Happy NFL Schedule Release Day! Christmas in April!!
Here are my rankings of the best prime-time matchups for 2016, Schein Nine style:
1) New England Patriots at Arizona Cardinals
Week 1: Sunday, September 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC
This is my way-too-early Super Bowl pick for the coming season, so you had better believe it's my No. 1 game in prime time. You can easily make the case that the Patriots and Cardinals have the two best rosters in the game today. Both teams have superb coaches and front offices. And Chandler Jones gets to open the season against the club that just traded him in a blockbuster deal. On national television. In prime time. Yes!
Adding to the excitement, Glendale, Arizona, has turned into a fantastic environment for prime-time games, with its gorgeous stadium and incredible sea of red.
2) Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Week 3: Thursday, September 22 at 8:25 p.m. ET on CBS/NFL Network/Twitter
I love this game for many reasons. The more Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in prime time, the better. Belichick has compared J.J. Watt to Lawrence Taylor.Brock Osweiler will give Houston a chance in this road bout -- unlike Matt Schaub in the infamous Letterman Jacket Game at Foxborough four years ago. It's always great to see Bill O'Brien coaching against his former boss and quarterback.
And simply put, I believe this will be a preview of the AFC title game. On paper, these are the two best teams in the conference -- unless Denver gets a quarterback. Having said that ...
3) Carolina Panthers at Denver Broncos
Week 1: Thursday, September 8 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC
I love this concept for starting the season. It's rare that the stars and moon align and you can get a Super Bowl rematch on Day 1. And with Cam Newton's postgame presser debacle, his ensuing comments on the matter and Ron Rivera's misguided proposal to get rid of postgame media access to losing players on Super Sunday, there has been no lull in talking about SB50 and its fallout. Now it'll all bleed right into an ultra-hyped opener. Perfect.
4) Seattle Seahawks at New England Patriots
Week 10: Sunday, November 13 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC
The good news is, Marshawn Lynch is retired, so Pete Carroll won't even have the opportunity to inexplicably take the ball out of his star running back's hands at the game's crucial juncture.
5) Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Week 2: Sunday, September 18 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC
This rivalry is back! Both teams should win double-digit games this year -- I imagine them duking it out all season for the NFC North title. The Christmas Eve matchup at Lambeau could be crucial, but I like this September showdown between the two squads as an early tone-setter.
Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers. Jordy Nelson will be back, which means the Packers' offense will be ready to rock. Eddie Lacy has slimmed down this offseason. He should still be in shape -- one would hope -- in mid-September. Adrian Peterson brings star power and can run against the Green Bay defense (which ranked 21st in rush D last season). Will Teddy Bridgewater be up for the challenge on the big stage of Sunday Night Football? Not to mention the fact that this is the Vikings' home opener at their brand new stadium.
6) Houston Texans at Oakland Raiders (in Mexico City)
Week 11: Monday, November 21 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
These Raiders are ready for prime time! Seriously. Oakland has a team worth watching. The atmosphere in Mexico City for this game should be electric, providing a great soundtrack.
I think both teams will be fully entrenched in the playoff chase and very relevant in late November.
7) Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks
Week 13: Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC
This was the matchup last year -- Carolina's thrilling win at Seattle in Week 6 -- that showed us 2015 was a different kind of season for Cam Newton and the Panthers. The two teams are so even -- and built in such a similar fashion, with great defenses that thrive on aggression and physical offenses fueled by playmaking quarterbacks.
And of course, the 12s always provide a big-game feel at CenturyLink Field.
8) Houston Texans at Denver Broncos
Week 7: Monday, October 24 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Brock Osweiler vs. his old team! It's a great chance for Osweiler to prove, on the field, that Broncos general manager John Elway mishandled and misread the quarterback position. And you can tell there is no love lost between Elway and Osweiler. This matchup has been circled since Day 1 of free agency, when Osweiler surprised everyone by heading to Houston.
9) New York Jets at Buffalo Bills
Week 2: Thursday, September 15 at 8:25 p.m. ET on CBS/NFL Network/Twitter
Despite that win, though, Rex failed to live up to his promises in Buffalo. And according to a Buffalo News report, he'll enter Year 2 on a playoffs-or-bust hot seat. Rex, the ultimate hype machine, will sell this game against his former club. Remember when he returned to MetLife Stadium last year? The coach certainly didn't shy away from the spotlight in the run-up to that one ...