David Kohl/Associated Press
13) Green Bay Packers at Cincinnati Bengals - Week 3
At some point, Cincinnati has to prove it can beat the best teams. The Bengals tend to take care of business against the teams they're supposed to ... and that's about it. Over the past three seasons, they're 3-9 versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. They've also faltered against the Houston Texans, another quality team, over the past two campaigns. That has to change if Marvin Lewis' group is to take the next step. Last season didn't turn around for the Bengals until they beat the visiting New York Giants in Week 10; that victory propelled them to win six of their next seven games and secure a playoff berth.
Damian Strohmeyer/Associated Press
12) New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins - Week 15
Wouldn't it be, oh I don't know, neat if New England had some competition in the AFC East? The Dolphins spent some green securing the talents of Mike Wallace, Lance Louis, Brent Grimes, Dannell Ellerbe and Phillip Wheeler in free agency. Miami also re-upped key contributors like Brian Hartline and Randy Starks. The nucleus is definitely there.
Of course, they lost some quality football players too, namely Jake Long and Reggie Bush. Long has played at an elite level before, while Reggie Bush produced 1,278 yards from scrimmage last season. But the former All-Pro left tackle had health issues, and Bush didn't fit into the plans with Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas on board. The bottom line is, the new-look Fins should be fine.
Either way, much rests on the shoulders of young Ryan Tannehill. More rests on whether or not the Dolphins are going to lay down for the Patriots or finally close the deal.
Tom Hauck/Associated Press
11) Chicago Bears at Dallas Cowboys - Week 14
Talk to Bears fans about their team's offseason coaching turnover and you'll hear some say they understand or applaud the changes. Then you'll discover a large contingent of those who didn't like seeing defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli -- now coaching the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line -- depart in the aftermath of a 10-6 campaign during which the Bears fell just short of a playoff berth. They feel the Bears' Tampa 2 defensive scheme was what kept them in games in the first place.
Tom Hauck/Associated Press
10) Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers - Week 16
Though they don't hook up often, these franchises are two of the most successful in NFL history. Green Bay was the dynasty of the 1960s, while the Steelers dominated the '70s. Between the two of them, they've also been to 13 Super Bowls -- including Super Bowl XLVII, when Aaron Rodgers tore up Pittsburgh's defense en route to a Packers victory. This will be the first meeting between the two teams since that title matchup, which came down to the final drive -- and the thinking here is that this season's contest will follow the same pattern.
David Drapkin/Associated Press
9) Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens - Week 3
The Texans will arrive at M&T Bank Stadium with one of the best players to have ever laced 'em up in that building: Ed Reed. The All-Pro safety's departure was part of a series of moves -- the club also lost Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin, Cary Williams and Paul Kruger -- that seemed to signify the Ravens' decline as AFC contenders. But did they? A solid nucleus remains in Baltimore in the persons of Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and the newly acquired Elvis Dumervil. Still, losing Reed's leadership, instincts and ability to direct presnap traffic in the secondary is going to impact the team on several levels.
What's cool about this game -- besides Reed's return in a new uni -- is the fact that these have been two of the AFC's stronger clubs over the past couple of years. The outcome of this one should mean something come Week 17.
Alan Diaz/Associated Press
8) Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers - Week 14
If Wes Welker's move to Denver was the most surprising development of free agency, Mike Wallace ending up in Miami was the sexiest. Wallace was the closest thing we had to a crown jewel this offseason; with no real quarterbacks of note changing locales on the open market, many fans were anxious to see what would happen with the speedy wideout. Frankly, there wasn't much drama, as Wallace joined the Miami Dolphins -- a team with which he had long been linked -- seemingly seconds into the free agency period. On the field, Wallace figures to provide second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill with a guy who can get down the field, like, now -- the anti-Fasano, if you will.
7) San Francisco 49ers at Washington Redskins - Week 12
Several elements make this contest one to earmark. The Niners and Redskins each won their divisions thanks partially to spectacular quarterback play from Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, respectively. The franchises also share much postseason history and -- if you're into such things -- represent a classic clash of 1980s-esque unis. Most importantly, however, who isn't curious to learn whether Kaepernick or RG3 -- as well as the offenses and formations they run, like the "The Pistol" -- are flashes in the pan or the real deal?
