Now that we’ve all calmed down from the excitement that was The Official 2017 NFL Schedule Release, let’s look at some of the biggest, and best, games on the schedule.
I’ll spare you the season-opener in Foxborough between the Patriots and Chiefs. Like the 49ers wanting to trade down from the No. 2 pick or the Bucs getting this season’s Hard Knocks, that was one of the worst-kept NFL secrets of the spring.
Several other great games will, of course, sprout up organically. Here are the top 10 games I’m eyeing with more than four months separating us from kickoff.
I hate to include the most obvious one, but what’s this list without it? After covering the Broncos-Panthers season-opener last year, I want to get this out of the way early: This is not a revenge match for the Falcons. Sure, it would be sweet to beat the Patriots in Foxboro, but it wouldn’t give the Falcons Super Bowl LI rings or move the banner from Gillette to Mercedes-Benz Stadium (or the Georgia Dome, if the new stadium still isn’t ready). A model of consistency, the Patriots will be the Patriots. But what about the Falcons without offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan? Can the offense still hum with Steve Sarkisian calling the plays? Was Matt Ryan’s MVP year a one-off, or is that the kind of quarterback he can be for the next five to seven years? Whatever you do, don’t consider this game any sort of revenge for the visitors.
Throw a dart at this game and hit a different storyline. This has got to be a broadcaster’s dream. These teams are meeting up for the fifth time in four seasons. Michael Bennett faces his brother Martellus in a new uniform. Former Packers running back Eddie Lacy is now with the Seahawks. Russell Wilson returns to Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl. Two of the best coaches in the NFL going head-t0-head. The overtime NFC title game from January 2015 still relatively fresh in our minds. Will Aaron Rodgers test Richard Sherman? Will Sherman even still be with the Seahawks? This game will have it all.
In five career games against the Patriots (four regular season and one playoff contest), J.J. Watt has registered 0.5 sacks against Tom Brady and just 18 total tackles. He’s never beaten New England and has lost every contest by an average margin of more than 18 points per game. Perhaps the greatest defender in the game has been held in check time and again by the greatest football coach and team in today’s game, but maybe that changes in 2017. Houston had the league’s top defense last season without Watt, and though the Texans lost cornerback A.J. Bouye to free agency, they retain hope that Watt and Jadeveon Clowney can become the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL. Tom Savage—or whoever is under center for the Texans by this game—going against Tom Brady won’t excite many, but maybe Watt and Houston’s defense can finally wrangle Brady and the Patriots in New England.
The Titans have lost 11 straight renditions of this series dating back to 2011. Since drafting Marcus Mariota, the Titans have lost all four games against the Colts by one possession. Tennessee hasn’t won in Indianapolis since ’07 when the 13–2 Colts pulled Peyton Manning shortly after the first quarter. If Mariota returns to full health, this is a Titans team that seems to be ready for the next step. Of course, the Texans will have much to say about the fate of the AFC South this year, but if Tennessee can get over the hump in Indy for the first time in a decade, it could indicate the Titans are finally ready for January football again.
New York was the only team to beat the Cowboys in the 2016 regular season when Dallas was actively trying to win the game (which disqualifies the loss to the Eagles in the season finale). The Cowboys seem ready for greatness for years to come, but there’s no guarantee they’ll repeat last year’s success this season. The NFC East should be loaded this year, with the Eagles ready to compete in Carson Wentz’s second season (and finally with some receiving help) and Washington having the pieces, if not the leadership, to get back into the playoffs. Dallas will have to get some pass-rushing help if it is to get over the hump in 2017. One reason I picked this early-season game between the teams: Eli Manning’s status. If the ongoing memorabilia scandal escalates, the league could take a negative view of Manning’s alleged role and impose a penalty on the two-time Super Bowl winner. Even if Eli plays, the storyline could still be top of mind.
By the time this game is played, you’ll think you know every player on the Bucs’ roster, thanks to HBO’s Hard Knocks—you’ll jump when the undrafted linebacker from Episode 2 makes a special teams tackle like you do every year. But this is a team NFL fans should know about without the help of a cable series. The Bucs are primed to make their first playoff run since 2007, with Jameis Winston entering his third season, DeSean Jackson adding a vertical threat that Winston can’t overthrow and a young defense that should be coming into its own. The Bucs have the feeling of the 2013 Panthers, who were rounding into their own to take over the NFC South for three straight seasons, and Tampa Bay edged Carolina twice last season by a combined four points.
Really, any AFC West game could not only decide the division but who makes and misses the playoffs. Last year wasn’t a flash in the pan for Kansas City, and hopefully the Chargers won’t be ravaged by injuries again and can actually make a run. But the Broncos and Raiders should be the class of the division, and this battle of defenses may be the best we see all season. They split last season’s series, though Derek Carr didn’t play in Oakland’s loss. By this point, Carr should be back to full health, the Broncos should have a firm grasp on who their starting quarterback is, and Raiders fans in Oakland will have let Mark Davis know just how they feel about being lame-duck fans.
Too much is made in today’s professional sports landscape about travel. Cross-country trips are tough, but these guys aren’t exactly flying coach with no leg room. One of the toughest drags in football, though, is having a back-to-back on the opposite coast and staying out there for the week between. That’s what Philadelphia will likely do in December when the Eagles travel to play the Seahawks and stick around to face the Rams the following week. Wentz will finally face Jared Goff, who went just ahead of him in the 2016 draft, but there’s far more at stake than a simple quarterback storyline. This will be the homestretch of what should be a tight NFC East division, and cross-country stays didn’t yield much success for teams last season. The Panthers and Falcons went a combined 1–3 when they stayed west in 2016 for their back-to-backs.
The Dolphins are the only non-Patriots AFC East champion since 2003, and this year they’re the only team that can give New England a run in the division. So much depends on Ryan Tannehill’s braced knee not giving out on him, but the Dolphins could again be playing in the postseason, where they haven’t won since 2000. Meanwhile, no team had an answer for Tyreek Hill’s speed last year, and the Chiefs proved they can win with, or in spite of, Alex Smith. Adam Gase is proving to be one of the best young coaches in the game, but how will his Dolphins D hold up with Vance Joseph now in Denver? This game should answer a lot of questions about two potential AFC contenders.
Forgive me for putting three Pats games down here out of the 10, but after all, they are the defending champions. This AFC Championship Game rematch in Pittsburgh may give us what could have been in Foxborough in January had Le’Veon Bell not been dealing with a groin injury. Bell got just six carries for 20 yards due to the injury, and he has since said the Steelers would have won that game had he been healthy. Bell wasn’t the one giving up 431 yards of total offense to the Patriots, so maybe that claim doesn’t hold water, but this AFC title game rematch could set the stage for another one in early 2018.