SEPT. 12BALTIMORE AT RAIDERSIt’s an instant-read thermometer with regard to Raiders new coordinator Gus Bradley and whether his defense can hold up in a way last season’s unit never did. Here comes Lamar Jackson, JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards heading straight downhill in the first regular-season game with fans (and owner Mark Davis) in the building for the first time. Also a first look at whether casting aside center Rodney Hudson and center Gabe Jackson was really a good idea.
SEPT. 19RAMS AT INDIANAPOLISTwo hugely significant offseason moves at the most important position in the sport are scrutinized as two teams with postseason aspirations square off. Matt Stafford replaces Jared Goff at quarterback for the Rams. It’s a new system but an infinitely superior supporting cast in terms of coaches and teammates. Meanwhile, Carson Wentz, a former No. 2 overall pick who was broken and battered in Philly, was dispatched to the Colts as a replacement for the retired Philip Rivers.
SEPT. 26GREEN BAY AT 49ERSYou’d think two teams considered serious Super Bowl contenders would have little to no quarterback drama. Not exactly. Aaron Rodgers is back on the field, but after hosting “Jeopardy” or and giving off cryptic vibes as to his next move, delaying the need for Green Bay to discover whether Jordan Love can do what Rodgers did after Brett Favre retired. As for the 49ers, Trey Lance should have a role at this point — but will Jimmy Garoppolo still be the starter?
OCT. 3TAMPA BAY AT NEW ENGLANDWhatever reverse aging process Tom Brady is undergoing will get a big run-up as the outside world views it as a grudge match with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. It was bad enough that Brady was as good as ever without the man who helped make him famous, winning another Super Bowl while New England staggered to 7-9. But then came the real humiliation — replacing Belichick in Subway’s latest ad campaign. The horror.
OCT. 10BUFFALO AT KANSAS CITYYou could make a case that these are two standard-bearers at quarterback in the AFC. The Bills’ Josh Allen’s skills as a passer and runner make him one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL in the red zone, and Buffalo O-coordinator Brian Daboll has expertly blended his skill set into a dynamic offense. As for Patrick Mahomes, he remains the Stephen Curry of the NFL, blending stunning playmaking with creative brilliance and a heavy dose of charisma.
OCT. 17SEATTLE AT PITTSBURGHSeattle quarterback Russell Wilson was the NFL’s top player at this point a year ago. Then came a spate of turnovers, a few losses, falling out of the MVP race and then a strange off-season where he hinted through his agent he might be better off elsewhere. Ben Roethlisberger, on the other hand, is coming off a serious elbow injury for the last hurrah. Two of the NFL’s longest-standing coaches in a business famous for turnover square off in Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin and Seattle’s Pete Carroll.
OCT. 24KANSAS CITY AT TENNESSEEAlthough it’s hard to envision the Chiefs being anything but great, the intrigue here lies with Tennessee. The Titans have the NFL’s most indestructible force in running back Derrick Henry set to run at the heart of an occasionally susceptible Kansas City defense. But the Titans also added Julio Jones to go along with A.J. Brown as a weapon for Ryan Tannehill, not to mention defensive additions such as Bud Dupree and Denico Autry to get after Mahomes.
OCT. 3149ERS AT CHICAGOJustin Fields really ought to be the quarterback by this point for Chicago, and if Trey Lance is in a part-time role for the 49ers, expect all the second-guessing heading into a Halloween matchup. Did Kyle Shanahan err in bypassing the Ohio State star in favor of a more raw talent, in terms of skill set? The 49ers have Nick Bosa to make Fields uncomfortable, with 49ers tackles Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchy attempting to slow Khalil Mack.
NOVEMBER 7TENNESSEE AT RAMSCan a running back win an MVP? It hasn’t happened since Adrian Peterson. Eight straight quarterbacks have won since Adrian Peterson in 2012 — Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers. If Derrick Henry can do enough damage against a Rams defense led by Aaron Donald and upstage Matt Stafford, he’ll be in the race.
NOV. 14KANSAS CITY AT RAIDERSThere are Raiders fans who will look you in the face and say they’re “this close” to being as good as the Chiefs. They’re not, but you wouldn’t know it from their two head-to-head meetings in 2020. You could make the case that Jon Gruden out-coached Andy Reid twice after having gotten his clock cleaned upon his return to coaching. The Raiders won at Arrowhead and nearly won at home. Was it a fluke?
NOV. 21ARIZONA AT SEATTLEHow can you not like the idea of watching Kyler Murray of the Cardinals and Russell Wilson of the Seahawks in a back-and-forth battle of playmakers, who have taken the whole idea of insisting quarterbacks have the height of power forwards and made it obsolete. No one is looking for Dan McGwire or Brock Osweiler anymore, and Murray and Wilson are two reasons why.
NOV. 28TAMPA BAY AT INDIANAPOLISHave the Bucs effectively dealt with the hangover that sometimes comes from a Super Bowl championship? Is Brady as good as ever, and has Antonio Brown made it through Thanksgiving without imploding? They should find out in a tough road assignment whose quality will be determined by where Carson Wentz is in what the Colts hope is a rebound year.
DEC. 5BALTIMORE AT PITTSBURGHOne of the NFL’s best rivalry games has Pittsburgh with a 27-23 advantage in the regular season but 1-3 in the playoffs. The Steelers have won six of the last 10, including a sweep last season. Pittsburgh has been historically difficult to run the ball on, which is the Ravens’ specialty with Lamar Jackson at quarterback. A no-nonsense, smashmouth matchup.
DEC. 12DALLAS AT WASHINGTONYes, everyone will be watching Buffalo at Tampa Bay. But if Dak Prescott has identified himself as an MVP candidate and the Cowboys get rolling with Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, the Dallas star could be restored to relevancy with one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses. And they’d be going against a Washington team that knows how to play defense.
DEC. 20MINNESOTA AT CHICAGOEither Minnesota is still in the race at this point against a division rival or coach Mike Zimmer will be looking around for his next opportunity after eight seasons leading the Vikings. The question will be whether Vikings running back Dalvin Cook is still standing or has been worn to a nub as the focal point of the offense. Khalil Mack and Co. await to supply more punishment.
DEC. 2349ERS AT TENNESSEEThe last time the 49ers played the Titans in 2017, Derrick Henry was a complementary back for Demarco Murray and gained 19 yards on seven carries, as San Francisco won 25-23 on Robbie Gould’s 45-yard field goal as time expired. Jimmy Garoppolo was 31 of 43 for 381 yards, but smart money says at this point it will be Trey Lance at the controls.
JAN. 2RAIDERS AT INDIANAPOLISShades of Christmas Eve in 2016 in the penultimate game of the season. Derek Carr outplays Andrew Luck at the Coliseum — until Carr breaks his leg. It was the impetus for a fade under Jack Del Rio the following season and the return of Jon Gruden. If all goes according to plan — this time on the road — beating the Colts is a springboard to the postseason.
JAN. 949ERS AT RAMSLet’s face it, at this point in the season, one or both coaches could be resting key players for a playoff game to come. But if home-field advantage is on the line or one team can be the spoiler, this becomes a huge game with two of the best strategists in the game in Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.
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