The announcement of the NFL schedule always feels like an end-of-year party after months of teams making changes to their rosters in free agency and the NFL Draft.
But this year’s schedule release gave us even more to latch onto with most of the sports world -- outside of the KBO -- shut down. ESPN put on a three-hour schedule special diving into every crevice of the new slate and teams across the league showed off their creativity online with GIF-laden announcements. The internet probably set a record for most fans filling out wins and losses immediately.
Luckily for everyone who has been thirsty for the slightest taste of sports, this year’s NFL schedule has all sorts of drama-filled matchups right from the get-go (thank you, Tom Brady).
Let’s have a look at the 10 most compelling games that the schedule has to offer...
Week 1 -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints -- 4:25 ET FOX
If Drew Brees and Tom Brady were playing HORSE, we would still want to watch simply on the basis of being two of the great competitors in history but Bucs-Saints has so much more than the two legendary quarterbacks playing in their twilight.These are two Super Bowl contenders beginning the NFC South battle right off the bat.
Brees and Brady are surrounded by the best supporting casts that they have had in years. New Orleans star receiver Michael Thomas led the league in receptions and yards last season while Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin was right behind him in third place and teammate Mike Evans averaged 17.3 yards per catch. The Saints went all-in on free agency by adding Emmanuel Sanders while the Bucs convinced Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement. These talented skill players are under proven offensive head coaches have long histories of getting the most out of their quarterbacks. And the underrated element might be that both teams’ defenses have enough talent to turn this matchup into a slugfest.
Normally Week 1’s results are made for overreactions. In this case, there is so much urgency from both teams to win in 2020 that this one will have an NFC Championship feel right off the bat.
Week 1 -- Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals -- 4:05 ET CBS
Get the clicker ready. The juxtaposition between two GOATs on one channel and two first-round quarterbacks on the other is the type of drama that the NFL lives and breathes with.
LSU’s Joe Burrow is tasked with turning around a Bengals franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015 and ranked 30th in points scored last season. If anyone can bring an instant jolt to Cincinnati, it’s the Heisman Trophy winner who threw for over 5,600 yards and 60 touchdowns in a National Championship run. Where Burrow has an advantage over some other top-pick QBs is that he isn’t inheriting a complete lost cause on offense. With superstar AJ Green coming back from missing last season due to injury and both Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon becoming established quality playmakers, Burrow could instantly become must-watch TV.
On the Chargers’ side, the folks at CBS will be rooting for No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert to start over veteran Tyrod Taylor. He might have more question marks than Burrow coming out of college but his monster arm will be fun to watch if nothing else.
It has been a long time since anyone would be yearning to see the Bengals and Chargers but there are few things more fascinating than rookie quarterbacks with superstar potential beginning their careers.
Week 3 -- Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens -- 8:15 ET ESPN
Considering how the regular season turned out for Lamar Jackson, his performance against the Chiefs was disappointing. He went just 22-for-43 with 267 yards, zero touchdowns or interceptions and was sacked three times in a road loss. From that point on, Jackson tossed 29 touchdowns to just six picks and posted a 113.2 quarterback rating (per Pro-Football Reference). Now the MVP version of Jackson has a chance to redeem himself against Mahomes on home turf.
But Jackson is coming at the king, so he better not miss. Few Super Bowl performances have ever been more impressive than Patrick Mahomes’s in the fourth quarter to beat the San Francisco 49ers and the champ is just entering his prime at 24 years old. Baltimore’s defense, freshly restocked with Calias Campbell, isn’t likely to solve the unstoppable phenom so it will be on Jackson’s shoulders to outduel him.
The sheer entertainment value of how these two play the game is on a different level from anyone in the game. Mahomes’s no-look passes and Jackson’s jukes are simply cheat codes. But beyond the storyline of the two rising star QBs matching up is the fact that Kansas City and Baltimore are the runaway favorites for the AFC and this game could determine if either gets the first-round bye.
Week 5 -- Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns -- 4:25 CBS
This one might not seem glamorous at first glance -- especially since the Browns were hyped up all last offseason and fell flat for the umpteenth time -- but these two clubs have a strong case for bouncing back in a big way in 2020.
The Browns hired head coach Kevin Stefanski after he helped turn around the Minnesota Vikings offense and drove Kirk Cousins to a career high in quarterback rating. He’s in Cleveland to do the same thing for Baker Mayfield, who stepped into the No. 1 pick limelight with a strong debut in 2018 but slipped back amid consistent controversy in 2019. He’s only 25 but this year has a make-or-break feel for Mayfield because the group assembled around him is as talented as any in the AFC. The Browns have an elite receiver in Odell Beckham Jr., an elite running back in Nick Chubb and a subtly outstanding new tight end in Austin Hooper, who had 75 receptions last year. Anything short of fireworks from their offense would be disappointing.
The Colts also have a QB possibly getting his last shot, just in a different way. Philip Rivers joins an Indy squad that drafted offensive players to stack up around him. If Rivers finds his 2018 form, the Colts have the O-line and running game to be a powerhouse offense.
Bottom line: These two clubs have a chance to be really fun.
Week 9 -- Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers -- 8:20 FOX/NFLN
Of course a rematch of the NFC Championship is going to be compelling but there’s something else looming with both the Packers and 49ers: They both ended highly-successful 2019 seasons with a sour taste in their mouths. Green Bay was steamrolled by the 49ers’ rushing attack in the NFC title game and San Francisco blew a 10-point fourth quarter lead in the Super Bowl to fall at the hands of Kansas City. They also both had offseasons that left some questions.
