1. Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos (Sunday, Sept. 9):
It's fair to say that all eyes will be on this one as quarterback Peyton Manning is expected to make his return to the NFL. An injury cost him all of the 2011 season and forced a departure from Indianapolis as the Colts decided to rebuild. The question now is whether the Colts were a little hasty in their decision as Manning tries to show he's healthy again after four reported neck surgeries, including a procedure to fuse two vertebrae. Meanwhile, the Steelers open the new season at the same site of last year's playoff debacle against the then Tim Tebow-led Broncos.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (Sunday, Nov. 18): As a point of reference, there aren't a lot of division games mentioned in this spot for a specific reason: You could fill the entire "best" section with divisional battles, be it this one or Green Bay-Chicago or New England-New York Jets or whatever other traditional rivalry you like. However, there is something transcendent, almost medieval, about the Steelers and the Ravens going at it. It's football the way purists love, from the hard hitting of the defenses to Ben Roethlisberger's and Joe Flacco's slinging throws. As it stands today, this is the best rivalry game in football. Someday that will change. Until then, enjoy this one.
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3. Denver Broncos at New England Patriots (Sunday, Oct. 7): Assuming that Manning is healthy, the NFL gets another episode of one of the great rivalries of this era. From 2001 to 2009, when Manning and New England quarterback Tom Brady combined to win six AFC titles and four Super Bowls, their teams faced off 12 times. That included three playoff games. New England has beaten Manning eight times in the Brady era. In addition, seven of the past nine games between Manning and the Patriots have been decided by a touchdown or less. Of course, New England has a couple of other good ones, such as hosting San Francisco and playing at Baltimore in a rematch of the AFC title game.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys (Sunday, Dec. 16): There's usually something special about a Steelers-Cowboys game, although it's not always immediately evident. For instance, the last time they played in 2008, the comeback win by Pittsburgh (17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter) marked the beginning of the end for the relationship between Terrell Owens and the Cowboys. In 2004, the Steelers rallied for 14 points in the fourth quarter in a comeback win, the first come-from-behind victory for then-rookie Ben Roethlisberger. Over the years, the teams have played to a 15-15 split, including three Super Bowl matchups.
5. Houston Texans at Detroit Lions (Thursday, Nov. 22): If you're looking for a game that features two up-and-coming teams that could vault into Super Bowl contention, look no further. The Texans believe they took a huge step last year by improving their defense. Now, they just have to keep quarterback Matt Schaub healthy. Similarly, the Lions discovered they can have a dominant offense with quarterback Matthew Stafford playing a full season for the first time last year. Now, they have to get the defense on track behind the likes of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
6. San Diego Chargers at New Orleans Saints (Sunday, Oct. 7): The last time former teammates Drew Brees and Philip Rivers faced off in 2008, they combined to complete 55 of 81 passes for 680 yards, six touchdown passes and one interception. New Orleans won 37-32. Expect this game, which will feature the subplots of Sean Payton's suspension and Norv Turner being under pressure, to be just as entertaining.
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7. Green Bay Packers at New York Giants (Sunday, Nov. 25): You have to think that the Packers are still stinging from their playoff loss to the Giants at home in January. It was Green Bay's worst performance all season as it dropped eight passes and quarterback Aaron Rodgers missed two wide-open throws. The Giants dominated the game even after losing to the Packers in the regular season. This rematch will be tasty.
8. San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints (Sunday, Nov. 25):
If you want to talk about bitter pills, the entire Saints offseason has been awful and it started in the fourth quarter at San Francisco, when former defensive coordinator Gregg "Bounty" Williams watched his unit completely implode. Perhaps Williams, who instructed his players to do harm in a pregame speech, just wasn't paying enough. Either way, Saints fans still think the game would have been different in The Big Easy. Of course, the Saints also get to face Green Bay and the Giants again in the regular season, so the 49ers game is one of the many fun ones.
9. Baltimore Ravens at Washington Redskins (Sunday, Dec. 9): In a salute to the presidential election, the Beltway Bowl is held every four years between the Redskins. Sadly, the election is usually a lot more entertaining than the football game. However, that could change this year with the addition of Robert Griffin III to the Redskins lineup, assuming he goes to Washington next week with the NFL draft's No. 2 pick. Watching Griffin against the great Ravens defense could be really fascinating stuff.
