Normally, the NFL’s schedule release is like Christmas morning — except, after unwrapping all of your gifts, you have to stare at them for four months before opening anything.
This year is different.
This year, the gifts unwrapped Thursday might never actually be opened at all, with the unknown of the coronavirus pandemic requiring a series of contingency plans.
But let’s assume for this exercise the NFL schedule goes ahead as planned. If so, these are the games you absolutely can’t miss.
1. Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens — Monday, Sept. 28, 8:15 p.m. ET (ESPN)
On paper, this is 2020’s best matchup, headlined by the last two league MVPs (and Madden cover athletes), who many expected to meet in last year’s AFC Championship Game.
It’s too early to declare Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson the new-age version of Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, but it sure feels like it’s headed that way. This will be the third installment of a matchup that we can only hope to see at least 10 more times.
Mahomes and the Chiefs have won the first two meetings with Jackson and the Ravens, but both were in Kansas City and decided by five or fewer points, with one requiring overtime.
The latter contest, a 27-24 final in Week 14 of 2018, featured one of the most fascinating schematic battles in recent memory. Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale threw haymakers all day to frustrate Mahomes, only for the wunderkind to foil the plan with a few spectacular off-schedule plays (remember his 48-yard heave to Tyreek Hill on fourth-and-9?).
The other side of the ball is also intriguing, as Baltimore’s greatest strength (the run game) lines up with a perpetual Kansas City weakness (run defense). The Chiefs are known for overcoming deficits, but the Ravens are built to salt games away.
No matter how this plays out, it should be spectacular.
2. San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints — Nov. 15, 4:25 p.m. ET
Much like the Chiefs and Ravens, this was a possible conference championship last season that went awry with a surprise upset, as the Saints lost at home in the wild-card round to Minnesota.
Of course, the 49ers avoided the wild-card round in part thanks to a win at New Orleans in December, a 48-46 thriller highlighted by George Kittle’s rampage through four poor Saints defenders to set up the game-winning field goal.
The 49ers have restocked well to fill their few holes this offseason, while the Saints’ roster might be the NFL’s best. Head coaches Kyle Shanahan and Sean Payton might be the league’s two best play-callers (a major reason why last year’s meeting brought so many fireworks).
This matchup also appeals to those who love trench warfare. The 49ers’ defensive line is one of the NFL’s best, but the Saints’ O-line might be the best. The matchup on the other side of the ball has plenty of fireworks, too, with a deep Saints D-line highlighted by Cameron Jordan facing a Niners O-line that just added Trent Williams.
3. Green Bay Packers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Oct. 10, 4:25 p.m. ET
Despite a combined 35 seasons of NFL experience, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have faced off just twice as starters, splitting meetings in 2014 (Packers home win) and 2018 (Patriots home win). Rodgers was backing up Brett Favre in 2006, then injured in 2010.
Rodgers and Brady nearly met in two Super Bowls, but a Packers collapse in Seattle thwarted a Super Bowl XLIX appearance, and Green Bay couldn’t get by Atlanta in the conference title game two years later.
Barring injury, this will be the third meeting, so be sure to savor it. With Brady now in the NFC, it’s possible these two will play another time or two, but nothing is guaranteed.
The matchup is also intriguing on both sides of the ball. Brady is more susceptible to pressure than ever, and the Packers have the disruptive forces — Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Kenny Clark especially — to wreak havoc.
On the other side, Matt LaFleur seems increasingly focused on building around the running game, but the Packers might have a hard time against Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, putting more pressure on Rodgers to sling it.
4. Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers — Oct. 18, 1 p.m. ET
Barring an injury to Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph won’t be playing, but Myles Garrett very likely will be. The NFL and its referees will surely be watching closely for foul play, but the dynamic should nonetheless be fascinating in Garrett’s first action against the Steelers since the helmet-swinging incident.
Even without that drama, this game would be worth circling.
While the Ravens hold pole position, both the Browns and Steelers are talented enough to win the AFC North, which might be the best division in football. If Cleveland’s offensive line clicks, it might have a top-five offense. With a healthy Roethlisberger and an elite defense, Pittsburgh has few holes.
The Browns also haven’t won in Pittsburgh since Oct. 5, 2003, losing a staggering 16 straight since. No pressure.
5. San Francisco 49ers at New England Patriots — Oct. 25, 4:25 p.m. ET
This one certainly won’t lack storylines.
Jimmy Garoppolo has yet to face Tom Brady, and he won’t this year — at least in the regular season — and perhaps not ever (the 49ers and Bucs aren’t guaranteed to meet until 2022).
But we will see Garoppolo face former coach Bill Belichick, who will apparently lean on Jarrett Stidham as Brady’s successor — the job that Belichick once meant to be Jimmy G’s. Belichick, of course, sent Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick in 2017, reportedly in part due to his respect for Kyle Shanahan.
This will also be the first Shanahan-Belichick meeting since Super Bowl LI, when Shanahan’s Falcons infamously blew a 28-3 lead. Whether that blown lead has a material impact is debatable, but Shanahan will be closely scrutinized.
Stidham, of course, will be under an even brighter spotlight, as he tries to fill Brady’s massive shoes.
–By David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media