The 2017 NFL schedule is out, and fans everywhere are clearing their autumn Sundays to make sure they're in front of the TV for the biggest matchups of the year. To help you wade through the 256-game slate, here are the best 13 games of the year. Plan accordingly.
Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots (Week 1, 8:30 p.m. Thursday)
A reluctance to have another Super Bowl rematch to open the season combined with a weak Patriots home slate makes the first game of the year less compelling than usual. (New England is already a touchdown favorite.) But, hey, after 214 days without football, we'll take anything we can get. (All times Eastern.)
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New Orleans Saints vs. Miami Dolphins (London, Week 4, 9:30 a.m.)
The first of four London games this year and one of the early kickoffs that's proven fun for NFL fans on both coasts. It's not necessarily the greatest matchup (though the Dolphins are coming off a playoff appearance and the Saints appear poised for a rebound), but seeing as how the Browns, Jaguars and Rams are involved in the other London games, this is as good as it's getting for our British friends.
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Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins (Week 1, 1 p.m.)
The Redskins somehow got the maximum five primetime games in 2017 (has the NFL not watched the horror that is Washington with the lights on?) But one of the most interesting games on their schedule is the first, as Kirk Cousins faces Carson Wentz. Will Cousins make the Redskins regret the lack of long-term deal? Will Wentz make the leap in his sophomore season? Those questions won't be answered in Week 1, but it's a start.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 14, 8:30 p.m. Sunday)
After the shocking news regarding Ben Roethlisberger's return to Pittsburgh (in case you forgot, and you almost certainly did, he says he considered retirement) ... I don't have an end to that sentence; just wanted to remind everybody of that story. Anyway, the AFC is down this year, and forecasting any big game (beyond the Boston area) is a gamble. You think Oakland is going to be good again? I probably do, too, but the team could have just as easily been 8-8 as 12-4 last year and coming back to earth is a distinct possibility. Denver? Not until it gets a semi-consistent quarterback. The Dolphins? I smell regression. The Chiefs? Zzzzz. The AFC South? Come on, I'm eating. That leaves Pittsburgh and Baltimore, two teams that play twice a year in a hard-hitting series that transcends records. (It's like a poor man's Redskins-Cowboys in that way.)
When the schedule dropped at 8 p.m. on Thursday, all eyes in those two cities immediatly jumped to that Sunday night in December, when, if history holds, the teams will be fighting it out for the AFC North
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Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots (Week 4, 1 p.m.)
A workable early schedule (@SF, BUF, NO) sets up a fascinating Week 4 test for the Panthers and should provide a good barometer of whether they're in for a 2015-like joyride or the doldrums of 2016.
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Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos (Week 4, 4:25 p.m. ET)
Can the Raiders do it again? Oakland's first division test of the year -- a trip to Mile High on the first day of October -- should tell us a lot about whether Derek Carr and Co. will get a chance to play in January, this time at full strength.
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New York Giants at Washington Redskins (Week 12, 8:30 p.m. Thursday)
The three most important games on the NFL schedule are the three slated for Thanksgiving Day. Oh, there might be bigger games and better matchups throughout the year, but there's only one day where you're a completely captive audience, and it's the one where you're passing the turkey to the aunt you haven't seen since last Thanksgiving.
The Vikings and Lions get the day started off right, and Chargers-Cowboys could be tasty, too, but dessert is the highlight with the first Redskins-Giants game since their Week 17 battle on New Year's Day, when Washington failed to beat a postseason-bound New York team resting its starters, thus missing out on the playoffs for the second straight year. It was an ugly affair punctuated by an ugly throw. Kirk Cousins, the NFL's highest-paid player this year and last, threw a Cousins-esque interception late in the fourth quarter with Washington driving, effectively ending the game. If Cousins doesn't throw that pass and the Redskins score to make the playoffs in back-to-back years, would he have a long-term deal right now? It's a fascinating "what if?" And the answer is no. The Redskins front office is far too inept for such logical moves.
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Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers (Week 1, 4:25 p.m.)
If the Thursday night opener (Chiefs at Patriots) doesn't do it for you, your NFL wishes will be satisfied with the late-afternoon kick on Sunday, when the Seahawks visit Green Bay for what could be the beginning of the end of their impressive run atop the NFC. Or, you know, Richard Sherman could stay, Russell Wilson could have a bounce-back year and Seattle could start another final stand with a core group that's been together longer than any NFL team in recent memory.
New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders (Mexico; Week 11, 4:25 p.m.)
The Pats play five primetime games, obviously, but it's a weird slate with four of those games against non-must-see-TV in Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Miami and Denver. It's their late-afternoon kick the Sunday before Thanksgiving that'll have primetime hype, with the old guard facing their possible replacements in a feisty Raiders group that will be one of the most fascinating teams in the NFL. This one is in Mexico City, which adds to the intrigue. Playing a home game away from Oakland -- guess it'll be good practice for the Raiders.
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Atlanta at New England (Week 7, 8:30 p.m. Sunday)
Hey, did you hear the Patriots beat the Falcons in the Super Bowl after trailing 28-3 late in the third quarter? I know! I'd forgotten, too! The Falcons will try for a little payback in October, but, honestly, it's a lose-lose proposition. Beat New England and you're thinking "Gah, we should have had 'em in February." Lose to New England, which is what will indeed happen, and it's like getting kicked in the groin after getting punched in the face.
Despite a recent trend, Super Bowl rematches are relatively rare. In the first 47 years of the game, there were only five rematches the following season and none after 1998. Yet when Atlanta travels to New England in Week 7, it will mark the third regular-season Super Bowl rematch in the last four years. Revenge games haven't worked out so well for the reigning Super Bowl runners-up; they're 2-5 in the rematch, with the only win in the last 47 years coming when the '93 Bills exacted absolutely zero retribution for their 52-17 Super Bowl XXVII loss in beating Dallas 13-10. (There'd be a rematch of the rematch in the Super Bowl, which Dallas also won. So, you know, one-outta-three ain't bad, Buffalo.) Denver held Super Bowl serve last year in Week 1 against Carolina, and in 2014 Seattle did the same against the Broncos after the Super Bowl XLVII blowout.
New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (Week 1, 8:30 p.m. Sunday)
Maybe it'd be easier to say which Dallas games aren't on the must-watch list (vs. Rams, at 49ers, at Bucs, probably). And though the Cowboys have a solid out-of-division slate, it's those NFC East games that are always a ratings and competitive highlight, and, this year none is more so than the meetings with Eli Manning and his Giants. Dallas went 0-2 against New York in 2016 while finishing 13-1 against the rest of the NFL. One of those losses came in Week 1, when the teams played a tight, 20-19 game in Big D. The other was a three-point win in Jersey. Expect another close one to finish the first Sunday of the year.
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Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (Week 2, 8:30 p.m. Sunday)
Oof. After drawing the Seahawks in Week 1, the Packers have to go back to Atlanta for an NFC championship rematch against the Falcons. This time, though, the game will be played at the new, luxurious Mercedes-Benz Stadium (i.e. not the cacophonous Georgia Dome). The Falcons rolled over Green Bay in that NFC title game, 44-21, and could send the Packers to an 0-2 start, forcing Aaron Rodgers to play catch up all season, once again.
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Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys (Week 5, 4:25 p.m.)
The Super Bowl rematch gets the headlines but, at the end of schedule day, it's still an inter-conference game without much riding on the result. Far more interesting and important will be the replay of the NFC divisional playoff, the one in which Green Bay went into Dallas and walked out with a 34-31 victory in another playoff classic between the NFL blue bloods.
It was Green Bay's eighth straight win after a 4-6 start and kept alive Dallas' 22-year streak without an NFC championship appearance. There were three scores in the final 93 seconds, and Green Bay got into field-goal position for a 51-yard game winner after Dallas tied the game with 35 seconds left. On the last offensive play before the field goal, Aaron Rodgers hit Jared Cook on a 36-yard pass on 3rd-and-20 to give Mason Crosby his chance for the win.