The NFL's popularity is a runaway train.
To wit, take this year's Hall of Fame Game: the exhibition game averaged 11.0 million viewers, which was slightly more than CBS pulled for the final round of the 2014 Masters (10.97 million) and just shy of the Brazil-Mexico World Cup tilt (11.08 million). Last season's Thursday-night games also saw their audience rise by a staggering 52%, thanks mainly to CBS and the NFL Network sharing many of those broadcasts.
Football fans need no encouragement to watch their favorite sport. But just in case you're already thinking ahead to the Fall, we take a look at how each week's schedule stacks up, from the most compelling to the least:
Week 8 (Oct. 29-Nov. 2)
Assuming the Dolphins are as competitive in the AFC East as their off-season moves indicate they can be and the Panthers manage to stay afloat in the NFC South, this week is loaded from start to finish. The biggest challenge: Waking up the day after Halloween for a Detroit-Kansas City 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff from Wembley Stadium.
In addition to the six games already mentioned here, Week 8 also includes Minnesota-Chicago, San Francisco-St. Louis, Cincinnati-Pittsburgh and New York (Giants)-New Orleans showdowns. The prime-time games alone offer up five of the game's top quarterbacks—six, if you're a Ryan Tannehill believer.
Settle in on the couch with that leftover candy and a couple Oktoberfest brews. This weekend will treat you well.
Week 1 (Sept. 10-14)
Prime-time games: Steelers at Patriots (Thursday), Giants at Cowboys (Sunday), Eagles at Falcons (Monday), Vikings at 49ers (Monday)
Best of the rest: Chiefs at Texans, Seahawks at Rams, Ravens at Broncos
Not that anyone needs convincing to tune in on opening weekend, but the NFL's first set of 2015 games is bursting with storylines. It doesn't hurt that, as is the recent tradition, this is the only week of the regular season with a Monday night doubleheader.
The historic Packers-Bears rivalry helps kickstart Sunday's festivities, joined in the early slot by a handful of other intriguing games, like Colts-Bills. Detroit's visit to San Diego makes for decent fare late (alongside Baltimore-Denver), but the matchup of Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in the Tampa Bay-Tennessee clash adds a unique twist to Week 1.
Week 6 (Oct. 15-19)
The night games feature, in order: a battle between two NFC South contenders, a potential AFC championship game preview and a critical NFC East rivalry. That "best of the rest" grouping also looks strong, highlighted by Bruce Arians' return trip to Pittsburgh, where he once served as offensive coordinator.
Week 14 (Dec. 10-14)
Prime-time games: Vikings at Cardinals (Thursday), Seahawks at Ravens (Sunday), Giants at Dolphins (Monday)
Best of the rest: Steelers at Bengals, Patriots at Texans, Cowboys at Packers
A bit of a sleeper selection, as it banks on Minnesota, Arizona, Miami and possibly the Giants still hanging around in the playoff picture. Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson against the Arizona defense is legit as far as the usual Thursday night fare goes, but the Week 14 headliner is the Seattle-Baltimore clash on Sunday night.
Week 4 (Oct. 1-5)
Prime-time games: Ravens at Steelers (Thursday), Cowboys at Saints (Sunday), Lions at Seahawks (Monday)
Best of the rest: Jets vs. Dolphins (London), Chiefs at Bengals, Vikings at Broncos
You're not sick of the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry, right? The networks love to gobble those games up (see: Week 16), which might be a bad thing if they were not so heated and often closely contested. We've got another early-morning affair overseas this week, too—Miami's second of a key back-to-back against Buffalo and New York.
A couple more to track: Philadelphia at Washington and Green Bay at San Francisco. If either of those home teams exceed expectations, Week 4 would get a bump.
Week 12 (Nov. 26-30)
Prime-time games: Bears at Packers (Thanksgiving), Patriots at Broncos (Sunday), Ravens at Browns (Monday)
Best of the rest: Eagles at Lions (Thanksgiving), Panthers at Cowboys (Thanksgiving), Saints at Texans
Turkey Day always scores some bonus points. This year's menu serves up an intriguing trifecta of games, especially in the afternoon with Philadelphia-Detroit and Carolina-Dallas. And the NFL could have done worse than a Lambeau Field nightcap, even if the Bears are below .500 at this point. Could we request a little snow?
The variable holding Week 12 back is that, aside from the night games and Saints-Texans, the slate projects to be a little lacking. Of the 11 Sunday games preceding New England-Denver, just one (Pittsburgh at Seattle) pits two 2014 playoff teams against each other.
Week 2 (Sept. 17-21)
Prime-time games: Broncos at Chiefs (Thursday), Seahawks at Packers (Sunday), Jets at Colts (Monday)
Best of the rest: Patriots at Bills, Cowboys at Eagles, Lions at Vikings
Seattle-Green Bay is one of those games NFL fans everywhere circled on the calendar as soon as the schedule emerged. Don't sleep on the importance of Denver-Kansas City, either, in case the Chiefs make a mid-September statement.
Both the AFC East and NFC East races will start to take shape based on what happens Sunday, while the Detroit-Minnesota outcome should matter within the NFC North and the wild-card battle.
Week 9 (Nov. 5-9)
Prime-time games: Browns at Bengals (Thursday), Eagles at Cowboys (Sunday), Bears at Chargers (Monday)
Best of the rest: Packers at Panthers, Dolphins at Bills, Broncos at Colts
The Sunday night Philadelphia-Dallas game could have huge implications in the NFC East and across the conference as a whole. Same goes for the Miami-Buffalo game within the AFC East playoff picture, and the Denver-Indianapolis winner might host a playoff rematch somewhere down the line.
