As only it can, the perpetually over-exposed NFL released its 256-game 2016 regular-season schedule on Thursday night with the greatest of fanfare, rolling out a slate of games that has been established since early January, with only the dates and times to be filled in more than three months later.
It’s now more than three months later, and we’re here to offer our assessment of the 20 games that feature the most intriguing storylines. These are the games on my must-see list, but as always, your results may vary...
Carolina at Denver, Week 1 — Okay, the NFL took the layup with its opening game this year. Even without Peyton Manning being involved. But to be fair, this isn’t one of those Super Bowl rematches of historic vintage, where the two teams no longer have anything much in common. This memory is still fresh, painfully so in Carolina, especially for Cam Newton and a Panthers offense that came up very small in Santa Clara in February. These teams featured the two most feared defenses in the league last year, but will that still be the case this time around? And will the Panthers use this game as a measuring stick to ready themselves for another run at a Super Bowl ring? The Broncos get to raise their championship banner and start their 2016 season against the same team they stunningly vanquished to end the 2015 campaign.
Seattle at Los Angeles, Week 2 — Sorry, but nostalgia compels me to include the Rams home opener, because I’m a sucker for a comeback story like the one that will unfold at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum this year. After visiting the Coliseum in February and writing about its return to service as the Rams' home stadium for the first time since 1979, I can’t wait to see what the majestic 93-year-old relic looks like on NFL game days. With the Rams back on that field, history will be made, even if this game doesn’t deliver anything memorable. Then again, the Rams almost always play the Seahawks tough, and swept them last year.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh, Week 2 — You don’t need any extra motivation to watch the slugfest that is the recent Steelers-Bengals rivalry. But when you factor in the wild and violent ending to the teams’ playoff meeting in Cincinnati in January, Pacman Jones’s epic post-game rant, Antonio Brown’s concussion, Andy Dalton’s season-changing broken finger in Week 14, and all those Bengals miscues when it mattered most in the postseason, this will be no ordinary AFC North affair. And remember, thanks to his three-game league suspension for his misdeeds against the Steelers in the playoff game, Bengals contact-loving linebacker Vontaze Burfict will not be in uniform for this first meeting of 2016.
Green Bay at Minnesota, Week 2 — The Vikings will officially pull the bubble wrap off their new U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis with a prime-time marquee matchup against their arch-rival Packers on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. And this won’t be all pomp and circumstance either, since Minnesota won at Lambeau Field in Week 17 last season, denying the Packers their fifth consecutive NFC North title. The Vikings claimed their first division crown since 2009 with that win, and Mike Zimmer’s ascending club aims to stay on top in the North. This will be the early tone-setting game that might help us divine whether or not Minnesota has the gumption to get that done.
Kansas City at Houston, Week 2 — The Texans shouldn’t allow Brian Hoyer to even view this game on tape delay. When these two clubs met in the playoffs last year, Hoyer was still the Houston starter and the Chiefs were still winless in the postseason since 1993. But Hoyer committed five crushing turnovers in the Texans’ 30–0 loss to Kansas City, embarrassing himself and basically eliminating any chance he had of keeping the No. 1 quarterback job. The Texans should have a little payback in mind for the Chiefs, a club that once called Dallas home and was known as the Texans.
Los Angeles at Tampa Bay, Week 3 — Last year the NFL opened the regular season with a Week 1 game pitting Tampa Bay against Tennessee, which produced a rare matchup of the top two draft picks of 2015 in quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. Tennessee won convincingly in Tampa. This year we’re in line for a possible showdown of the past two quarterbacks taken No. 1 overall, with Winston facing off against Jared Goff. True, we don’t know if the Rams will be playing the rookie at this point, but the way the Rams go through quarterbacks, I’d say it’s a decent bet.
Cleveland at Washington, Week 4 — If he’s the Browns' starting quarterback, Robert Griffin III’s return to FedEx Field stands as the NFL’s premier Revenge Game of the Year in 2016. He couldn’t beat out his 2012 draft classmate and teammate Kirk Cousins over the long haul in Washington, and as it turned out, it was a loser-leaves-town showdown. Here’s hoping Colt McCoy handles the coin flip. When you throw in that both head coaches, Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson, once coached under Marvin Lewis together in Cincinnati, this one will not lack for pre-game sound bites or significant meaning to both organizations.
New Orleans at San Diego, Week 4 — Drew Brees is 2–0 against the Chargers since he joined New Orleans in 2006, but he has never played a regular-season game back in San Diego against the franchise that drafted him in the second round of the 2001 draft. This will likely be his one and only chance for that full-circle experience, and watching Brees versus Philip Rivers, the quarterback who replaced him with the Chargers, deserves our full attention.
New York Giants at Green Bay, Week 5 — Okay, Ben McAdoo, let’s see what you've got. The new Giants boss is a former Packers quarterbacks coach, and he’ll be under some legitimate pressure this season to return New York to relevancy after four consecutive playoff-less seasons. McAdoo’s predecessor was of course Tom Coughlin, who has some very happy memories of Lambeau Field. Coughlin’s teams twice pulled huge upsets there in the playoffs, en route to New York’s magical twin Super Bowl runs of 2007 and 2011. On the quarterbacking front, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers has lost three consecutive games to New York’s Eli Manning, and you just know that has to rankle the prideful No. 12. This one will be under the lights on Sunday night, adding a little more glitz to the proceedings.
