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The NFL season is still four months away. But no American sports league generates hype quite like the NFL, which has elevated its annual schedule release to a prime spot on the sports calendar.
And why not? What better to time for fans to dream of what's yet to come three months removed from crowning last season's champion? With parity the name of the game in the NFL, fans of every team can find something to look forward to in May.
With the 2021 season will come a new level of league-wide hope as a nation of fans look to flip the page on the COVID-19 pandemic that's wreaked so much havoc on their lives, their sports calendars included. NFL teams are planning for full stadiums in the fall. And plenty of teams have legitimate claims on contending for the Super Bowl.
Without further ado, here are our picks for the top 10 games to watch this NFL season:
10. Week 18: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals (Game 2)
It’s Year 3 for the Kyler Murray era in the desert. The Cardinals made the leap from terrible to a competitive showing in the brutal NFC West last season, but fell short of the postseason at 8-8. In what looks like another hyper-competitive season in the division, are the Cardinals ready for their next step after the offseason defensive additions of J.J. Watt and Malcolm Butler?
If so, they'll have to prove it against Russell Wilson and the defending division champion Seahawks. These teams played a pair of thrillers in 2020. If playoff stakes are attached to this season finale, buckle up. Will it signal a changing of the guard out West?
9. Week 16: Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Jets
No, this doesn't exactly scream AFC championship game preview. But it comes with an enormous amount of intrigue. The Jaguars and Jets will square off after making the top two selections in April's draft, with each hoping they found their quarterback of the future.
Jaguars rookie Trevor Lawrence has been crowned as the next big thing since before his freshman season at Clemson. Jets rookie Zach Wilson emerged from three-star prospect status to become the No. 2 pick in the draft out of BYU. Both are expected to take the reins early, if not from Week 1. There's a good chance we'll see both on the field for this Week 16 matchup, which could see a Rookie of the Year candidate emerge.
8. Week 12: L.A. Rams at Green Bay Packers
One team will definitely have a new quarterback when these NFC hopefuls square off. The Rams punted on the Jared Goff experiment this offseason, trading the top pick of the 2016 draft and his contract to Detroit. In return, the Rams got Matthew Stafford, another former No. 1 overall draft pick who has languished his entire 12-season career with the moribund Lions.
Will he face off against longtime NFC North rival Aaron Rodgers? Or will the Packers play this season with Jordan Love under center? That remains the NFL's most intriguing question in the shadow of Rodgers' reported trade request. Either way, this promises to be an intriguing matchup as Stafford finally gets his shot with a competent football franchise. Both teams have legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
7. Week 5: Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs
Josh Allen was the surprise of the 2020 season. The Buffalo Bills quarterback proved his doubters right during his first two seasons while lacking the most basic attribute of an NFL-ready quarterback — accuracy. Then something (coaching perhaps?) clicked. After logging completion rates of 52.8% and 58.8% during his first two seasons, Allen evolved into a precision passer completing 69.2% of his passes en route to the Pro Bowl and the playoffs.
Add those passing skills to his athletic, 6-foot-5 frame, and Allen is a bonafide baller. With Stefon Diggs catching passes and Tre'Davious White and Tremaine Edmunds anchoring the defense, the Bills are favorites to repeat as AFC East champions and contenders to advance to the Super Bowl. To do so, they'll have to get through the Chiefs. They didn't in last season's AFC championship game. Can they shift the script in Week 5?
6. Week 1: Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs
The Browns had their breakthrough last season. Baker Mayfield emerged from a sophomore slump with a 26-touchdown, eight-interception campaign that saw Cleveland finish 11-5 and punctuate its return to the postseason with a playoff thrashing of the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. They made some big offseason moves on defense, pairing up pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney opposite Myles Garrett while adding first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II to play alongside Denzel Ward. After last year's jump to the playoffs, are the Browns ready to contend?
We'll get a good gauge early when they match up in Week 1 against the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs. Kansas City is a proven commodity with Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes running the show. There's no better test for a team looking to make the leap into title contention.
