There will always be differing opinions on what makes for must-see TV, but now that the 2013 NFL schedule is ours for the anticipating, here are the 17 games in the league's 17-week regular season that I can't wait to see.
1) Baltimore at Denver, Week 1 -- What a perfect way to open the season, because where do you begin to start in the hyping of this rematch from last year's instant classic in the AFC divisional round? Redemption for Rahim Moore, after the Blown Coverage Seen 'Round the World? Faxgate and the return of Elvis Dumervil to Denver? Champ Bailey vs. Torrey Smith Redux? Peyton Manning trying to wipe out the stench of his two-pick, one-fumble showing in the Broncos' 38-35 double overtime loss to Baltimore, which snapped Denver's 11-game winning streak and deflated the entire Rocky Mountain region? Joe Flacco returning to the scene of the improbable springboard victory that truly launched the Ravens' unexpected Super Bowl run? Can anyone in Baltimore colors slow down Trindon Holliday this time around?
Other than that, this matchup leaves me cold. No wonder they buried it on Week 1, in primetime, on the long-awaited first Thursday night of the season.
2) Green Bay at San Francisco, Week 1 -- Is Colin Kaepernick done running through the Packers' Swiss-cheese defense yet? Because when we last left these two NFC powers, it was the CK Show, and we're not talking about one of my favorite comedians. Kaepernick and the 49ers">49ers' read-option offense exposed Green Bay's defense in turn-your-head ugly fashion, with San Francisco gashing the Packers for 323 yards rushing, 181 of which belonged to the quarterback. Kaepernick added 263 yards passing, and all told was involved in 444 of San Francisco's franchise playoff-record 579 yards of offense, as well as four of his team's six touchdowns.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy made preparing his team better for the read-option offense job one this offseason, and this is our chance to find out if Green Bay closed the gap. It was a yawning gap that January night in Candlestick, when San Francisco moved on to the NFC title game with a 45-31 win. But the rematch should have us all revved up.
3) Denver at Indianapolis, Week 7 -- When Brett Favre returned to Green Bay for the first time as a Viking in 2009, and Donovan McNabb made the short trip from Washington to Philadelphia in 2010, there was still quite a bit of lingering tension in the air between them and their longtime former employees. Somehow I don't think that's going to be quite the same case for Peyton Manning's celebrated return to Indianapolis. Maybe because everybody involved has moved on so successfully. Maybe because Colts fans still love Manning and Manning still loves Indianapolis.
It's like that rare divorce where the onetime partners are still friends and see each other socially.
Manning versus Andrew Luck for the first time, in the house that Peyton built, will make the get-together that much more interesting. You just know No. 18 isn't going to want to be upstaged by the whippersnapper who replaced him. Not in that stadium, against the guys with the horseshoes on their helmets. But it won't be bitter, no matter what. Both teams made the playoffs last season, then went one-and-done in January, and should be contenders again in 2013.
4) Seattle at San Francisco, Week 14 -- I know Baltimore won the Super Bowl, because it was in all the papers, but toward the end of the season and for most of the playoffs, nobody in the league wanted to play either the Seahawks or the 49ers, with both teams looking like beasts from the NFC West. San Francisco won the division by a half-game over Seattle last season, but only because the Rams couldn't kick a field goal and found a way to tie away a certain victory over the 49ers. This should be a tremendous rivalry in the years ahead, with two tenacious defenses, bruising running games, and talented, outside-the-box thinking quarterbacks. And let's not forget the Jim Harbaugh-Pete Carroll factor. What's your deal, indeed
5) Denver at New England, Week 12 -- No apologies forthcoming here for playing the ever-handy "this could be the last time we see Peyton Manning and Tom Brady square off'' card. You know why? Because this could be the last time we see Manning and Brady square off. That's why. Any year now, we're going to be right about that one. Mark my words. I promise you they won't both play until they're 55, with an annual showdown at midseason. It could fall in December some year.
But seriously, Manning-Brady has been as good a quarterback rivalry as the NFL has ever seen, even if it has been pretty one-sided in the direction of No. 12. And when you add in the Wes Welker factor this season as the juiciest of he-said/they-said sub-plots, and the likelihood that both teams will again be among the AFC elite, there's plenty reason to tune in. But I'll bet you didn't need me to tell you that, did you?
