Baseball is back, the NHL playoffs have started with the NBA to follow suit this weekend, yet the NFL remains at the forefront of sports fans’ mind. While it could have something to do with Wednesday’s announcement of the huge trade between the Tennessee Titans and Los Angeles Rams involving the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft, there’s also the matter of the schedule.
The 2016 NFL regular season is still four and a half months away, but the anticipation of what will take place on the field has already begun. The path to Super Bowl LI in Houston has been laid out with Thursday night’s announcement of the schedule. While all 256 regular season games are important, here are the 10 matchups we can’t wait for this season.
1. Carolina at Denver (Week 1, Thursday)
It’s only fitting that this Super Bowl 50 rematch kicks off the new season. Yes, Peyton Manning has retired and several other former Broncos signed elsewhere as free agents, but this pairing still comes with plenty of appeal. Not only does this give the Panthers a shot at knocking off the defending champs at home, but Cam Newton gets the opportunity to redeem himself against the defense that ruined his Super Sunday and should still be among the best in the league.
2. Baltimore at New England (Week 14, Monday)
By the time this game is played it will have been almost two years since their last meeting, but I doubt the time that has passed has done much to mend the fences between these two teams. Not only has Baltimore been labeled as an accomplice to New England getting implicated in the Deflategate scandal, there also was the questionable formation (which is now illegal) that was a part of that Divisional Round playoff game two seasons ago. The stakes may be lower for this matchup, but that won’t stop the Patriot faithful from reminding the Ravens that they blew not one, but two 14-point leads the last time they were in Gillette Stadium.
3. Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (Week 2)
The Ravens may be the Steelers’ archrival, but this is the AFC North pairing that bears watching this fall. The Bengals are probably still stinging over what happened in the fourth quarter of their wild card playoff game loss at home to the Steelers, while Antonio Brown has some unfinished business of his own to take care of against Cincinnati’s defense. Don’t forget that the last time these two teams played, neither Le’Veon Bell (knee) nor Andy Dalton (thumb) was on the field. Hopefully both teams will be at full strength for this early-season clash.
4. New England at Denver (Week 15)
It’s not Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning anymore, but it’s Patriots vs. Broncos and once again could play a huge role in how the AFC playoff picture shakes out. These are the two teams that have won the past two Super Bowls and have faced each other a total of eight times over the past five seasons. Yes, we have no idea what Denver’s quarterback situation will look like by Dec. 18, but these are two teams that know each other well and would like nothing more than to hang an L on the other.
5. Arizona at Carolina (Week 8)
The Cardinals would like to erase the painful memory of what transpired the last time they were in Charlotte. The Panthers abused Carson Palmer (4 INTs, 2 fumbles, 3 sacks) on their way to a dominating, 49-15 NFC Championship Game victory in late January. Both of these teams figure to be among the contenders in the NFC once again, so can the addition of pass rusher Chandler Jones help Arizona get over the hump against the Cam Newton and company?
6. Seattle at Green Bay (Week 14)
These teams have faced each other three times the past two seasons. The NFC Championship Game from two seasons ago obviously stands out, but it was the Packers who took last year’s meeting, scoring the final 14 points to win 27-17. The Seahawks will return to the potentially frozen tundra of Lambeau Field looking to exact revenge while also sending a signal to the rest of the league that they are still a Super Bowl-worthy team. Meanwhile Aaron Rodgers is hoping a healthy Jordy Nelson and a trimmer Eddie Lacy can get his offense back to where it was a few seasons ago, especially against the Legion of Boom and the rest of Seattle’s stout defense.
7. New England at Pittsburgh (Week 7)
The Patriots beat the Steelers 28-21 in Foxboro to open the 2015 season, although both teams were missing their starting running backs (LeGarrette Blount, Le’Veon Bell) due to suspension. Pittsburgh needs Bell more than the Patriots need Blount, and if the All-Pro running back is healthy, the Steelers possess one of the few offenses that can match, if not surpass, New England when it comes to firepower. Both teams also have Super Bowl aspirations, so this is another game that could have far-reaching implications come playoff time.
8. Seattle at Los Angeles (Week 2)
For the first time since 1994, the NFL returns to Los Angeles. The Rams will re-christen the L.A. Coliseum when they host the Seahawks. Whoever starts at quarterback for the home team (Case Keenum? Jared Goff? Carson Wentz?) will have their work cut out for him against Seattle’s defense. This also represents a homecoming of sorts for both head coaches, as Pete Carroll and Jeff Fisher have ties to USC.
9. Houston at Denver (Week 7, Monday)
Two division winners get together on a Monday night for a game that will feature two of the league’s best defensive players in three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller. Gary Kubiak and Wade Phillips face the team they coached at one point. And oh yeah, Brock Osweiler returns to the Mile High City as the Texans’ starting quarterback while it’s not certain who will be under center for the home team.
10. Cleveland at Washington (Week 4)
The Redskins won the NFC East last season, but there’s no denying it was a watered-down division. The Browns haven’t posted a winning season since 2007. So why is this game on this list? Why don’t you ask Robert Griffin III? In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of RG3’s former teammates have already circled this one on their calendars too.
Don’t Forget About
New England at Arizona (Week 1)
Not only is this a matchup of the two teams that lost in their respective conference championship games, but Chandler Jones finally gets his chance to tackle Tom Brady, his former teammate. Also the chess match between Bruce Arians, an offensive-minded head coach and defensive mastermind Bill Belichick could be extremely entertaining.
Arizona vs. Seattle (Weeks 7, 16)
The Rams are getting reacquainted with Los Angeles and the 49ers are rebuilding, which leaves the Seahawks and Cardinals to battle it out for NFC West supremacy. The intrigue for these two matchups not only has to do with the one guaranteed home playoff game for winning the division, but also that both of these teams have Super Bowl aspirations.
Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh (Weeks 9, 16)
While the aforementioned Bengals may be squarely in the Steelers’ bulls-eye because of what happened in the playoffs, that does not mean it replaces Pittsburgh’s rivalry with Baltimore. There is certainly no love lost between these teams. Last year, the Ravens went just 5-11, but two of those wins came against, you guessed it, the Steelers. The fact that the second game falls on Christmas Day just adds to the appeal.
Seattle at New England (Week 10)
Super Bowl XLIX rematch. Need I say anything more? OK, then how about Legion of Boom vs. Tom Brady or Russell Wilson vs. Malcolm Butler or Jimmy Graham vs. Rob Gronkowski. No Beast Mode, but then again he didn’t really matter the last time they played either (sorry Seahawks fans).
Houston vs. Oakland (Week 11, Mexico City)
The setting of this game certainly doesn’t hurt its inclusion, but those who will be in attendance at Estadio Azteca should be treated to an entertaining matchup of two of the league’s younger teams. The Texans are coming off of a division title, while the Raiders have made some big moves this offseason in hopes of taking that next step forward.