Houston at Denver, Week 7 — This was my choice for the Thursday night season opener, but the NFL never called to ask my opinion. (I’ve moved a lot, they’ve probably lost my number). But you simply can’t do better than this game in the recent melodrama department. Not only did both teams go to the AFC playoffs last season, but now the whole Brock Osweiler sub-plot has been the juiciest of the NFL’s offseason. After Denver benched Osweiler for Peyton Manning in the playoffs, he in turn jilted the Broncos and John Elway and took his lone star to Houston, and that means the outcome of this game is going to decide who gets the early upper hand in terms of vindication. Brock Bowl should be a heck of a way to spend a Monday night.
Oakland at Jacksonville, Week 7 — How’d this game get on my list? Just wait. I’m projecting that it’ll be a glamor game by the time kickoff rolls around, and I’m picking both of these long-suffering franchises to finally rebound and post winning records in 2016. Not only does this matchup feature ex-Jaguars head coach and current Raiders coach Jack Del Rio’s return to Jacksonville, but it’s pretty sweet quarterback showdown as well. The Raiders' Derek Carr didn’t get the first-round love that the Jaguars’ Blake Bortles did in 2014, and I’ll bet it still rankles him. Carr went 36th that year, early in the second round. Bortles was the first quarterback taken, at No. 3, meaning Carr can exact a measure of revenge for that little discrepancy.
Seattle at Arizona, Week 7 — What a great Week 7 lineup the NFL has assembled. The Cardinals-Seahawks rivalry now defines the powerhouse NFC West the way those 49ers-Seahawks battles did from 2011–2013. Arizona won the division last year, ending Seattle’s two-year reign, but strangely both teams triumphed on their opponents’ home field last season, with that 36–6 Week 17 beatdown the Seahawks administered to Arizona being a real eye-opener. With Chandler Jones now a Cardinal and buttressing an Arizona pass rush that was its weak link, the intensity level of this smash-mouth affair just went up a notch.
New England at Pittsburgh, Week 7 — I could easily have went with the Baltimore at New England Week 14 contest that could conjure up memories of those gripping Ravens-Patriots playoff encounters, but in reality New England at Pittsburgh could easily be a preview of this season’s AFC Championship Game. Both teams have offensive talent galore, and even without Martavis Bryant the Steelers look loaded and primed to contend for their first Super Bowl trip in six years.
Arizona at Carolina, Week 8 — This is the biggest of big games for one player in particular: Carson Palmer. The Cardinals' veteran quarterback can talk all he wants about turning the page and moving on from his disastrous meltdown in the NFC title game at Carolina, where he all but eliminated Arizona by himself with those four interceptions and two fumbles lost. But let’s see what bounce-back capability he has in returning to the scene of the crime. The Cardinals and Panthers should both be back in the NFC Super Bowl mix, but let’s see how Carolina handles being the chased instead of the chaser this year.
Seattle at New Orleans, Week 8 — Two of the most accomplished “short” quarterbacks in NFL history headline this game, but there’s more than just the Russell Wilson and Drew Brees personal matchup. The Saints have lost three consecutive games to Seattle, and two of those defeats came in the playoffs, ending their 2010 and 2013 seasons. Ah, but this time they’re meeting in the Superdome, and something tells me ex-Saints tight end Jimmy Graham will be demanding the football from Wilson all game long.
Indianapolis at Green Bay, Week 9 — Since we'll be deprived of Brady-Manning and Manning-Luck from now on, we’re going to have develop other quarterbacking rivalries to fill the void. I know Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers aren’t going to meet too often given they toil in different conferences, but they played a 30–27 thriller in Indy four years ago—which the Colts won—and now Mr. Luck gets his first crack at that football cathedral known as Lambeau Field. But for the record, no, I’m not calling this a potential Super Bowl preview. Can’t go there.
Seattle at New England, Week 10 — Another Super Bowl rematch, and this one’s a doozy, given how the big game ended two seasons ago in Phoenix. You remember. It was in all the papers. What say you, Pete Carroll? A run or a pass if you’re a yard away from victory in the final minute? And no, you can’t give the ball to Marshawn Lynch this time. Nice make-up call. The Pats and Seahawks have played and split two fascinating games since the start of Seattle’s Russell Wilson era in 2012, but did you know that Carroll hasn’t coached back in Foxboro since he was fired as New England’s head coach in 1999, paving the way for Bill Belichick’s hiring? Now you do.
New England at San Francisco, Week 11 — A dog of a game, right? That’s what they said last year, too, when Chip Kelly’s floundering Eagles went into Foxboro and knocked off the mighty Patriots in Week 13. That was pretty much Kelly’s last good moment in Philly green, so let’s see if he can repeat that coaching magic against his friend and mentor, Bill Belichick. Then again, Mr. Bill doesn’t often lose two in a row to anybody (outside of Denver, maybe).
Carolina at Seattle, Week 13 — The Panthers have that Super Bowl bullseye on their backs in the NFC this year, and as luck would have it, they have regular-season rematches with all three teams they faced in the playoffs last season, starting with this trip to Seattle. These two teams have produced the past three NFC champions, and the Panthers supplanted the Seahawks in 2015 by beating them twice, once in Seattle and then in that 31–24 tale of two halves against Pete Carroll’s club in the divisional playoffs in Charlotte. Cam Newton and Russell Wilson both think they’re unmatched as a running-passing dual-threat quarterback. But they both can’t be right...right?
New England at Denver, Week 15 — Okay, so No. 18 is gone and we’ll never again get our annual dose of the Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning showdown. Then again, we did get more than we ever dreamed, and that's just going to have to be enough. The Patriots lost just five times a year ago, but two of those were to the Broncos in Denver. Now here they are again. These two have met in two of the past three AFC title games, and the most recent AFC Championship Game that didn’t include at least one of them was way back in 2010.