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Diamond dozen: 12 games to look forward to in 2011

We know injuries and unexpected failures can take the luster off some of the scheduling matchups that look so promising now. Other storylines will also emerge.

But that's for then. This is now.

Bears lightning-rod quarterback Jay Cutler will become a must-see figure, highlighted by games against the Packers and his return to Denver. The Giants and Jets will play in their grand shared stadium in New Jersey, and the Packers also have a road game against an emerging rival not within the division.

There is so much to look forward to in 2011, and here's a sample of 12 games that pack plenty of bluster, intrigue and cold-blooded contempt.

Week 1: Cowboys at Jets (Sunday night)

Ryan vs. Ryan. Last season, Rob Ryan took Rex to overtime while serving as Cleveland's defensive coordinator, but Rex's Jets emerged victorious when Mark Sanchez threw an overtime touchdown. This time, Rob has a few more pieces to work with -- DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff -- as Cowboys defensive coordinator and could have a little something for his twin. Then again, if Dallas' secondary isn't any better than last season, Rex might get bragging rights again. Well, since he always brags Rob might have to buy dinner after the game.

Week 2: Eagles at Falcons (Sunday night)

Atlanta's worst fear last season was that Michael Vick would lead Philadelphia into the Georgia Dome in the NFC playoffs, and half of the stadium (that might be conservative) would be wearing Vick jerseys. Vick and the Eagles lost to Green Bay in the wild-card round so that drama didn't unfold, but it could when Vick is scheduled to make his first start in the Georgia Dome since he played for the Falcons in 2006.

Week 3: Packers at Bears

It's back to the scene of the crime, as this ancient rivalry has been ratcheted up to a new level courtesy of Green Bay's NFC Championship Game victory last season at Soldier Field and QB Jay Cutler's controversial inability to finish the game. Cutler is going to be motivated for revenge and redemption. The Packers just don't want to see any more of Caleb Hanie.

Week 5: Packers at Falcons (Sunday night)

This will be one of the more heated games all season, because there is a lot of simmering bad blood here. Green Bay didn't like Atlanta's sticking out its chest after beating the Packers in the Georgia Dome during the regular season, so they took physicality and scheming to another level in upsetting top-seeded Atlanta in the playoffs.

Week 7: Colts at Saints (Sunday night)

Peyton Manning comes home to face the team that kept him from winning his second championship in this rematch of Super Bowl XLIV. He's beloved in New Orleans, but Saints quarterback Drew Brees is king. This could be a thriller featuring two of the NFL's great quarterbacks who have attached their names to the NFLPA's lawsuit against the owners this spring.

Week 8: Patriots at Steelers

Tom Brady loves playing in Pittsburgh, where he's won six of seven -- including last season's 39-26 thumping of the Steelers. The Patriots won eight straight, including that mashing of Pittsburgh, before falling to the Jets in the playoffs. The Steelers won six of their remaining seven after that loss and didn't taste defeat again until the Super Bowl. Right at the midpoint of the season, this will feel like playoff football.

Week 9: Ravens at Steelers

This arguably is the fiercest rivalry in the NFL, so any time these teams meet, anywhere, it gets nasty. The stakes continue to be raised, too. The last meeting at Heinz Field ended with Pittsburgh beating Baltimore in the divisional round of the playoffs. Though it is only a regular-season game, this will feel like it means more, especially when you consider the teams won't play each other in the final eight weeks.

Week 11: Chiefs at Patriots (Monday night)

The Chiefs won the AFC West last season, but they'll be tested with a potentially rugged overall schedule in 2011, including this game in Foxborough. Matt Cassel made pretty sizeable strides last season, but his mentor, Tom Brady, is still the standard. The Patriots also were the NFL's only unbeaten team at home last season. This game will mean a lot to Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who came from New England in 2009 to take over K.C.

Week 12: 49ers at Ravens (Thursday night)

Brother Bowl Part II. If Jim Harbaugh can get the 49ers to play for him the way John Harbaugh has gotten the Ravens to play for him, we might have a serious throwdown. Forget the Brothers Harbaugh, though. Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis on the same field trying to stop Frank Gore and Ray Rice, respectively, should be something special to watch during this game on NFL Network.

Week 14: Giants at Cowboys (Sunday night)

The last time these NFC East rivals met in the Jones Mahal (a.k.a. Cowboys Stadium), Tony Romo sustained a season-ending clavicle fracture in Week 7 last year. The Cowboys' fortunes changed from that point. They got better, but not before Wade Phillips was canned in favor of new coach Jason Garrett. Romo gets a chance to not only get some personal revenge, but prove that the Cowboys are better with him on the field.

Week 14: Bears at Broncos

How gut-wrenching would it be for Broncos fans if Jay Cutler walks into Invesco Field and has a big game in his return to Denver? The Broncos' former franchise quarterback, who forced his way out of town in 2009, is now Chicago's franchise quarterback. And the coach who traded him away, Josh McDaniels, is no longer with the franchise. Funny how things work out sometimes, isn't it?

Week 16: Giants at Jets (Saturday)

The Jets technically will be the home team at New Meadowlands Stadium, but will it really make a difference? The crowd could be split by allegiance, but "Ed the Fireman" could hold the swing vote for the Jets. And think about just how much the ante would be upped if both teams are in need of a late-season victory to keep pace in their respective conference playoff races.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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