6) San Francisco at Washington, Week 12 -- If you want to watch the cutting-edge future of the NFL's quarterback play, how could you get more new innovative than Colin Kaepernick versus Robert Griffin III, in the pairing of the league's two most exciting, running-threat passers? We can only hope that Griffin has recovered from his late-season/playoff-game knee injury and is back to a slightly more prudent version of his play-making self by the time this matchup rolls around, because Kaepernick against Kirk Cousins wouldn't move the needle quite so much.
And they're not just new-wavish fads, remember. These read-option offenses really work. The 49ers and Redskins both won division titles in 2012, and that hadn't happened at the same time since 1987, a cool 25 years earlier. Let's see where the story picks up this season.
7) New England at Baltimore, Week 16 -- These two AFC heavyweights just keep taking turns slugging each other once or twice a year. The Pats beat the Ravens in the 2011 AFC title game, and Baltimore returned the favor last season, adding in a last-second Week 3 regular-season win at home against New England for good measure. There's no Ray Lewis, Ed Reed or Anquan Boldin for the Patriots to worry about this time around, but Baltimore doesn't have to account for that pesky Wes Welker, either, so that counts for something.
Alas, there will still be plenty of star power on stage, and if there's two better coaches than Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh working in the AFC today, I don't know who'd they'd be. Baltimore and New England have gotten very familiar with each other in the past five years, and that kind of thing really can breed contempt sometimes.
8) Atlanta at San Francisco, Week 16 -- Besides this game representing a hotly anticipated rematch of January's NFC Championship Game -- won in historic comeback fashion by the 49ers, 28-24 -- now the showdown is also San Francisco's last regular-season game in the interesting lifespan of Candlestick Park (and maybe its last game, period, if the Harbaugh-men don't earn a home playoff date).
Sure, it's a marshy dump, an eyesore and one of the most creature comfort-less stadiums in NFL history. But that's the point, right? It's got reams of history, and Candlestick deserves a fond, but clear-eyed farewell after serving as the rumpled and slightly embarrassing home of the once-regal 49ers from 1971 on. It's had its time, and then some, and I'm sure the team's new digs in Santa Clara will be immaculate in that enhanced revenue-stream-generating way.
But let's appreciate Candlestick's multi-purpose longevity, it's place in our collective memory on a playoff Sunday afternoon, and take a long last look at the way things used to be before our stadiums became club-seating palaces. I hope I even get assigned to the game and find myself muttering the whole way down as I navigate through the crowded stands and to the field after the game. That should take care of any overwhelming wave of nostalgia.
9) Denver at New York Giants, Week 2 -- We all know the Manning quotient can get a little overdone during the course of a long NFL season, but big brother Peyton and little brother Eli in direct competition is still rare enough to savor. It's only happened twice before, with Peyton's Colts winning narrowly at the Giants in Week 1 in 2006, and Indianapolis routing the visiting New Yorkers in early season 2010.
Maybe this will be like the Super Bowl, in that the older, more established entity won the first two matchups in the series rather easily, only to see the younger upstart pull off the upset and strike a blow for equality in the third meeting. That makes Eli and the Giants like the Joe Namath Super Bowl III Jets in this case, while Peyton and the Broncos are cast in the role of the favored Colts, the team he once played for. You can see this analogy has now run its course.
10) New Orleans at Seattle, Week 13 -- I'm tempted to build this synopsis around the idea of it being the greatest matchup of "short'' quarterbacks in the game's history, but I'm sure some loyal reader will remind me that Eddie LeBaron and Frankie Albert faced off once in 1952. No matter, give me the Saints' Drew Brees and the guy who played like him as a sensational third-round rookie a year ago, Seattle's Russell Wilson.
The quarterback angle is the best storyline, but it's not the only one. This is the first time New Orleans has ventured back to Seattle since getting run over by Marshawn "Beast Mode'' Lynch and the 7-9 division-winning Seahawks in the first round of the 2010 playoffs. That ended the Saints' defense of their glorious Super Bowl title run, and not all that much has gone right for New Orleans ever since.