10. Carolina Panthers at Philadelphia Eagles (Monday, Nov. 26): Dear Cam Newton, before you take the field, go take a good look at the beaten up body of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick. That should serve as a cruel reminder of how important it is to be a pass-first quarterback. Yeah, Vick is still a phenomenal athlete, but he's not what he once was. Newton, who got off to a great start as a passer last season as a rookie, is the next big thing of the NFL right now. If he gets away from that and becomes too much of a runner … oh well.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars at Minnesota Vikings (Sunday, Sept. 9): The Vikings and Jaguars ranked No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in the dubious category of overpaying for particular free agents, according to this analysis, and I can't disagree. If you're going to spend that kind of money, you should get better than a guy who flopped one place and a guy who produced only one good year out of five. Worse, both teams did very little to help their young, developing quarterbacks, which is just sad when you consider that each spent a first-round draft pick in 2011 on Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder, respectively. The best formula for making a quarterback play better is to surround him with better people.
2. New York Jets at Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, Dec. 9):
Dear Jacksonville fans, don't take this as one of my annual shots at your town or your team. In this case, I don't even need to go there. Rather, this is all about Tim Tebow, who's coming home again to bask in the love he gets from the Sunshine State and all the people who buy into his hype. Fact is, it was very telling when Denver could only get essentially a fourth-round draft pick for Tebow. Think about what Arizona gave up for Kevin Kolb less than a year ago. That should put some perspective on how much people around the league think he can play. Then again, Tebow fans don't tend to rely on football logic.
3. St. Louis Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, Dec. 23): In 2010, these teams matched up in a game that looked like the beginning of some special things for quarterbacks Sam Bradford and Josh Freeman. After 2011, those visions are definitely on hold, but the potential is still there. Both teams are in rebuilding mode with new coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis and Greg Schiano in Tampa Bay, respectively. Both coaches will have to turn around their teams with quarterbacks they didn't select themselves. That situation is always problematic.
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4. Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers (Thursday, Oct. 18): Last season, the Seahawks and 49ers did very little to resuscitate the rivalry coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh developed during their days at USC and Stanford. The result was two really dull, lifeless games that San Francisco swept on the way to dominating the NFC West. Seahawks fans like to boast about their defense and they're hoping that quarterback Matt Flynn is something special. Likewise, the 49ers are hoping for a Randy Moss reincarnation and that Mario Manningham is more than a third receiver. Expect more of what you saw in 2011.
5. Indianapolis Colts at Detroit Lions (Sunday, Dec. 2): Sure, there's plenty of reason to be curious about how Andrew Luck is going to do in Indianapolis as he follows Peyton Manning. However, this game isn't likely to produce a lot of highlights. More likely, expect Detroit to put up about 45 points in what will be a lopsided win and a reminder that the Colts still have a long way to go to get back to what they were. Simply put, the Lions are a couple of years ahead of where the Colts hope to be one day.
6. Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns (Sunday, Dec. 9): This will get billed as a revenge game for Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, who once ran the show in Cleveland. Anybody who knows Crennel understands that vengeance is not one of his stronger characteristics. The lack of such an approach is part of what makes him a really good man, but it doesn't make for good storylines in an otherwise really dull matchup.
7. Jacksonville Jaguars at Cincinnati Bengals (Sunday, Sept. 30): In the battle of cats, the only thing that could make this really interesting is if new Jaguars owner Shahid Khan let his mustache line up at wide receiver. That's just how lifeless this game is. Then again, it's a reflection of the cities. Jacksonville is a boring city on an ocean (that's hard to do) and Cincinnati is a boring city on a river (which is easier to do).
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8. Tennessee Titans at Miami Dolphins (Sunday, Nov. 11): Lest the people of Jacksonville think I'm favoring the Dolphins (for whatever reason), fear not. Miami faces many great challenges these days. Right now, things are so bad in Magic City that the Dolphins might want to hire Ozzie Guillen away from the Marlins just to stir things up. Just kidding, my many Cuban-American friends. But let's face facts: The Dolphins have a home schedule that will be almost impossible to sell to the public. Aside from the traditional AFC East games, the Dolphins host the Titans, St. Louis, Oakland, Seattle and Jacksonville. There are people on the management side who wonder if they'll have more than 35,000 people at some of those games.
9. Buffalo Bills at Indianapolis Colts (Sunday, Nov. 25):
It's not every day that you get a potential matchup of a former Harvard quarterback (Ryan Fitzpatrick) against a former Stanford quarterback (Luck). Then again, there's a reason for that. Moreover, if that's the most interesting thing you can say about this game, there's a lot of work to be done by the marketing people.
10. Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams (Sunday, Dec. 16): Another game featuring a pair of young, struggling quarterbacks on some young, struggling teams. Yeah, there's hope for both the Vikings and the Rams. But that hope is at least two years away from being realized.
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