There’s really no such thing as the offseason in the National Football League and spring tends to be confirmation of exactly that with a host of newsworthy announcements from coast-to-coast. April is particularly busy with the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft, numerous free agency moves and the one thing that teams can use pen for in their calendars – the annual schedule release.
While the actual NFL regular season is still more than four months away, we finally get our first taste of how the year will go thanks to the full slate of dates and times being released publicly by the league on Thursday night. From the opener all the way up to Super Bowl LII, it figures to be yet another exciting season in the NFL from Game 1 through 256. The 2017 campaign in particular manages to wind up as quite the juicy slate with numerous playoff rematches (including the Super Bowl and both conference title games) and a host of other intriguing meetings.
What are the best of the bunch? Here are the 10 must-see games of the 2017 NFL regular season (and a few more to keep an eye out for this fall).
1. Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots (Week 7, Sunday Night Football)
After one of the most incredible comebacks in Super Bowl history, it seems only right that we get a rematch between the Falcons and the Patriots. While the game might give some Atlanta fans a few nightmares in the days leading up to this one, the opportunity for the Falcons to get a little revenge in Foxborough should be a welcome addition to the 2017 slate for the team. Beyond the rematch angle, seeing Julio Jones go up against that re-tooled New England secondary should be extremely fun to watch.
2. New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders (Week 11, in Mexico City)
While this is technically a Raiders home game, it will actually take place in Mexico City at Estadio Azteca. Those south of the border will get a much better treat than last year’s game involving Oakland and Houston as this season’s edition pits two of the AFC’s top contenders for the Lombardi Trophy. The Raiders’ playoff hopes took a big hit when Derek Carr was lost to an injury late last year but this contest could show that the team is right back in that same position with a big win.
3. Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (Week 2, Sunday Night Football)
Matt Ryan and company closed out the Georgia Dome in style by thrashing the Packers in last season’s NFC title game, with the MVP even adding a long rushing touchdown for good measure. This rematch offers Aaron Rodgers and the Packers a chance to take some of the sting out of that blowout in January and ruin the debut of the brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium that is set to open its NFL tenure with this game. Don’t discount this one being a vital tie-breaker for postseason seeding either. Pour one out for the two defensive coordinators as the offensive skill position talent in this game is off the charts.
4. New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 15)
This might be the most consistently high-level rivalry in the AFC largely due to the presence of a pair of top-tier signal-callers in Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. A rematch of last year’s AFC title game, this year’s edition will take place with the “Terrible Towels” waiving at full force and very well could be for the conference’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs, which will start just two weeks later. Don’t overlook the defensive chess match between Bill Belichick and the Steelers’ staff on the opposite sideline either.
5. Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers (Week 1)
Talk about a juicy season opener in the NFC as two of the conference’s potential top seeds hit the field at Lambeau. The Russell Wilson vs. Aaron Rodgers subplot will be the focus for many, but don’t overlook how important the emergence of the run game in this one will be to both teams’ seasons. Given how important the draft is to the roster of each squad, this also is a pretty cool debut for many of the rookies who will need to become contributors for both the Packers and the Seahawks.
6. Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys (Week 5)
Whenever these two get together, they typically produce a memorable result that’s hard to forget. Just last season at Lambeau, we saw how Dak Prescott solidified himself as the Cowboys’ QB of the present and the future, while the divisional round setting produced one of the wildest final sequences to a playoff game in some time thanks to Aaron Rodgers’ heroics. This rubber match has a chance to build upon both of those great games from 2016 and propel the winner to new heights in ‘17.
7. Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 14, Sunday Night Football)
Few things are as sure in the NFL as the annual slugfest between these AFC North rivals. Expect heavy doses of running the ball between the tackles and fighting for every single yard thanks to the defenses trying to out-hit each other on the field. It goes without saying that this one could decide the division when the regular season wraps up a few weeks later and, if nothing else, could be the difference between hosting a home playoff game or having to hit the road with everything on the line.
8. Dallas Cowboys at Oakland Raiders (Week 15, Sunday Night Football)
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been a mover and a shaker when it comes to NFL teams moving around the country and he certainly played a role in the Raiders’ eventual departure to Las Vegas. That’s one storyline to watch out for as two of the most intriguing teams from last season square off late in the 2017 campaign. This game pits plenty of the league’s stars against each other at quarterback (Dak Prescott vs. Derek Carr) and wide receiver (Dez Bryant vs. Amari Cooper), a possibly even running back (Zeke vs. Beast Mode?), and features two of the best offensive lines in the game. Oh, don’t forget the defenses either, as Khalil Mack, Sean Lee and company will probably remind you at times in this one.
9. Atlanta Falcons at Seattle Seahawks (Week 11, Monday Night Football)
Falcons coach Dan Quinn returns to Seattle for the second time as a head coach after leading the Seahawks defense under Pete Carroll but this one might draw more attention after the team’s last trip resulted in a tough loss in the final few minutes. Atlanta got revenge when it counted though in a divisional round win that proved the team was a real threat to make it to the Super Bowl. Beyond the two MVP-caliber quarterbacks dueling in this one, the defensive strategies between mentor and former mentee should be fascinating to see unfold — especially given the team speed on that side of the ball. Oh, and who can forget about a third battle between Julio Jones and Richard Sherman (assuming he’s still with Seattle by this point)?
10. Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Chargers (Week 2)
After 56 years in San Diego, the Chargers have moved up the 405 to join the Rams in Los Angeles. That makes this year’s home opener awkward for some in Southern California, and more interesting for most. While the strange feeling of seeing the Chargers in a new city is worth tuning in for alone, the fact that they’ll be playing home games in the 30,000-seat StubHub Center makes this opener even more fascinating. The intimate setting will instantly be the most unique sight in the league and the contest between two potential AFC playoff teams and a pair of veteran quarterbacks only adds to the tune-in factor for this one.
Don’t forget about:
Chiefs at Patriots (Week 1, Thursday Night Football)
Seahawks at Cowboys (Week 16)
Steelers at Chiefs (Week 6)
Giants at Cowboys (Week 1, Sunday Night Football)
Texans at Colts (Week 17)
Lions at Giants (Week 2, Monday Night Football)
Raiders at Chargers (Week 17)
Texans at Patriots (Week 3)
Chiefs at Broncos (Week 17)
Lions at Packers (Week 9, Monday Night Football)
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.