11) Miami at Pittsburgh, Week 14 -- As eagerly awaited circus-like homecomings go, this will not be Terrell Owens venturing back into Philadelphia for the first time as a Cowboy, after setting the Eagles' 2005 season on fire with his word and deed. But you can't die and go to heaven every year. So we'll have to be happy enough that Mike Wallace -- who never seemed all that thrilled with the program in Pittsburgh -- has to pack off for Heinz Field in his first year as the Dolphins' glitzy free-agent receiver signing. Let's see if Big Ben and Co. really miss him in the vertical passing game, or Wallace makes sure his big-play presence is felt. Steelers fans are not going to welcome him warmly. There is a price to be paid these days for leaving a certain part of the country in favor of taking one's talents to South Beach.
12) Kansas City at Philadelphia, Week 3 -- Speaking of trips to the City of Brotherly Love by former Eagles employees, Big Red, aka, Andy Reid, is coming home to the Linc this season. That's one NFL weekend I won't have to travel this year, living as I do now in the Philly area. And we do mean Big Red, given that Reid might be covered head to toe in the Chiefs' primary color (although he usually favored the black on black look with the Eagles, for its slimming qualities).
Reid versus new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly should make for quite a contrast on so many fronts, but I have to think the hometown fans will welcome Andy home with open throats, booing his every move. At least until he unwisely burns a timeout mid-way through the third quarter, for no apparent reason. Then they'll get positively nostalgic at the sight.
13) Minnesota at Seattle, Week 11 -- I love how every other week or so, the Seahawks welcome another ex-Viking to town. Antoine Winfield, meet Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice. Show him the town, guys. It's going to make this matchup of surprise 2012 NFC wild-card playoff teams that much more interesting and familiar. Actually, the Harvin trade was one of the blockbuster deals of the NFL offseason, and he's going to be amped to stick it to the team he was desperate to escape. We presume Harvin and Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder won't be hugging it out at midfield after the game.
14. New Orleans at New England, Week 6 -- First team to score 60 wins. The Saints and Patriots run the two most prolific offenses in the game today, and they might run wild in this one, given the weather should still be habitable by mid to late October in Foxboro. In addition, the matching of wits between Sean Payton and Bill Belichick is good theater because neither coach is afraid to gamble and both have supreme -- and we mean supreme -- confidence in the wisdom of their own counsel. I'll bet Brady and Belichick still aren't over that 38-17 Monday Night Football bushwhacking the Saints delivered on their heads in November 2009, the first time I remember thinking that New Orleans' season might indeed be Super Bowl bound.
15) Seattle at Atlanta, Week 10 -- The Seahawks and Falcons played a fascinating and riveting NFC divisional round playoff game last season in Atlanta, with Mike Smith's team not quite able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Although the Falcons certainly tried their best, blowing a 20-point fourth-quarter lead to Seattle, trailing for the first time all day with just 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
As if that wasn't enough to put 16-year vet Tony Gonzalez -- seeking his first career playoff win -- into cardiac arrest, the Falcons drove into field goal range in the blink of an eye and wound up winning 30-28 on Matt Bryant's 48-yard field goal with eight ticks left. Atlanta survived, but we're still not sure how.
16) Houston at Baltimore, Week 3 -- For those who fell asleep for a couple years and think the Ravens traded Ed Reed to the Texans in exchange for Jacoby Jones, Vonta Leach and Bernard Pollard, that's not quite how things went down. But these two AFC playoff perennials do seem to swap players quite a bit of late. And they play a lot, too. Houston last season got some revenge for their 2011 playoff loss at Baltimore, destroying the Ravens in Week 7 in Reliant Stadium. But little good it did, because Baltimore wound up with the shiny trophy, and the Texans went home for a second consecutive year in the AFC divisional round, with nothing more to show for January than a consolation-prize win over the Bengals.
Let's see if Houston can crack the code this year against Baltimore, with Reed, the 11-year Ravens safety, returning to M&T Bank Stadium in enemy colors. It should make for a quotable week, because Reed and his ex-Ravens teammates rarely go the no-comment route.
17) New Orleans at New York Jets, Week 9 -- I have very little reason to hype the actual matchup between the Saints and Jets, other than a rare meeting of the Ryan coaching brothers. Beside that, they don't have a ton in common other than they both know what it's like to play Jonathan Vilma in the middle of their defense. But, New Orleans' trip to MetLife Stadium will be the closest that returning Saints head coach Sean Payton gets to the NFL's mid-town New York office this season, so keep your head on a swivel, Roger Goodell. Don't even mention it. You can thank me later.