At the end of every NFL regular season, the next year’s opponents become set in stone, for every team. In April, when the “when” gets applied to the “who” and “where,” a rash of articles emerge regarding the best games of the coming season.
In every prior year, the official schedule came out a month or so after free agency began. This year, free agency started three months later than the release of the schedule.
So now that we’ve seen a reshuffling of talented veterans, let’s look at 10 regular-season games that suddenly got a lot more interesting after the schedule was released.
Vikings at Seahawks, August 20.
Before getting to the 10 regular-season games, let’s consider one preseason game. With the Seahawks swiping receiver Sidney Rice (whom the Vikings wanted to keep) and quarterback Tarvaris Jackson (whom they didn’t), this one could have a little more spice than a normal exhibition contest.
Jackson will have something to prove to everyone who doubted him, including the folks in Minnesota who preferred to put him on the bench the past two years in favor of Brett Favre — even though one of those folks was former Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, now the offensive coordinator in Seattle.
With these two teams not playing in the regular season and with the Vikings facing a tough road to the playoffs, this will be the only chance for Jackson and Rice to make their former employer regret letting them get away.
Packers at Panthers, September 18.
With Cam Newton possibly on track to be the starting quarterback out of the gates in Carolina and with the Panthers spending a ton of money in the hopes of getting better quickly, they’ll get an early look at how they stack up with the best of the best when the Packers come to town in Week Two.
Like every team playing the Packers this season, the Panthers will bring their proverbial A-game. And even though there’s a chance that this season could end up as another D-minus in Charlotte, they play the Packers at a time when it’ll be way too early for a bad record to kill interest in the game.
Given what new coach Ron Rivera has been able to do to Peyton Manning when Rivera ran the defense in San Diego, it would be unwise to assume that the Packers will blow out the Panthers.
Eagles at Falcons, September 18.
Last year, when Mike Vick’s former team came to Philly, Vick was nursing a nasty case of broken ribs. When the two teams seemed to be on track to meet in the postseason at the Georgia Dome, the Packers threw a wrench into those plans, throwing each team out of the playoffs.
This year, Vick should be healthy for his return to Atlanta, where he was welcomed with open arms in 2009 — and where he threw for a touchdown and scored once on the ground in a 34-7 romp.
The fans may not be as supportive two seasons later, given that the Falcons are hoping not only to have a great regular season but also a great postseason. Despite the fact that the game lands early enough to become largely irrelevant to the crucial dynamic of late-season momentum, the winner will hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, which could go a long way toward determining where any potential rematch may occur.
Packers at Falcons, October 9.
The Eagles, given a slew of new arrivals on defense, hope to get past the Packers by containing their offense. The Falcons, with the addition of Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers via the draft, instead hope to outscore it.
With the Falcons last week adding defensive end Ray Edwards, who knows a thing or two about chasing Aaron Rodgers around from Edwards’ time in Minnesota, the Falcons also may be better suited to keep the Packers under 40 points this year.
Dolphins at Giants, October 30.
We’ve added this one to the list under the assumption that the Dolphins will sign running back Tiki Barber.
If Tiki Barber becomes a member of the Dolphins, he’ll make two trips to the Meadowlands in October. First, on the 16th, he’ll face the Jets. Then, on the 30th, he’ll play his old team.
Though Tiki never played in the new stadium, his returns to New York will drive interest and stir passions and, at least for one year, make Giants fans hate the Dolphins even more than Jets fans do.
Cowboys at Eagles, October 30.
This one is always a big game, especially when played in prime time. But the recent moves made by the Eagles and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s vow to “beat [the] asses” of the “all-hype team” takes this one to a level even higher than when Ryan’s dad and Jimmy Johnson were shouting sweet nothings into each other’s ears.
Jet at Bills, November 6.
Jets G.M. Mike Tannenbaum recently told PFT Live that he didn’t want to lose all-purpose offensive and special teams threat Brad Smith, especially not to a team in the same division.
Come November 6, the Jets will get their first look at the Bills’ new weapon, who could be used in Chan Gailey’s offense the same way Gailey used Kordell Stewart when Gailey served as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator.
Cardinals at Eagles, November 13.
Though former Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb has always said the right things regarding the events of 2010, anyone with any amount of competitiveness and pride would be miffed at losing his job after suffering a concussion — and after being told that he’d be the starter once he was healthy.
When the Cardinals and Kolb return to Philly on November 13, Kolb will have a chance to show the Eagles that they kept the wrong guy. Regardless of either team’s one-loss record at the time, this one will be worth watching.
Jets at Eagles, December 18.
Though the bubble may have burst for either team well before December comes, any game featuring the darlings of their respective conferences needs to be circled with a Sharpie.
Jets coach Rex Ryan called his shot well (again) before the lockout even started; the Eagles have made clear their belief that 2011 will be a success only if they win the Super Bowl.
In the end, this one could be a potential Super Bowl preview that has serious ramifications when it comes to playoff seeding.
Vikings at Redskins, December 24.
The Redskins benched Donovan McNabb twice last year. This year, they traded him to Minnesota for a gently used pair of wrestling shoes, and an extra pair of laces.
McNabb claims that he no longer finds motivation in a desire to prove people wrong, but it’s safe to say that McNabb will want nothing more than to go to Washington, beat the Redskins, and then tell Mike Shanahan to stick the game ball in his trophy case.
Giants at Jets, December 24.
It’s unclear how long it will take Jets receiver Plaxico Buress to rediscover his Super Bowl-winning form. By Week 16, he’ll be a lot closer than he is in Week One.
And in Week 16, he’ll get a crack at the Giants and coach Tom Coughlin.
Surely, Plaxico would relish the chance to deliver a blow that knocks the Giants out of the playoffs — and that possibly cements the end of Coughlin’s career.