Having pored over the 2015 NFL schedule, Elliot Harrison highlights the best of the action set to play out under the lights in his prime-time primer. Have your own favorites on the after-dark slate? Hit him up @HarrisonNFL.
THE KICKOFF GAME: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots, Thurs., Sept. 10 (NBC). This matchup made it in my "Top 15 for '15" piece, and for good reason. Pittsburgh was in line to do some damage in the playoffs last season before Le'Veon Bell was felled by a knee injury in Week 17. Ben Roethlisberger, fresh off signing his massive new contract, will have a chance to not only put the Steelers in a better position come the postseason with a win, but also to assert that the great QB discussion shouldn't always start with Tom Brady and end with Peyton Manning. Worth noting: Due to his three-game suspension, it is highly unlikely Bell will be available for this game. Either way, I thought New England at Dallas would have made for the best kickoff game, but apparently, the league is married to having the defending champs open up at home. I don't think it needs to be.
BEST THURSDAY NIGHT GAME: Buffalo Bills at New York Jets, Week 10 (NFL Network). Who can't wait to see Rex Ryan walk into MetLife for the first time since he was fired by the Jets and hired by the Bills? It will be hard not to pull for the guy, considering his former GM in New York gave him the equivalent of an '89 Topaz with a busted transmission at quarterback. The real fun in this contest might be watching LeSean McCoy get something going -- or try to, at least -- against the Jets' front seven. Not to mention, the Jets can cover all day with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, while the Bills' pass rush gives quarterbacks about 2.5 seconds of liberty in the pocket. It will come down to Geno Smith and ... Matt Cassel. There, I said it, Bills Mafia.
BEST SUNDAY NIGHT GAME: Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers, Week 2 (NBC). The rematch of last season's frenetic NFC Championship Game was almost No. 1 on our list of the 15 best games of '15. Unfortunately, it was also last year's kickoff game, and in that contest, Seattle's defense dominated throughout, while Aaron Rodgers looked at Davante Adams as if he were Danny DeVito jumping up and down naked ... which is to say, not at all. Richard Sherman's coverage will do that to folks. By the way, notice that this year's matchup is at Lambeau Field -- and I'm already taking Green Bay.
BEST MONDAY NIGHT GAME: Kansas City Chiefs at Green Bay Packers, Week 3 (ESPN). On the subject of Lambeau, no joint crams more history into its beams than the Packers' stadium. And with the 2015 NFL campaign set to culminate in the 50th edition of the Super Bowl, Kansas City at Green Bay is a fun one. The rematch of Super Bowl I should feature the same uni matchup, with the Chiefs in their road whites and the Packers in their home greens. That bit of history aside, this figures to be an excellent inter-conference showdown -- as of this writing, I have Green Bay in the Super Bowl and Kansas City winning the AFC West.
HISTORICAL SYMMETRY: New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts, Week 2, Monday Night Football (ESPN) AND Cincinnati Bengals at San Francisco 49ers, Week 15, Sunday Night Football (NBC).Chiefs-Packers isn't the only rematch of a legendary Super Bowl on tap this year. I love Jets at Colts; New York's win in Super Bowl III is right up there with the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviets in the '80 Winter Olympics, as well as Mike Tyson falling to Buster Douglas a decade later. It is THE Super Bowl upset. Bengals-49ers, meanwhile, will bring back memories of two very entertaining Super Bowls: XVI and XXIII. Which quarterback from the Class of 2011 -- Cincy's Andy Dalton or San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick -- will outperform the other? Will either outpace their less-than-stellar showings in 2014? By this point in the season, we should know if Niners coach Jim Tomsula is working with an '89 Topaz of his own.
SATURDAY NIGHT FUN: New York Jets at Dallas Cowboys, Week 15 (NFL Network). In the interest of full disclosure, I love Saturday Night Football, even without John Travolta and Barry Gibb (I think my family had the Gibb/Streisand duet album.) If Geno Smith performs like he did from September through November last year, well, this inter-conference deal will be more like a Styrofoam disco ball than the real McCoy. Speaking of Bones, how bare bones will the New York offense be under Chan Gailey with Smith at QB versus, say, Ryan Fitzpatrick? And how ineffectual will the Cowboys' running game be with Joseph Randle or Darren McFadden against that Jets front?
TURKEY TRENDS: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, Week 12 (NBC). One thing the NFL has done that has flown under the radar has been locking up divisional opponents on Thanksgiving night. Last year, we saw the Seahawks travel to San Francisco (a matchup we'll get this year on Thursday Night Football in Week 7). In 2013, the Steelers and Ravens played one heckuva a football game while all of our bellies were full of stuffing (wonderful holiday food) and cranberries (totally overrated). This year? How about Chicago at Green Bay? And this installment of the NFL's oldest rivalry will have a neat twist: It will come 90 years after Red Grange's debut with the Bears.
The Bears' Grange-starring barnstorming tour of 1925 has largely been credited with putting pro football on the map, or at least carving out real estate in the newspapers. That was always the problem for the NFL in those days: not getting buried in the back of the sports section amid the ads for Murray's hair wax. The wild popularity of Grange's dash across America with George Halas' Chicago club piqued interest in what is now the top sport in the country. It had to start somewhere. And it did ... with a 0-0 tie between the Cardinals and Grange's Bears on Thanksgiving Day of that year.
SANTA SETTLES THE AFC WEST? San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders, Week 16, Thursday Night Football (NFL Network). Yep; on Dec. 24, while a lot of us are celebrating Christmas Eve -- and parents on the West Coast are squeezing in last-second shopping trips to buy Boss Monster to tuck under the tree -- the Chargers and Raiders will be kicking off in Oakland. A Week 16 divisional game on a holiday? Yes, please. As long as Philip Rivers isn't wearing a certain shade of Tennessee blue this year, this matchup should be fun and relevant, as the AFC West figures to be tiiiiiight. Of course, if the Bolts are starting Marcus Mariota at quarterback? Yeah, not so much. Although it would be fun to see whether he could hang with Derek Carr in the wake of all that hype.
PRIME RIB WEEKEND: If there is a top week for prime-time games, it just might be Week 8. That's important, too, as it seemed like last year included an abnormal number of blowouts. To put it less nicely, we don't want to see Tampa Bay get thrashed by the Falcons, 56-14, Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights. Week 8 features the Dolphins at the Patriots on Thursday, presenting a good opportunity to assess Miami's viability in the AFC East following the signing of (and the unloading of a truckload of cash in front of) Ndamukong Suh. On Sunday, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning will meet for the first time since 2008, Rodgers' first year as a starter. Monday features Colts at Panthers, a clash between the top overall picks from the 2011 and 2012 drafts -- we detailed our enthusiasm for that one in our "15 for '15" piece.
OTHER PRIME SELECTIONS:
Per the usual, there are plenty of gems on the prime-time schedule this season. Here's a look at some sparkling matchups that didn't get mentioned above: