Matchups for months: Weekly must-see NFL TV

The schedule-makers have spoken, setting up intriguing matchups on a weekly basis in the NFL. Here are our week-by-week picks for must-see TV.

The Seattle Seahawks have a franchise-record five games in prime time, becoming the new in-demand team in the NFL after reaching the Super Bowl and losing in the waning seconds with a championship-saving interception from the New England Patriots.

But, as is custom, the NFL wasted no time in rewarding the Super Bowl champions with the opening prime-time game. The New England Patriots will kick off the regular season hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers.

But the schedule is full of intriguing matchups each week, with the networks scooping up the as-expected important games.

Here is our week-by-week, must-see NFL-TV games:

While the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots will be the focus of the Thursday night matchup and all the NFL pomp that accompanies, it will be the regular old afternoon game on Sunday, Sept. 13, that will provide the most intriguing matchup for Week 1 – the Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills. Why? For a couple reasons.

First, it will be the first regular-season game for both since the induction of Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, who fashioned contenders with both franchises. But it’s the modern-day matchup that means more. It will be the first matchup of two of the most active teams in the offseason. The Colts tried hard in free agency to shore up their defense, adding Trent Cole, Nate Irving and Darius Butler, while supplementing to an already-dangerous offense by giving Andrew Luck weapons like Frank Gore in the backfield and Andre Johnson downfield. Meanwhile, the Bills added tight end TE Charles Clay, WR Percy Harvin and traded for quarterback Matt Cassel.

Which one of the winners in March will win the season opener, and will that help determine one of the AFC playoff entrants?

Bitterness creates great rivalries, as do division matchups. Week 2 will have both when the Dallas Cowboys travel to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 20 for a late afternoon game. The Eagles will showcase their new running back, DeMarco Murray, whom they got by outbidding the Cowboys in free agency. The Cowboys could be featuring DE Greg Hardy chasing down the QB Sam Bradford if Hardy can avoid a suspension from the league following his domestic abuse case last year. Either way, the NFC East will have all eyes on this early-season matchup with late-season ramifications.

The focus shifts from the East Coast in Week 2 to the West Coast in Week 3, as two more potential NFC contenders square off. The San Francisco 49ers have been players in the NFC West of late, but the Arizona Cardinals are considered the new blood, especially after Jim Harbaugh exited the NFL for the Michigan Wolverines and Bruce Arians has the Cardinals on the uptick. The 49ers took Darnell Dockett away from Arizona, but the Cardinals took Mike Iupati from San Francisco, along with adding LaMarr Woodley from across the bay. That should get the division rocking early in the season.

The AFC North is always loaded with slugfests and it doesn’t get much better than the Pittsburgh Steelers hosting the Baltimore Ravens in prime time, as will happen on Thursday, Oct. 1 to open Week 4. Neither team was very active in outside free agency, concentrating on signing their own, but the rivalry speaks for itself.

New England will be looking to defend its Super Bowl title all season long, and Dallas believes its window for success is now. Can Tom Brady maintain superiority over Tony Romo? Brady is 3-0 against the Cowboys lifetime, with seven touchdowns against two interceptions. That kind of efficiency will put all kinds of pressure on Romo to perform, and at this point we can’t be sure who will be in the backfield for the Boys to lend support. Can Romo avoid the costly mistake against Bill Belichick’s defense in a late afternoon matchup in JerryWorld?

Remember how the NFL world was trying to write off Brady in the early stages last season? His schedule doesn’t get any easier in Week 6, as the Patriots are on the road for a second straight week, this time facing Andrew Luck and the Colts in a game that should have some bearing on playoff relevancy two months later. Can the Colts create a shootout and mismatches with Andre Johnson against a now-Revis-less Patriots secondary? If so, there could be a new king of the AFC and a passing of the quarterback torch.

Speaking of Darrelle Revis, he will get a chance to face his former team as a member of his once-former, now-reunited team in Week 7 when the New York Jets travel to New England. You can imagine the Patriots crazies will have a few choice words for the king of free agency as Revis tries to hold ownership of his island. Perhaps Rob Gronkowski will have to exploit the other matchups for the Patriots.

