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NFL schedule 2021: Tom Brady's showdown vs. Patriots highlights 13 best grudge matches

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When the NFL releases its full regular-season schedule for 2021 on Wednesday evening, many fans will be circling a few dates on their calendar. And several players could also have their sights set on some particular matchups in the league's first 17-week setup.

While the exact timing is still forthcoming, this year's slate of games will provide many notable names who have moved in the last two years with a chance for revenge against their former teams. And though some of the splits were amicable, many more left at least one side feeling bitter.

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Here are the 13 best grudge matches on the 2021 NFL regular-season schedule:

The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick showdown should be one of the best grudge matches of the season.
The Tom Brady-Bill Belichick showdown should be one of the best grudge matches of the season.

Tom Brady vs. Patriots

What's left to say about the most anticipated NFL regular-season game in years? Brady and Bill Belichick once seemed like an inextricably linked pair, winning six Super Bowls together and shaping one of the most dominant dynasties in all of sports. But the cracks in New England eventually led to a full fracture, with Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last March after 20 years with the Patriots.

Now, the two sides find themselves in disparate positions. The Buccaneers are trying to become the first team since the 2004 Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions, and they have all 22 returning starters in tow. Belichick, meanwhile, made significant changes to a New England roster looking to bounce back from the franchise's first losing season in 20 years.

Working under freewheeling coach Bruce Arians, Brady has shown a fun-loving side in Tampa, poking fun at close friend and longtime New England teammate Julian Edelman upon the wide receiver's retirement.

"We know Julian didn’t retire. Let’s be honest," Brady said during NFL Network's virtual Draft-A-Thon event. "He’s just too scared to tell Bill he wants to come to Tampa. I’ve been there."

If Brady is able to get the better of Belichick, he'll join Brett Favre, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees as the only quarterbacks to defeat all 32 NFL teams. And while Brady's return will no doubt be the dominant narrative surrounding the game, Rob Gronkowski's decision last year to come out of retirement to join his quarterback adds another entertaining layer to the matchup.

DeAndre Hopkins/J.J. Watt vs. Texans

No need to wonder about whether this contest will be personal for Hopkins. In the nearly 14 months since he was dealt to the Cardinals, the three-time All-Pro has repeatedly trolled the Texans for sending him away in a trade already infamous for its imbalance.

Gone is Bill O'Brien, the architect of the swap and former Texans coach with whom Hopkins said he had "no relationship." But torching Houston on the field would serve as an additional spiking of the football for the star receiver.

Watt likely doesn't hold the same level of animosity over his departure, as the Texans released him at his request, leading to his landing a two-year deal with the Cardinals. But don't expect him to take it easy on his former teammates, whom he openly criticized as a group when venting his frustration after a loss last December.

Cam Newton vs. Panthers

Splitting from a franchise icon is never easy, but the Panthers' break from Newton was particularly messy.

Carolina announced last March that it was allowing the star quarterback to seek a trade. Newton didn't take kindly to that characterization and hit back on social media, saying he "never asked" for permission to look elsewhere while adding he was "forced" into it.

More than three months after his subsequent release by the Panthers, Newton signed with the Patriots. Despite a turbulent season as New England's starter, the team re-signed him in March to a one-year contract. Newton will have to stave off first-round pick Mac Jones to hold onto the lead role, but he would no doubt relish getting the last laugh on Carolina with one more triumph in Charlotte.

Jared Goff vs. Rams

The primary focus of the Lions' trip to Los Angeles will undoubtedly be Matthew Stafford squaring off against the franchise he led for 12 years. But the more interesting dynamic between a quarterback and his former team might rest with Goff and the Rams, who sent the former No. 1 pick to Detroit as part of the package to land Stafford.

Goff has left not-so-subtle hints about his displeasure with being cast aside for another passer, telling NFL Media's Mike Silver in January that he was "excited to be somewhere that I know wants me and appreciates me." Rams coach Sean McVay said after the trade that he wished he "was better for (Goff) in some instances."