Can Thursday's Cleveland-Cincinnati game deliver? The midweek offerings always give us a dog or two, and this has a chance to fall into that rut given the Bengals' national-TV struggles and the Browns' uncertain outlook.
Week 13 (Dec. 3-Dec. 7)
Prime-time games: Packers at Lions (Thursday), Colts at Steelers (Sunday), Cowboys at Redskins (Monday)
Best of the rest: Panthers at Saints, Broncos at Chargers, Eagles at Patriots
Unusual scheduling with Green Bay and Detroit playing on back-to-back Thursdays—both host Thanksgiving games in Week 12. The Lions haven't won at Lambeau since approximately the American Revolution but they usually play their NFC North rivals tough in Motown. December trips to Heinz Field are no picnic either, so Sunday night sets up as a test for the Colts.
Chip Kelly vs. Bill Belichick (and both their teams) should be fun, and that Denver-San Diego game figures to be important in the AFC West race. Certainly not a subpar week of action.
Week 17 (Jan. 3)
Prime-time games: TBD
Best of the rest: Vikings at Packers, Seahawks at Cardinals, Chargers at Broncos
Hard to know exactly where to place Week 17 since the Sunday night game does not get selected until much later. We do know that the season's swan song again will consist of all intra-divisional matchups. Any of the "Best of the Rest" games could decide a title. Ditto for New England-Miami, Baltimore-Cincinnati and several others. The NFL is unpredictable, after all.
Week 5 (Oct. 8-12)
Prime-time games: Colts at Texans (Thursday), 49ers at Giants (Sunday), Steelers at Chargers (Monday)
Best of the rest: Saints at Eagles, Patriots at Cowboys, Broncos at Raiders
The jury is very much out on both the 49ers and Giants, so Sunday's finale might wind up being rather inconsequential. Odds are that will not be the case for Thursday and Monday nights' ballgames. There is something fun, as well, about rare crossover games—New England's visit to Dallas could mark Tom Brady's 2015 debut.
Week 16 (Dec. 24-28)
Prime-time games: Chargers at Raiders (Thursday), Redskins at Eagles (Saturday), Steelers at Ravens (Sunday), Bengals at Broncos (Monday)
Best of the rest: Panthers at Falcons, Cowboys at Bills, Patriots at Jets
An extra national-TV game accompanies the holiday weekend—San Diego and Oakland will play on Christmas Eve night, then Washington and Philadelphia take center stage on Dec. 26. (There also are six bowl games on the 26th and two on the 24th.) In addition, Week 16 has the aforementioned Steelers-Ravens rematch, this time in Baltimore. Could the AFC North title be up for grabs?
Two potentially crucial games not in "Best of the Rest": Patriots-Jets and Colts-Dolphins. There could be others, of course, but those stand out given the expectations for the teams involved.
Week 10 (Nov. 12-16)
Prime-time games: Bills at Jets (Thursday), Cardinals at Seahawks (Sunday), Texans at Bengals (Monday)
Best of the rest: Lions at Packers, Patriots at Giants, Chiefs at Broncos
Nothing wrong with the Week 10 schedule, per se, just not a whole lot that leaps off the page. The plot would shift if Buffalo, New York, Arizona and Houston traverse the first half of their schedules without imploding. Not mentioned above but likely of interest: Miami at Philadelphia.
Week 3 (Sept. 24-28)
Prime-time games: Redskins at Giants (Thursday), Broncos at Lions (Sunday), Chiefs at Packers (Monday)
Best of the rest: Bengals at Ravens, Saints at Panthers, Chargers at Vikings
While at least the Sunday and Monday night games promise a little fun—the AFC West and NFC North arguably are the league's top two division this season—the main afternoon stretch could be a letdown. Is it too much to ask for an instant classic out of Buffalo and Miami at 4:25 p.m. ET?
Week 11 (Nov. 19-23)
Both Tennessee and Jacksonville should be improved over a year ago (particularly Jacksonville), but this Thursday nighter still looks quite underwhelming. The two other prime-time matchups have more promise—Tom Brady could miss the first Buffalo-New England game of the season, depending on his suspension status.
The full Sunday block is not all that appealing, outside of Kansas City-San Diego and those three honorable mentions. Week 11 could be time to catch your breath before the season's final push.
Week 7 (Oct. 22-26)
Prime-time games: Seahawks at 49ers (Thursday), Eagles at Panthers (Sunday), Ravens at Cardinals (Monday)
Best of the rest: Bills vs. Jaguars (London), Saints at Colts, Steelers at Chiefs
Felt obligated to mention the Buffalo-Jacksonville game for two reasons, outside of it being part of the NFL's London series: 1) It's another 9:30 a.m. ET kickoff; 2) The NFL is streaming it on Yahoo, rather than airing it on one of the league's TV networks—a groundbreaking coverage decision.
Elsewhere, Week 7 is pedestrian.
Week 15 (Dec. 17-21)
Prime-time games: Buccaneers at Rams (Thursday), Bengals at 49ers (Sunday), Lions at Saints (Monday)
Best of the rest: Texans at Colts, Dolphins at Chargers, Broncos at Steelers
Unless you want another chance to see Jameis Winston or believe this is the year Jeff Fisher's Rams ascend beyond a chase for .500, the Week 15 opener won't move the needle much. The 49ers could be long gone from the playoff race, too, if their horrible off-season carries over into game action. A few decent matchups Sunday, but very few are intra-divisional.