Week 1 full of riveting divisional matchups

Football is finally back. All the way back -- not just end-of-the-lockout-so-lets-finally-put-on-some-shells-and-pads back. That means our weekly look at the schedule returns as well, with a full slate of 16 games this weekend (assuming you include Thursday as part of your weekend, as I always do).


Listen to the 2011 NFL season LIVE -- hear all the action online in premium sound quality with NFL Audio Pass. Sign up now!

I'm doing things a little differently this year, thanks to a new, highly scientific formula that equates the overall appeal of each game to a hoagie, one of the greatest in-game food accompaniments ever invented. Games will be rated as either a footlong, a six-inch, a pita or a finger sandwich. Feel free to extrapolate your own meats, cheeses and/or salads (tuna, chicken, etc.) to these imaginary culinary delights.

The beauty of this week is that we get a ton of division rivalry games right from the start. These are games that could go a long way toward settling a division title or become pivotal tiebreakers for possible wild-card spots. One or two might even be conference championship previews.

But heck, above and beyond all of that, we've got bleepin' football back. And after all of the angst of this offseason and the labor woes, there is no better time to celebrate what is truly our national pastime as we also commemorate the lives lost and the bravery displayed on 9/11, 10 years ago.

So we'll start with the premier games of the week -- on paper at least -- and work our way down, and I'll present as compelling a case as possible for why you should tune in.

    • New Orleans at Green Bay

      Thur 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      The top two teams on my power rankings meet in the opening game of the season. I'm incredibly high on both clubs. Love the additions of Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers to beef up the Saints' run D; love the Packers getting a ton of talent back from IR and reloading with what could be another stellar draft class. Brees and Rodgers are the latest additions to the QBs With a Ring Club (Rodgers has the belt to match, by the way). Prolific offenses. Should be a highly entertaining contest and the entire country will be watching. For what it's worth, President Obama's speech is going to serve as an appetizer to this football feast.
    • Inside story:

      The Saints could tell you a thing or two about a Super Bowl hangover, and clearly 2010, despite being a solid showing, didn't end how they would have liked. A young Packers team now has to cope with being the hunted, and they won't be sneaking up on any one, surely not a gifted Saints coaching staff that had that entire 130-odd-day lockout to scheme for this one. Also, the Saints had more work as a team than anyone in the NFL during the lockout, for whatever that's worth, while the Packers had virtually none.
    • Rating:

      Footlong (with extra meat, cheese and condiments)
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Pittsburgh at Baltimore

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      This is the best rivalry in the NFL right now. Both teams have a real respect, and hatred, for the other. Loads of star power and outspoken personalities involved. These games are as hard-hitting as they come, and incredibly compelling. Two blue-collar teams representing two blue-collar cities. What more could you ask for in Week 1?
    • Inside story:

      The Steelers are Joe Flacco's daddy. Yeah, it's like Pedro and the Yankees used to be. They find a way to make that back-breaking play -- often an interception of or a forced fumble by the quarterback himself -- that wins it in the end. When Flacco did win in Pittsburgh last season, leading a spirited late comeback, it was during Ben Roethlisberger's suspension. Big Ben owns him right now, and Ben might be primed for his best season yet with all that speed at wide receiver. These games determine the division and the division determines home field and that's been the difference between these clubs in recent postseasons.
    • Rating:

      Footlong
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Dallas at New York

      Sun 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Tony Romo returns from a lost 2010 season and the Cowboys attempt to do the same. Is Dez Bryant the real deal? Can Felix Jones hold up? Will losing out on Nnamdi in free agency doom that shaky secondary? As for the Jets, we get Plaxico Burress returning to the NFL from incarceration and an overhauled receiving group in all. Mark Sanchez tries to take the next step and Darrelle Revis, back from an injury-riddled 2010, is on a mission.
    • Inside story:

      Rex Ryan vs. Rob Ryan. You have to love this. Their daddy, Buddy Ryan, is putting off cancer surgery to watch this thing unfold. Two creative, aggressive defensive minds meet with family bragging honor at stake. You have to think both will have some tricks up their sleeve and if nothing else, the postgame press conferences will be epic.
    • Rating:

      Footlong
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Indianapolis at Houston

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      The streak ends here. Peyton Manning is not going to play in this one and no one knows when he will be back. That means the Texans had best win as many games as possible before Manning does return. We might look back on this game in Week 17 and say it was when the AFC South was settled. The Colts are so reliant on Manning, plus they're built to play with the lead in terms of their pass rush and running game. They could be in for a rude awakening with an absent Manning.
    • Inside story:

      Kerry Collins has struggled in his career against Wade Phillips' defenses and Phillips is bringing his 3-4 to Houston. How will the Texans respond? Will Mario Williams slide into that DeMarcus Ware role? Are they decent enough in the secondary now? Will Brian Cushing bounce back? How Phillips handles Collins and bolsters this unit will be imperative to getting the Texans over the top.
    • Rating:

      Footlong
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Detroit at Tampa Bay

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      I'm ridiculously intrigued by this game. The Bucs were the most improved team a year ago, and the Lions might earn that honor this season. These are young teams with ramped-up expectations. Two top QBs from the class of 2009 get together. Josh Freeman is out to show last year was no fluke; Matthew Stafford is out to show that he can stay healthy.
    • Inside story:

      I mentioned the 2009 QB rivalry, but what about the 2010 defensive tackle rivalry? Ndamukong Suh had a rookie year for the ages, while Gerald McCoy, taken right below him in the draft, was far less effective. Both teams added more talent to their defensive fronts and even with Nick Fairley out, watching these guys tussle in the trenches will make for good TV. And this could be a crucial tiebreaker if these teams find themselves in the playoff hunt a few months from now.
    • Rating:

      Footlong
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Atlanta at Chicago

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Both teams had their 2010 seasons ended by the Packers -- Atlanta in the divisional round and Chicago in the championship game. The Falcons traded up for receiver Julio Jones, got defensive end Ray Edwards and signed some starting-level defensive backs, while the Bears didn't really address their offensive line woes, lost a key center, cut two players who were big 2010 fee-agent signings, and now linebacker Lance Briggs wants a trade. We'll see if they head in opposite directions this season.
    • Inside story:

      Jay Cutler has thrown more interceptions than anyone in the league since becoming a starting quarterback and last year he was hit more times than any quarterback as well. Not good. The Falcons want to have a more consistent pass rush, make more plays in the secondary and be more explosive all around. The Bears might be a matchup conducive to some of that.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch (tempted to call this a footlong, too, but I've got to draw the line somewhere, right?)
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Philadelphia at St. Louis

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      The Eagles are in Super Bowl-or-bust mode and the Rams came awfully close to winning the NFC West a year ago. St. Louis had better get used to stern challenges because its schedule is a bear in the first eight weeks, and finding a way to win some of these home games could be huge. After a shaky preseason, perhaps the Eagles come in a little vulnerable.
    • Inside story:

      The Eagles have a new offensive line coach and a new identity and philosophy: Left tackle aside, it's an entirely revamped unit. The Rams, very quietly, had an effective defense a year ago and they will surely go all out to get after Michael Vick, who has had his share of injury problems. Coach Steve Spagnuolo has deep Philly roots and this will be a special game for him.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • New England at Miami

      Mon 7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      The Dolphins have given the Pats some tough games and tend to pull out all the stops for this one (remember the debut of the wildcat?). The summer heat should favor the Dolphins -- though the Monday night start should mitigate that some -- and Miami must start re-establishing some sort of home-field advantage after the debacle of last season.
    • Inside story:

      Two of the best 3-4 minds in the NFL meet here: Bill Belichick and Mike Nolan. Nolan's defense is stout and could be primed for even better things in 2011. Belichick loaded up on veteran defensive linemen like Albert Haynesworth and seems to have more 4-3 principals in place this season. With Chad Henne entering the season under duress as Miami's starter -- it wasn't long ago that Miami fans were chanting for Kyle Orton -- one would think Belichick will attack him immediately.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Carolina at Arizona

      Sun 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      You're not a football fan if you aren't intrigued to see how Cam Newton adjusts to the pro game and how his athleticism immediately translates. Despite the lockout and no OTAs and all of that, the first overall pick is starting. I have a feeling he is going to make more plays than some would suspect, though obviously there will be mistakes made as well. Oh, and Kevin Kolb, after more than a season's worth of rumors that he'd be heading to Arizona, makes his debit under center for the Cardinals.
    • Inside story:

      Again, we covered the quarterbacks, but I have a feeling the tight ends on these two teams will get a ton of work as well. I love the trade the Panthers made for Greg Olsen, and a rookie QB's best friend is almost always his tight end. Kolb, in his limited pro starts for the Eagles, was all about getting the ball to his tight end (Brent Celek), and Todd Heap has many of the same attributes. If Heap can stay healthy -- always a big if with him -- Kolb might have a new best friend.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • New York at Washington

      Sun 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      There were almost no real quarterback battles in the NFL this offseason, but Rex Grossman vs. John Beck was on like Donkey Kong, and Grossman won out. How long he remains in that role is the question, and Washington's suspect offensive line will get a test right here. Eli Manning has to find a way to eliminate the turnovers that damned him in 2010.
    • Inside story:

      This game will be emotionally charged, with two of the cities and franchises directly impacted by 9/11 meeting. Colin Powell will be in attendance and there will be ceremonies remembering the events of 10 years ago.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Minnesota at San Diego