Showing up the Rams on their home turf will be exceedingly difficult for Detroit. The Lions are taking a long view of their rebuild, leaving the team in a somewhat precarious position for the upcoming season. Goff also will have few reliable receivers after Kenny Golladay left in free agency.

Marcus Peters vs. Rams

This will be Round 2 for the volatile former Pro Bowl cornerback against his former team after an opening salvo to remember.

In 2019, weeks after Los Angeles dispatched Peters to Baltimore, the Ravens whipped the Rams in a 45-6 victory on "Monday Night Football." Peters recorded an interception in the fourth quarter of the rout and taunted his former teammates from the sideline. His true target, however, was Jalen Ramsey, the perennial Pro Bowler for whom the Rams pushed Peters out the door. The two cornerbacks had a heated exchange after the game and were separated and restrained by their respective teams' staffers.

If there's any question as to whether time has healed this wound, well ...

"(Expletive) them," Peters said of the Rams in a clip earlier in May from Catchin' Fades podcast with former teammate Aqib Talib. "I felt disrespected. In the sense of, yeah, you can trade me. That's part of the business. But two minutes after that, you bring in another guy who do the same (expletive) I do, maybe a little bit different. If we want to play this compare game, I do a little bit more. That (expletive) was disrespectful to me."

Jameis Winston vs. Buccaneers

Five years after making Winston the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, the Buccaneers cut bait and brought aboard Brady, who led the franchise to its second Super Bowl title. And though Arians later spoke highly of the strong-armed but turnover-prone passer, he offered a blunt assessment in Winston's final game with Tampa Bay.

“If we can win with this (quarterback), we can definitely win with another one, too,” Arians said at a press conference at the end of the 2019 season.

After landing with the NFC South rival Saints, Winston experienced some partial forms of revenge, including New Orleans' two regular-season wins over Tampa Bay last season and his 56-yard touchdown strike in the divisional-round defeat. But as he battles Taysom Hill for the title of Drew Brees' successor and the Saints' starting quarterback, Winston could be in line to prove to his old team he can pilot a playoff squad for the first time in his career. And if he can beat the defending champions in either of the two meetings this season, his "eat the W" celebration will be almost sure to follow.

Brandin Cooks vs. Rams

Hard to say there's a definitive grudge for a player who has been traded three times in six years, but all the shuffling has made the speedy receiver resolute in exerting some control over his future.

"But as far as a team thinking they could trade me for draft capital, I would caution them to think twice, because quite frankly, I'm not going to accept any more trades," Cooks said in January prior to restructuring his contract. "And so, for me, if you want me off your team, you've just got to let me walk and choose my destination."

Cooks paced the Texans' passing attack last year with 81 catches for 1,150 yards, the receiver serving as one of the lone bright spots in a disastrous 4-12 campaign. But with Deshaun Watson's status unclear amid an ongoing investigation and the quarterback's previous demand for a trade, Cooks could face a more difficult outlook in 2021, particularly when he takes on a Rams team that allowed a league-low 17 touchdown passes this past season.

Darius Slay vs. Lions

This matchup might be one year past its peak for animosity, as Slay blamed former coach Matt Patricia for his discord with Detroit.

The three-time Pro Bowl selection alleged that, during a 2018 meeting, Patricia made a profane reference to a post Slay had made on social media regarding a wide receiver. After that, Slay said, he "lost all respect" for the coach.

With Patricia having been fired last November, Slay might view his return to Ford Field as a victory lap. But he also will be under the microscope after a rocky first year with the Eagles.

DeForest Buckner vs. 49ers

Following the 2019 season, the 49ers had a glut of talented defensive linemen and only so much cap space to retain them. San Francisco still surprised many by keeping defensive end Arik Armstead and telling Buckner, who racked up 28 1/2 sacks in four years for the franchise, to find a trade partner.

“I was hoping the 49ers would at least meet me in the middle,” Buckner told The Athletic last November. “I definitely didn’t expect them to trade me. I poured my heart and soul into that organization … to go from 2-14 my first year to build a culture and get to a Super Bowl? You just don’t expect to be traded.”