5. Week 8: San Francisco 49ers at Chicago Bears
Like Jags-Jets, this game has the potential to feature a pair of first-round rookie quarterbacks. Unlike Jags-Jets, this game will feature two teams with legitimate playoff hopes. After bailing on Mitchell Trubisky, the Bears made the move of the draft in April, trading up to snag Ohio State standout quarterback Justin Fields with the No. 11 pick. While the Bears insist that Andy Dalton is the starter, there's a better than decent chance Fields gets his shot this season.
The 49ers will be in a similar spot. Kyle Shanahan has repeatedly said that Jimmy Garoppolo remains San Francisco's starter. But the 49ers didn't trade a haul of assets to draft Trey Lance at No. 3 to have him sit on the bench for long. The 49ers are built to win now, and it seems obvious that Lance is a big part of those plans. How each of these teams manages their fluid quarterback situations will go a long way in determining the NFC playoff picture.
4. Week 4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New England Patriots
Whether or not you bought into the premise, Tom Brady won the breakup with Bill Belichick last season in overwhelming fashion. Now comes the grudge match. That's how it'll be hyped, at least. While nobody but Brady and Belichick truly know how they feel about each other, this game promises to be the most talked-up of the season because of their relationship — even if it ends up being a lopsided matchup on the field.
Unless Brady finally falls off the cliff that analysts have predicted for the better part of a decade, these Bucs are locked and loaded for another competitive run in 2021. This year's roster looks a lot like last year's that won a Super Bowl. The Patriots, on the other hand, remain a big question mark. Will Cam Newton emerge new and improved in his second season in New England after his first was stunted by a COVID-19 infection? Will he even be the starting quarterback, or will rookie Mac Jones take the job? Will either bring enough to the field to improve on last year's 7-9 effort? Beating the Bucs could be a tall task.
3. Week 14: Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns (Game 2)
Bitterness between these franchises dates back to the birth of the Ravens which came into existence when team owner Art Modell moved the former Browns out of Cleveland and into Baltimore in 1996. The Browns returned to Cleveland in the form of an expansion franchise in 1999. As Cleveland fielded perpetual losers, Browns fans watched the Ravens produce consistent contenders and a pair of Super Bowl champions.
For the first time since the old Browns bolted town, the new iteration is inspiring genuine hope of success on the heels of its first playoff appearance since 2002. In fact, the Browns so confident in what they've built around quarterback Baker Mayfield, they're reportedly not even entertaining joining the Aaron Rodgers sweepstakes — if there is one, that is. Their rise coincides with the continued ascent of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson alongside a typically stout Baltimore defense. Both teams have their eyes on the Lombardi Trophy this season. They have to get through each other first.
2. Week 1: Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dak is back.
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott hasn't played since a gruesome ankle injury ended his 2020 season in Week 5. All signs point to him being well on schedule for training camp and Week 1, armed with a brand new eight-figure per season contract extension. He'll be tasked with earning it right away.
The Cowboys open their season against Tom Brady and the Bucs in a coronation of their Super Bowl win in front of a likely full crowd of frothing home fans who mostly missed out on the fun in 2020. Opening week matchups don't come much tougher than this. The Cowboys have long been lauded as being on the verge of a breakthrough. They've largely responded by falling flat. If they're finally going to live up to expectations, beating the Bucs in Tampa would be a good place to start.
1. Week 2: Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens
The NFL schedule gods have blessed us yet again with a Chiefs-Ravens matchup. Since Lamar Jackson joined the league in 2018, his Ravens have looked up to find Mahomes and the Chiefs on the schedule each season. So far, advantage Chiefs.
In what was billed as a potential AFC championship preview last season, the Chiefs cruised to a 34-20 victory thanks to a 385-yard, four-touchdown effort from Mahomes. The Chiefs won a pair of close games in the other two matchups, including an overtime thriller in 2018. Kansas City and Baltimore enter the season again on the short list of Super Bowl favorites, thanks in large part to their young quarterbacks. The stakes promise to be as big as they get in the regular season. Will Jackson score his first win against the Chiefs, or will Mahomes improve to 4-0 against his MVP counterpart in a game that could count for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs?
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