Peyton Manning vs. Aaron Rodgers? OK, we’re watching. That’s the matchup on Sunday night, Oct. 30, when the Green Bay Packers travel to face the Denver Broncos. It could be a shootout worthy of shoutouts to two of the best quarterbacks in recent vintage. The Packers were intent on keeping their own, specifically WR Randall Cobb, in free agency. The Broncos, with little money to spend, settled for the addition of TE Owen Daniels to add to Manning’s options.

Plenty of great options to choose from in the middle of the season in Week 9: Eagles at Cowboys in a rematch and Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals in a battle of Ohio, but it’s hard to escape the lure of the great quarterbacks, and that’s what we get again when the Broncos and Manning get to play against his old team and the “new, younger, (better?) Manning” in Andrew Luck. It’s only midseason, but the viewership should be popping for this Sunday night (Nov. 8) matchup.

If Arizona believes it can contend for the NFC West, it will have its hands full with a huge opportunity in the Week 10 Sunday night matchup against the defending NFC title-holding Seattle Seahawks. Will the underappreciated Russell Wilson keep this from being a defensive slugfest? Can Marshawn Lynch go all Beast Mode against Bruce Arians’ defense? If you’re sick of the quarterback matchups being touted at this point, this could for the ground-and-pound lover in all fans. Bring your big-boy bruiser pads.

Speaking of Black and Blue, Week 11 features two of the top contenders for the NFC North crown – the king of the division from recent years in the Packers and the up-and-coming Vikings, who finally found their quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. It’s a good old-fashioned noon kickoff, but it could mean a lot in the NFC North if the Mike Zimmer’s defense can take the next step in his second season as head coach … and if Adrian Peterson is still in purple.

Week 12 is juicy with Turkey-day matchups – Eagles at Lions, Panthers at Cowboys and Bears at Packers – but Sunday is full of tremendous matchups, too. Giants at Redskins. Cardinals at 49ers. Patriots at Broncos. Even Monday holds intrigue in the AFC North with the Ravens at the Cleveland Browns. Still, two of the teams that have prided themselves on defense and the ground game, the Steelers and Seahawks, might be the best matchup of the week. Big Ben vs. Little Wilson. LeVeon Bell vs. Lynch. It’s just old-school football (even with the more recently infused Seahawks) on a late Sunday afternoon after the tryptophan has worn off.

The feuds are tremendous again in Week 13, with the AFC West duking it out, the battle of New York (or New Jersey) with the Jets at Giants, but new school meets old school when the Eagles travel to New England. Chip Kelly vs. Bill Belichick. Hoodie vs. new-age schemer? We’ll take it with this late-afternoon duel on Dec. 6. Can the fast pace of the Eagles wear down the tried and true of the red and blue? We’re anxious to find out.

We could have gone for the Ice Bowl rematch of Cowboys at Packers, but it’s just too intriguing to see the new-look Bills face the new-look Eagles. LeSean McCoy and Kiko Alonso should have starring roles, but they will be with the other team this time around after the Eagles traded McCoy to the Bills for Alonso. Who gets the better of that matchup of slippery running back vs. accomplished linebacker? Can DeMarco Murray, the new Eagles running back, trip up Rex Ryan, the new defensive mastermind in Buffalo? Bring on December football in the snowy Northeast.

The end of the season isn’t just a time for the playoff contenders, it’s also a time for coaching survival. With no standout game in the heart of holiday season, we turn our focus to a game for the Grinches. Will the lead-off game in Week 15, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams, be one that determines a coach’s future in the NFC? It’s possible. Lovie Smith hopes his first overall pick – will it be Jameis Winston? – can revive a Bucs offense and fan base enough to save his job. Meanwhile, Jeff Fisher could be fighting for job survival at this point, too, if he doesn’t have his defense Ram tough and in contention for another season.

If the Cardinals are truly on the rise as much as some of the experts figure, they have the opportunity to prove their defense can survive an Aaron Rodgers assault, and the Cardinals will have the home-field advantage. Can Carson Palmer R-E-L-A-X (if healthy) and keep pace with Rodgers late in the season?

After a couple weeks of mediocre matchups, the finale weekend is all about the division rivalries. It’s too early to tell for sure which teams will be in contention for a title and which ones will be in contention for the top pick in the 2016 draft. The NFC West and AFC North appear to hold the best division battles, but there won’t be many games in the final week that don’t hold significant sway one way or another. It’s a pick-’em, watch-’em-all weekend two days removed from your New Year.

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