The Packers acknowledged in the draft by picking Utah State’s Jordan Love that the clock is ticking on Aaron Rodgers, who still threw for over 4,000 yards and had the league’s lowest interception rate last season. But at 36 years old and with a salary cap hit ready to rise by double digits next year, this could be the last go around for Brett Favre’s successor. The Packers certainly didn’t do him any favors by avoiding the receiver position in the draft.
San Francisco lost some quality players in the offseason, letting Emmanuel Sanders exit for New Orleans, trading DeForest Bucker to Indianapolis and seeing Joe Staley retire. However, they acquired Trent Williams from Washington to immediately fill Staley’s absence. Still Kyle Shanahan’s group may need instant impact from rookies Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk in order to stay at the top.
Thursday Night Football’s broadcast will have no trouble finding storylines for this one.
Week 11 -- Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks -- 8:15 ET ESPN
No matter how tough the NFC West looks, the Arizona Cardinals have worst-to-first written all over them. Quarterback Kyler Murray adapted to the NFL as his rookie year went on, finishing with 3,722 yards passing and another 544 rushing and an 87.4 rating. His numbers weren’t mind blowing but Murray managed the third highest completion percentage among rookie QBs (with at least 400 attempts) since 2010, had the fifth highest rating and fifth lowest interception rate.
With DeAndre Hopkins by his side now, Murray could follow a similar path as Lamar Jackson and breakout into superstardom quickly.
On the other side, Russell Wilson enters 2020 having never posted a losing season and with only one absence from the playoffs in his career. While the seven-team playoff gives him a little better odds, the vastly-improved Cardinals are ready to track him down. They didn’t just get a superstar receiver but also a highly-gifted young linebacker in Isaiah Simmons from Clemson to track Seattle’s mobile QB.
If you want tight-window throws, playground plays and two teams capable of winning their division, you can’t miss this one.
Week 12 -- Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- 4:25 ET CBS
Roster versus roster, this game would be on any top 10 list but this game isn’t about the Bucs’ dangerous D-line against the Chiefs’ solid O-line, or Chiefs’ secondary versus the Bucs’ receivers. This one is about what it represents. The torch was passed from Tom Brady to Patrick Mahomes last year when the dynamic KC QB won his first Super Bowl but Brady will get at least one more chance to show that he’s still the best of all time.
The big question is: By Week 12, will we still see this game as having the same appeal? The excitement about Brady in Tampa Bay has overshadowed his overall down season in 2019. We often see the most hyped teams fall short. So will Brady have a Brett Favre style resurgence or play game manager like Joe Montana did in his late-career years with the Chiefs or just fall flat and be sitting at the bottom of the NFC South when Mahomes brings his ring to town?
For entertainment purposes -- and this may not sit well with some -- it’s better to hope Brady thrives in the South.
Week 12 -- Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers -- 8:20 NBC
Maybe it’s the fact that they weren’t dealing with Antonio Brown drama this year but it feels like the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a very quiet offseason. They didn’t draft a quarterback to eventually replace Ben Roethlisberger like the Packers did with Rodgers and they didn’t make any big win-now trades or signings either. The steady Steelers are flying under the radar but with Big Ben back they have a strong possibility of being in the race for the NFC North come late November.
Is there anything better in late November than Steelers-Ravens with divisional stakes on the line? Especially with both teams brining top-five defenses from 2019? Lamar Jackson might shake a few more tackles but the physical play that defined these two teams over the past decade looks like it could be coming back.
And again we have a matchup of a Hall of Fame quarterback against a next-generation dynamo.
Week 16 -- Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints -- 4:25 FOX/NFLN
The recent history between these two teams got even crazier in the playoffs with Kirk Cousins completed a walk-off touchdown pass to Kyle Rudolph in the Wild Card round to eliminate the Saints last year. Add that with the Minneapolis Miracle in 2017 and Favre’s interception in 2009 and you have yourself some serious history.
The league is clearing out for the Vikings and Saints to play on Christmas day with hopes of seeing similar results to all the recent games between Mike Zimmer and Sean Payton’s teams. They have played four times since the start of 2017 and none of the matchups have been separated by more than 10 points.
Barring quarterback injury, it’s hard to see this game being anything but a battle for playoff position. While Vikings overhauled their defense and traded Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills, they are still stacked with offensive weapons and armed with a Gary Kubiak system that helped Cousins get his first playoff win. We can reasonably expect the buzz around the Saints by late December to be: It’s really Brees’ last rodeo.
Week 16 -- Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys -- 4:25 FOX
You should never say never when it comes to the NFL but the NFC East looks like a two-horse race -- and a close one -- between the Eagles and Cowboys. Philadelphia made the playoffs last year despite losing its entire receiving corps to injury and they got there by beating the Cowboys 17-9 in Week 16. Dallas responded with a coaching change with hopes of getting over the hump and scored huge wins in the offseason by retaining Amari Cooper and drafting Oklahoma star CeeDee Lamb.
Could we have a repeat or will Mike McCarthy have a better handle on key situations than Jason Garrett did last year? Is Dak Prescott capable of leading a top offense again after finishing first in yards per play last year? Will we see Philadelphia’s Super Bowl as a blip on the radar or can they get back to making noise in the NFC? Will we have seen Jalen Hurts under center by the end of December?
This one has the potential to either be a classic or answer a lot of questions.