      Sun 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      After a year of turmoil and tumult in Washington, Donovan McNabb makes his debut for the Vikings, trying to replace Brett Favre, and with Sidney Rice no longer there. McNabb is as motivated as he has ever been to show people what he can still do (remember, this is a guy who was booed by Eagles fans as he was drafted by the team) and should be a fit in this offense.
    • Inside story:

      This was the kind of game the Chargers found a way to lose last year, usually through a special teams disaster or two. They changed the staff and though they lost running back-returner Darren Sproles, the overall performance should be much improved. If the Chargers can right this aspect of play, they could be as complete a football team as there is in the league.
    • Rating:

      Six-inch
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Tennessee at Jacksonville

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      Chris Johnson's contract holdout was one of the biggest stories of the preseason, and now, a little more than a week after reporting with $30 million guaranteed, he's going to play. The Jets' Darrelle Revis suffered from injuries a year ago when returning after no real preseason and CJ2K must avoid those hamstring and muscle injuries that can dog someone who plays his position. Maurice Jones-Drew carried just five times in the final preseason game after an injury-riddled 2010, and he will be looking to get in the end zone more this year.
    • Inside story:

      If the Colts fall as some expect, then these AFC South teams could find themselves in the race longer than many might have figured. Which means that the quarterbacks they took high in the first round, Jake Locker (Titans) and Blaine Gabbert (Jags) might end up holding clipboards for some time. But whether or not veterans Matt Hasselbeck and Luke McCown can make it through 16 weeks will be interesting as well.
    • Rating:

      Pita
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Cincinnati at Cleveland

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      The battle of Ohio hasn't provided much greatness since, well, pretty much since the Browns came back in the league. But if either of these teams is going to take a step up and be more of a factor than most expect, then beating the in-state rival is a must. Loved the talent the Browns added during the draft, even after they traded down, and Colt McCoy seems a much better fit in this West Coast system.
    • Inside story:

      Pat Shurmur makes his debut as Browns coach. Also, the team switches to a 4-3 defense and figures to be less scheme-dynamic than it was under Rob Ryan. Given that Andy Dalton is making his NFL debut, and given the number of Bengals who were hurt or suspended, etc., in the preseason, now might not be a bad time for Dick Jauron to really get after the passer.
    • Rating:

      Pita
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Buffalo at Kansas City

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      A year after a surprising run to the AFC West title, the Chiefs face a tough schedule and perhaps a rougher road to a repeat. The offense took a nosedive late last season, which seems to have carried over into the preseason. Head coach Todd Haley wears a lot of hats, and there were negative undertones in August, when rookie receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who was supposed to provide a complement to Dwayne Bowe, became a preseason lost cause after an injury in a fight with teammate Thomas Jones. The Chiefs released a Pro Bowl guard and lost a stud tight end for the season to IR. Could get interesting there.
    • Inside story:

      This has to be a little personal for Bills coach Chan Gailey. He lost his job as offensive coordinator in Kansas City just prior to the 2009 season, when Haley let him go to perform the duties himself. Somewhat improbably, Gailey resurfaced as Bills head coach last year and now goes back to Kansas City.
    • Rating:

      Finger sandwich
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Oakland at Denver

      Mon 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      John Fox brings a more physical brand of play to Denver in his debut, but will it be any more effective? Serious talent issues linger as Denver tries to rebuild, however, and their defensive line issues could be greatly exposed by Oakland's power run game. The Raiders' huge defensive line presents some mismatches as well. If you own Darren McFadden on your fantasy team, this could be a fun late Monday night game for you to pick up a ton of points and pull off a comeback win.
    • Inside story:

      Don't look now, but the Raiders have won seven consecutive games in the division dating back to 2009. And they have owned Denver recently, winning 59-14 and 39-23 last season. If it seems like a tough match-up for the Broncos, it probably is.
    • Rating:

      Finger sandwich
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Seattle at San Francisco

      Sun 4:15 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why to watch:

      In the NFC West, anything is possible, so while both of these teams seem to have their share of issues, who knows? The Seahawks won a division in Pete Carroll's first season, so maybe the 49ers can do the same in Jim Harbaugh's maiden voyage.
    • Inside story:

      Neither team is particularly set or settled at quarterback and it's never too soon to start handicapping the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. If this kid is who they say he will be, then he is a franchise changer. Sure the 49ers used a second-round pick on a passer, but you can't tell me Harbaugh wouldn't want to be reunited with Luck. And with Tarvaris Jackson starting and Charlie Whitehurst in the final year of his deal, Seattle could very well be in the market for a 2012 quarterback as well.
    • Rating:

      Finger sandwich
    • Watch: Game Preview

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @jasonlacanfora.