Kevin Terrell/Associated Press
6) New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks - Week 13
How much does coach Sean Payton bring to the table for a New Orleans football team that struggled often without him in 2012? Can his presence, game-management acumen and aggressive play-calling compensate for a defense that allowed an NFC-high 28.4 points per game last season? Will Payton's return result in an extra three to four wins, as has often been suggested? We should get some answers after seeing how his Saints team fares in perhaps the toughest place to play in the league. The crowd noise in Seattle demands that an offense be in sync. Yes, the Saints will have Payton roaming the sidelines, but they'll also be without offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod, who left via free agency, meaning the pressure on Drew Brees will be quite high.
By the way, this will mark the first time New Orleans will have played in Seattle since Marshawn Lynch went all "beast mode" during the 2010 playoffs.
5) Denver Broncos at New York Giants - Week 2
Hmm, let's see ... why would this game be interesting? Well, this might be our last opportunity to see big bro take on half-pipe, as Peyton and Eli Manning tee it up for (presumably) the final time in a regular-season matchup. That is, unless the elder Manning continues playing until the AFC West takes on the NFC East again four years from now. Or unless Eli somehow doesn't re-up in New York. Or unless Denver isn't Peyton's last stop. But as none of those scenarios are realistic, this will likely be the last time in NFL history two brothers of this ilk face each other -- at least at the quarterback position, anyway.
Much like Broncos-Patriots, the attractiveness of this contest is partially born of the realization that the hourglass is running out on Peyton Manning's football life. It's worth noting that Denver and New York are also pretty solid football teams.
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
4) Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers - Week 16
The inclusion of this one should be cut-and-dried. It's the NFC Championship Game, part deux -- except this time, it'll be at The Stick.
Expectations are high for a Falcons team that has won 36 games over the past three years, tied with the Packers for most in the NFC. So when does Atlanta take the next step? According to Falcons fans, those who doubt are all "haters." Most of the players, however, get it; they know that for the 2013 Falcons, it's Super Bowl or bust, which is why tight end Tony Gonzalez is coming back.
In January, the golden chalice was right there for the taking; with Colin Kaepernick and the Niners' offense sputtering, the Falcons jumped to a 17-0 lead. Julio Jones was playing like Randy Moss circa Thanksgiving '98. A berth in Super Bowl XLVII seemed within reach. And yet, it didn't happen.
Beating the 49ers at their place won't necessarily prove anything, but it would sure be a step in the right direction.
Eric Lars Bakke/Associated Press
2) Denver Broncos at New England Patriots - Week 12
Of course this game -- which promises to bring former Patriot Wes Welker back to New England -- will have a helluva lot riding on it, at least if 2013 plays out like 2012. You don't need me to tell you that these organizations represent the class of the AFC.
That aside, considering how few head-to-head matchups Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have left in their Hall of Fame careers, this one becomes exponentially more relevant. We tend to take Manning and Brady for granted. It's too bad, too, because there probably hasn't been a better quarterback rivalry in NFL history. Elway-Marino didn't happen enough. Young-Aikman was epic, but was it equal to Manning-Brady? Either way, this is Bradshaw-Staubach in terms of historical relevance. There's also something electric about Manning and Brady trying to outduel each other this late in their careers.
1) Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts - Week 7
In another HUGE story of "former-player-returns-to-his-former-address-of-glory," Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme returns to Indianapolis, where he caught 67 balls in 2010...
I kid because I care. Peyton Manning, of course, is the Broncos player who had some great moments at Lucas Oil Stadium -- though most of his best Colts highlights (like winning the 2006 AFC Championship game after facing a 21-3 deficit in the first half) actually came at the Hoosier Dome. However, regardless of the stadium, Manning will always be linked to the city of Indianapolis.
The "cool factor" of this AFC battle goes way up when you factor in Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's incredible play in the clutch despite his youth. Tell me you can't see Luck exploiting the Broncos' secondary on a last-gasp drive, spoiling what is sure to be a celebration of Manning's Hall of Fame career.
Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Missed the Cut
Patriots at Ravens: Not the same Baltimore team. Packers at Cowboys: Cool matchup, but liked Bears-Cowboys better, due to Dallas' shift to Chicago's defensive scheme. Vikings at Seahawks: Percy Harvin playing his former team couldn't crack the top 13. Still a nice game. Colts at 49ers: Andrew Luck versus that stout Niners D. Honestly could have put half of the Niners' schedule on this list. Seahawks at Falcons: Rematch of 2012 playoff thriller. We had enough Seattle games listed, though; thus, no Seahawks-Texans. Saints at Patriots: Sean Payton and Bill Belichick lock heads. Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady ain't too shabby, either.