Many NFL teams are returning to the facilities for organized team activities this week, which gives off the same feeling as returning to school after summer break and seeing your buddies again.
Thursday’s schedule release is, in this case, like learning which classes you will be taking this semester.
Just as the league has done with every other mundane facet of its operation, the schedule release is now an event. A party, even. We found out when the Giants and Cowboys face each other, when Jon Gruden coaches a game on Monday Night Football before his successor has even been announced, how many primetime games the Patriots get and where to search for Cleveland’s first win since 2016.
I combed through all 256 games and found the must-watch contests of the 2018 season.
1. Week 15 (Dec. 16) Eagles at Rams (SNF)
Here is the most exciting game on the schedule as it stands in mid-April. The defending Super Bowl champs against the NFC challenger who loaded up this offseason to dethrone them. Picks No. 1 and 2 going head to head in their third season in the league. Wade Phillips trying to fool Carson Wentz. Jim Schwartz trying to out-scheme Sean McVay. Wentz returns to L.A. where his MVP season and opportunity to lead the Eagles in the postseason was derailed when he tore his ACL and MCL against the Rams. Pick whatever narrative you want because this game has it all.
2. Week 9 (Nov. 4) Packers at Patriots (SNF)
The best two quarterbacks in the NFL have only started against each other one time in their career. Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers is a matchup that we as football fans should get more often, but the scheduling gods have denied us. In 2014, Rodgers beat Brady 26-21 at Lambeau Field in their only career showdown (New England beat the Packers 35-0 in 2006, but Rodgers came off the bench and Rodgers missed the bout in 2010 after suffering a concussion). Brady passed for 245 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions while Rodgers went big with 368 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in the victory. It seems certain that this will be the last time these two take the field against each other, unless of course they meet in the Super Bowl as so many of us predict incorrectly each preseason.
3. Week 8 (Oct. 28) Saints at Vikings (SNF)
On paper, the NFC is loaded this season, and both of these teams should be even better than last year when they gave us that thrilling postseason contest in Minnesota. The Vikings now have Kirk Cousins, hoping to capitalize on his prime with their fantastic roster. The Saints have two more years with Drew Brees to bring a second Lombardi to New Orleans, and they have their wonderful 2017 draft class with a year of experience under its belt. This game should be epic and, whatever the outcome, let’s hope Marcus Williams can get some measure of redemption here.
4. Week 11 (Nov. 19): Chiefs at Rams (MNF in Mexico)
The Mexico City games are my favorite games played outside the country each year because of the crowd and the altitude, so whoever was playing down south this year was making this list no matter what. It’s a bonus that it happens to be the Chiefs and Rams, and I can’t imagine how amped Marcus Peters must be to face his old team in that environment. The Chiefs are Pat Mahomes’s team now after shipping Alex Smith to Washington this winter. The Rams may not be this potent for the long haul, but everything we know about football indicates they are real contenders in 2018 and 2019. This is one of the best AFC vs. NFC matchups of the year.
5. Week 15 (Dec. 16) Patriots at Steelers
This will be the eighth meeting between these two historic franchises since 2010. The Steelers haven’t fared too well in them. Pittsburgh is 1-6 against Brady since 2010, including a loss in the 2017 AFC Championship and the Jesse James catch/non-catch last year at Heinz Field in the most exciting game of the NFL regular season. New England vs. Pittsburgh is always a must-see. No one has any clue what the Pats are going to look like in 2018 after (another) quiet free-agency period, but it’s still Tom Brady under center. In that seven-game span against Pittsburgh, he’s thrown 19 touchdowns to just one interception. He’s 11-2 all-time against the Steelers. If Pittsburgh is ever getting back to the Super Bowl with Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers have to change their fate against the Pats.
6. Week 11 (Nov. 18) Steelers at Jaguars (SNF)
In two games last year (both games in Pittsburgh), Jacksonville put up 75 points on the Steelers and forced Roethlisberger to turn the ball over seven times, thoroughly embarrassing the home team. Now the Steelers get to travel to Jacksonville, where hopefully the Duval natives will continue their zeal for their team that should be turning the corner. (Also, you can bring your dog to that game if you so desire.) Will Blake Bortles top 100 yards passing in this game? He won’t have to if Leonard Fournette runs through the Steelers like he did both times last season. Also, Jalen Ramsey is probably the most fun defensive back in the game today, so any time he matches up with Antonio Brown, it will be a treat.
7. Week 17 (Dec. 30): Panthers at Saints
It’s rare to see both wild-card spots filled by teams in the same division, but it happened last year when three NFC South teams went to the playoffs. As mentioned earlier, the Saints are rolling. The Falcons should again contend to be a double-digit wins team. And the Panthers, still not that far separated from a 17-2 season, should again be in the hunt if they can fill the numerous holes on both sides of the ball. Because the NFC South has been so competitive, I feel that’s going to continue into 2018. The Panthers and Saints face each other twice in the final three weeks, and the schedule-makers know that these smaller-market teams will deliver in December. This final tilt will likely decide who gets a home playoff game and who has to hit the road in the postseason.
8. Week 1 (Sept. 9): 49ers at Vikings
The Golden Boy faces a stiff task in his first start as a season-opening quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo gets the league’s No. 1 scoring defense from a year ago to begin the 2018 season. Jimmy G is 7-0 as a starter, including his remarkable 5-0 finish to the season after being traded to San Francisco. The 49ers also have Richard Sherman, in case you forgot, but the talk of the town is that the NFL team in town finally has its Joe Montana. The season, and the division, is going to test Kyle Shanahan’s bunch, and they still may be a year away from really competing with the Rams, but there’s a new era dawning at Levi’s Stadium, and Garoppolo is the real deal.
9. Week 3 (Sept. 23): Colts at Eagles
If all goes as planned, Andrew Luck should have games against Cincinnati and Washington under his belt before he faces the defending champs. But all has not gone to plan for Indianapolis in a while, so don’t hold your breath. This will, by far, be Luck’s biggest test since returning from a shoulder injury that kept him sidelined all of last season. His new head coach is former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and that surely will count for something. The Colts have a lot of holes, and after just three years separated from being in position to overtake the Pats in the AFC, Indianapolis is probably the worst team in the AFC South top to bottom. A win for the Colts here would go a long way for Luck’s confidence and set the stage for a resurgence in Indy.
10. Week 3 (Sept. 23): Chargers at Rams
This game is No. 10 on the list because it has the opportunity to set the tone for the season for these two squads. The Chargers have been knocking on the door in the twilight of Philip Rivers’s career, but haven’t been able to get over the hump due to the injury bug that finds its way to the team facility every year. After dwelling in the AFC West basement for a few years, the Chargers finished second last season in the division and are showing signs of life under Anthony Lynn. We all know what the Rams could be, and the atmosphere of two L.A. teams battling it out will give an added energy to this game.