards by a rookie (4,051) and the single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14).

Nov. 22, Houston at Detroit
The first-game in a stuffed Thanksgiving triple-header (Washington at Dallas, New England at New York Jets are the other games), Detroit’s successful 2011 season, which ended the Lions’ 11-year playoff drought, adds even more significance to this game against Houston. Besides being a match up of two teams who will more than likely be in the thick of the playoff hunt in their respective conferences, this game features several of the NFL’s rising stars.

Both teams have potent offenses and while Houston’s defense (No. 2 in total defense in 2011) may have been more productive, the Lions’ defense is already pretty nasty in one sense, and has the pieces and potential to be fairly stingy in the other.

The Texans’ offense includes quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster, while the Lions counter with quarterback Matthew Stafford, but all eyes will be on the wide receivers. It’s a Johnson vs. Johnson face off as the Lions’ Calvin and the Texans’ Andre will get the chance to steal the spotlight from the other on Thanksgiving Day.

Nov. 25, Green Bay at New York Giants
The last two Super Bowl winners face off in this Week 12 Sunday night affair as the Giants welcome the Packers. The reigning champs ended the Packers’ 2011 season with a convincing 37-20 victory in Lambeau in the Divisional Round of the NFC Playoffs, and Green Bay would like nothing more than to return the favor this time around in MetLife Stadium in the Big Apple.

Besides the payback factor, the outcome of this game could go a long ways to deciding playoff seeding in the NFC, if not much more. Remember last year the Giants defeated the Cowboys in Week 17 to win the NFC East and get into the playoffs. Had they not won that game, they wouldn’t be hosting the Packers in this game as the defending Super Bowl champions.

Nov. 26, Carolina at Philadelphia
It remains to be seen if this Week 12 contest will have any playoff-related implications or not. But one thing this Monday night game does offer is a great quarterback pairing. It could be the passing of the guard as Michael Vick and his Eagles welcome Cam Newton and the Panthers to Lincoln Field.

Besides representing Newton’s inaugural appearance in the coveted Monday night time slot, this could serve as a passing of the guard between the two signal callers whose style of play appear to mirror one another. Vick burst on the scene after the Falcons drafted him No. 1 overall in 2001 and immediately dazzled and thrilled with his athleticism, dual-threat abilities and numerous highlight-reel plays.

Vick will be 32 once the 2012 NFL season starts, while Newton, who the Panthers took No. 1 overall in the 2011 draft, is nine years younger. Despite the critics and skeptics, Newton put together arguably the best statistics of any rookie quarterback in NFL history, shattering numerous records along the way with both his arm and his legs. There’s no more fitting backdrop than this Monday night to witness the passing of the torch between these two dynamic quarterbacks.

Dec. 10, Houston at New England
AFC supremacy, including possibly the top seed in the playoffs, could be on the line in Week 14 when Houston travels to New England for this Monday night contest. New England captured the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs last season thanks to a 13-3 mark and rode home-field advantage to the Super Bowl.

The Texans, meanwhile, won the AFC South with a 10-6 mark, earning the first playoff berth in the franchise’s 10-year history. The Texans defeated the Bengals in the Wildcard Round only to fall to the Ravens 20-13 in the Divisional Round. If Houston wants to take that next step toward becoming a legitimate championship contender, a victory over the Patriots in New England would go a long ways, for both 2012 and beyond.

Dec. 16, Pittsburgh at Dallas
Winners of a combined 11 Super Bowls will meet up in the regular season in Week 15 when Dallas hosts Pittsburgh. The two have actually faced each other in the Super Bowl three times with the Steelers claiming victory in Super Bowls X and XIII, while the Cowboys won the most recent title game match up, a 27-17 victory in Super Bowl XXX in 1996.

The Cowboys hold a 14-13 head-to-head advantage over the Steelers in regular-season meetings, but Pittsburgh has won the last two (2004 and ’08). Given the history and winning tradition associated with these two proud, long-standing franchises, this is a game that’s sure to attract plenty of attention.

— by Mark Ross, published on April 18, 2012

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