Things still worked out swimmingly for Buckner, who signed a four-year, $84 million extension after being traded to the Colts and mounted an All-Pro campaign in 2020. But notching a win and sacking Jimmy Garoppolo or No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance might serve as nice closure.

Sam Darnold vs. Jets

In selecting Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick in April's NFL draft, the Jets became the first team in the common draft era (since 1967) to take two quarterbacks with top-three picks in a three-year span. That unfortunate place in history highlights just what a rocky tenure Darnold had with Gang Green.

GM Joe Douglas, who inherited Darnold from the previous regime, last year lamented the organization's failure to equip the signal-caller with adequate support. But when the Jets secured the opportunity to draft one of the class' top passers, it became clear that Darnold's days with the franchise were numbered.

In landing with the Panthers in a trade, however, Darnold landed a chance to revive his career as an NFL starter. Carolina is intent on ramping up its downfield passing attack, and Darnold could have several openings to burn his former team and its spotty secondary.

Kyle Van Noy vs. Dolphins

Just one year after making Van Noy one of its marquee signings of the 2020 offseason, the Dolphins released the linebacker in March as part of its front-seven reshuffling. The move stunned many, including Van Noy himself, who subsequently rejoined the Patriots and offered "no comment" when asked about his experience playing for Brian Flores in Miami.

Van Noy later explained that he felt remarking on his short stay would be a no-win situation. But he maintained that he was "shocked" by the decision and is looking forward to facing the Dolphins twice per year in the AFC East.

“I know everything they do down there,” Van Noy said. “It’s going to be good."

Van Noy won't be the only former Dolphins player to take on the team next season, as Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil also will be set to meet with some familiar faces.

Patrick Peterson vs. Cardinals

A month after signing with the Vikings, Peterson penned an appreciation in The Players' Tribune in which he thanked the Cardinals organization and its fans for his remarkable 10-year run in Arizona. While the eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback was appreciative of his time in the desert, things seemed to end on somewhat of a sour note.

"I won’t lie, after 10 years, I wish everything had been a little more upfront in the end," Peterson wrote. "It’s no secret that I was disappointed with the process and how everything went down."

After facing Peterson in practice for years, Kyler Murray now will have to decide how often to test the veteran when the Cardinals face the Vikings. The matchup will be even juicier when Peterson lines up across from Hopkins.

Joe Judge vs. Eagles

The lone coach to make this list, Judge constitutes a special case for a grudge match. While the Giants' leader never coached for the Eagles in his career, the Philadelphia native has a matter to resolve with his hometown team.

After the Giants vanquished the Cowboys in Week 17, Judge's team needed only for the rival Eagles to defeat the Washington Football Team in the Sunday night regular-season capper for Big Blue to capture the NFC East and make the postseason. But with the Eagles trailing by just three points in the fourth quarter, Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson inserted backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld into the game. Sudfeld threw for just 16 yards with one interception, and Washington went on to seal the division with a 20-14 victory.

Pederson, who was later fired, said in the week leading up to the game he wanted Sudfeld to receive some playing time in the matchup. The coach also maintained after the loss that he not trying to improve the Eagles' positioning in the NFL draft given that Philadelphia already had been eliminated from postseason contention.

But even without mentioning the Eagles by name, Judge sent a message that will color the rivalry for years to come.

Said Judge: "To disrespect the effort that everyone put forward to make this season a success in the National Football League, to disrespect the game by going out there and not competing for 60 minutes and doing everything they can to help those players win, we will never do that as long as I am the head coach of the New York Giants."

And to add a little bit of a kick to an already heated dynamic, the Eagles swung a deal with the Cowboys to leapfrog the Giants in the first round of April's NFL draft. Philadelphia took Heisman Trophy winner and Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who had been thought to be a potential target for New York.

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL schedule 2021: Tom Brady vs. Patriots among 13 best grudge matches