With the league's labor battle unsettled as the draft approaches, the NFL's schedule release had that written-in-pencil feel to it this year, with the words 'subject to change' perhaps the caveat that remains unspoken but implied.
We have been assured time and time again by many that there will be football this season, but no one can be certain just when, or how much of the 2011 schedule will actually come to pass. Early season games would appear to be in the most jeopardy, of course, so take with a grain of salt the buildup for the Saints at Packers on Thursday night of kickoff weekend or the Cowboys at Jets showdown on Sunday night in Week 1.
Fingers crossed, here are the 17 games I can't wait to see in the NFL's 17-week regular season:
1. New York Jets at New England, Week 5: Don't forget it was a scant six weeks between the time the Jets were throttled 45-3 in Foxboro on Monday Night Football in early December last season, and then shockingly won their revenge 28-21 at Gillette Stadium in the AFC divisional playoff. I promise you the Patriots haven't forgotten the taste of that ignominious defeat. Bill Belichick won't let them. The loss finished New England's season, and New York's win was so big that it didn't have much left to throw at Pittsburgh the next week in the AFC title game.
2. San Francisco at Baltimore, Week 12: Anticipation for the league's first Harbaugh Bowl began the minute San Francisco lured Jim Harbaugh up the peninsula and away from Stanford in January. With Jim and John now on different coasts and in different conferences, we won't get too many of these matchups of the NFL's only pair of head coaching brothers. But Baltimore and San Francisco are both talented and intriguing teams worth watching, and if the 49ers can find their own version of the Ravens' Joe Flacco, I could envision them emerging as the turnaround story of the year in the NFC. The league just couldn't resist playing up the family angle as much as possible for this one, putting it on Thanksgiving night on the NFL Network.
3. New Orleans at Green Bay, Week 1: Kudos to the NFL for choosing Saints at Packers for the kickoff game of the season, on Thursday night, Sept. 8 at Lambeau Field. The Bears were rumored to be Green Bay's opponent on flag-flying night, but I'll take the matchup of quarterbacks Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and the past two Super Bowl MVPs any time. Chicago and Green Bay are historic division rivals, but we got three Bears-Packers games last season, and none of them featured great football. And don't forget, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is a former Saints offensive coordinator, and Saints head coach Sean Payton once thought he was getting the Green Bay job that went to McCarthy just before he got hired in New Orleans. Got all that?
4. Indianapolis at New England, Week 13: For the 47th year in a row (or so it seems), the Colts and Patriots will renew the NFL's most thrilling and dramatic rivalry in the season's second half. We didn't get a controversial fourth-and-2 call to chew on last season, but we were treated to a Colts' fourth-quarter comeback that scared the heck out of New England before safety James Sanders put the game away (31-28) with a leaping interception at the Patriots six-yard line with a half-minute to play. It should be in the NFL bylaws: Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have to play every season. This time it's on what promises to be a chilly Monday night in early Decem-brrrr.
5. Seattle at San Francisco, Week 1: I'm looking forward to the twice annual "What's Your Deal?" Bowl as much as any new and hotly anticipated NFL rivalry to come down the pike in a long time. After their infamous midfield exchange at the end of Stanford's road blowout of USC in 2009, it's to our good fortune that both Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll now coach in the cozy confines of the NFC West. The NFL put this one on opening weekend, wasting no time getting the fireworks started.
6. Green Bay at Atlanta, Week 5: The Packers played twice in Atlanta last season and split those games, but the only one that really mattered was the rematch, when Green Bay could do no wrong in pummeling the top-seeded Falcons 48-21 in the NFC divisional playoffs. The loss ended a glorious season in Atlanta with a discouraging thud, and saddled third-year Falcon Matt Ryan with the burgeoning (and perhaps unfair) reputation of a quarterback who can't win the big one (he's 0-2 in the playoffs). The Super Bowl champs make another trip south, and this time they get the Sunday-night NBC treatment.
7. Kansas City at New England, Week 11: I don't have to tell a Patriots fan what happened the last time the Chiefs trucked into Gillette Stadium for a ballgame. Everybody remembers where they were during that 2008 season-opener, when quarterback Tom Brady proved mortal for the first time, going down with a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter (Bernard Pollard became a dirty couple of words in New England that day). Ironically, Matt Cassel's starting career was launched with that hit, and now he's back in Foxboro on a Monday night facing Brady as the Chiefs' Pro Bowl quarterback. Small world, the NFL.
8. Philadelphia at New York Giants, Week 11: The G-Men have some demons to exorcise in this late-season showdown, their first home game against Philadelphia since last year's memorable Meltdown in the Meadowlands. I'm guessing that no matter what transpires in this Sunday-night prime-time matchup on NBC, New York won't punt the ball within 40 yards of Eagles return man extraordinaire DeSean Jackson. But it would sure be entertaining to see how many shades of red Tom Coughlin's face might turn if the Giants mistakenly do.
9. Green Bay at San Diego, Week 9: Somebody is eventually going to label this game a potential Super Bowl matchup, so we might as well beat everyone to the punch. What I love about the pairing is getting to see Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers go head to head, leading two of the most prolific passing games and scoring offenses in the league. Here's what else this game proves: Giving a first-round quarterback time to sit and learn behind an accomplished veteran (Rodgers for three years in Green Bay with Brett Favre, and Rivers for two years in San Diego with Drew Brees) can result in one's patience being very, very rewarded.
10. Pittsburgh at Baltimore, Week 1: At least the Ravens don't have to obsess all season about getting revenge against the Steelers, who knocked Baltimore out of the playoffs for the second time in three years last January. The Steelers also denied John Harbaugh's team a division title with a clutch comeback win on the road in early December. The Steelers and Ravens open the season at M&T Bank Stadium, and one of these days Baltimore has to find a way to get over its Pittsburgh problem.
11. Dallas at New York Jets, Week 1: While many presumed we were destined to get Jets-Giants at New Meadowlands Stadium on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, it's probably more equitable of the NFL to put the spotlight on games in both the New York and Washington areas (Giants at Redskins), given that both were attacked that fateful morning. In Cowboys at Jets on the first Sunday night of the season, we get the entertaining fun of another Ryan brothers reunion, with Rex's cheeky Jets playing host to the star-wearing Cowboys and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. That's not bad for starters.
12. New England at Philadelphia, Week 12: Tom Brady and Michael Vick facing off head-to-head would be enough, but the game also pits the league's two longest-tenured active head coaches in the Eagles' Andy Reid (on the job since 1999) and the Patriots' Bill Belichick (since 2000). Since both of them took over, the Eagles and Patriots have set the standard for the rest of their respective conferences. Not to mention bland press conferences.
13. San Diego at New York Jets, Week 7: Some day LaDainian Tomlinson will be thought of as a beloved lifelong hero to Chargers fans, and he'll go into Canton with the city of San Diego cheering him on. But at the moment, he's a Jets running back, and his departure from the Chargers organization after the disappointing playoff loss to the Jets in early 2009 wasn't all that warm and fuzzy. It'd be better if this game had him returning to face San Diego for the first time as a New Yorker, but it still should make for must-see TV.
14. Chicago at Denver, Week 14: OK, so we're a sucker for the reunion game theme. We admit it. This already will be Jay Cutler's third season with the Bears, but time hasn't done all that much to dim the memory of how he shot his way out of Denver in the spring of 2009, feuding with then-Broncos rookie head coach Josh McDaniels. Cutler being back at Invesco Field, in a regular-season setting for the first time, will no doubt inspire the Broncos crowd to generate its most hostile and belligerent of greetings for the former Denver quarterback.
15. Philadelphia at Atlanta, Week 2: The first time Michael Vick went back to Atlanta as an Eagle in 2009, he was still Philly's backup quarterback and merely a Wildcat-formation threat. Not this time. Vick is the star of the show for the Eagles now and he'll be center stage when the Falcons welcome Philadelphia in their home opener on NBC's Sunday night football. Vick was hurt and didn't get to play when the Falcons visited Philly last season.
16. Chicago at Green Bay, Week 16: Bears and Packers fans can only hope the NFC North title is again on the line when the two rivals get the Christmas-night prime time stage to themselves at Lambeau Field. It's a rematch of last year's NFC title game, won by Green Bay in Chicago. These two teams play bruising, often inartistic games, but that doesn't mean they're short on drama. Some times sloppy can be fun.
17. New England at Pittsburgh, Week 8: The Patriots own the Men of Steel, putting another 13-point whipping on them in mid-November of last year at Heinz Field. This game comes earlier this season, on Oct. 30, but it's another test of character for both teams amid their typically challenging schedules. Tom Brady is a gaudy 6-1 in Pittsburgh in his career, and somehow it seems entirely fitting that we would get a Pats-Steelers game just as the weather is once again turning frosty in the northeast.