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Prime-time primer: Best of Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights

Schedule time. Don't kid yourself, the schedule release is cool. Yeah, we know, the NFL draft is on the horizon. But we hear about it for weeks ...

The schedule? Well, the release packs a wallop in its short life span in the media cycle. Think about it: People buy tickets off it, prognosticators pick their winners/losers from it and the masses dote on it.

Talking to my esteemed editor in the hallway on Wednesday, we got to rappin' about prime-time games. That subset within the schedule always has some gems, and provides fun fodder regarding which teams were rewarded. Also, these are the contests that receive our undivided attention, separated from the weekly rat race that is Sunday afternoon. And of course, prime-time games make for interesting road trips.

In our prime-time primer, we examine the most significant showdowns on Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights. Let's start with the big three:

Best Thursday night game: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons, Week 12 (NFL Network). The return of Sean Payton translates to entertaining NFC South football. Saints-Falcons is one of the more underrated rivalries in sports. These two teams have been quite competitive over the last half-decade, with the Saints winning it all in 2009, and the Falcons posting 13-win seasons two of the last three years. Perhaps the reason this rivalry doesn't receive proper respect is because Mike Smith is 3-7 versus the Saints as head man in Atlanta.

Best Sunday night game: Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts, Week 7 (NBC). This game trumps 'em all. It has to be the best overall game on the slate, considering Peyton Manning's return to Indy, the Colts' unique (but successful) franchise shift from Manning to Andrew Luck and the fact that these were both playoff teams in 2012, combining for 24 wins.

Best Monday night game: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers, Week 16 (ESPN). Atlanta makes the list again. (And Falcons fans think I hate their team ...) The obvious angle: A rematch of the NFC Championship Game. The not-so-obvious angle: This game takes place two days before Christmas, a time when home-field advantage in the playoffs looms large. In theory, the 49ers and Falcons could be 1-2 in the conference standings heading into this monster ... unless the Seahawks have something to say about it.

And now, let's move on to a smorgasbord of notables:

The Kickoff Game: Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos, Thursday, Sept. 5 (NBC). When all of the matchups were set in late December, this game appeared sexy. Then it lost some luster when Baltimore parted ways with Anquan Boldin, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Ed Reed (following the retirements of Ray Lewis and Matt Birk, of course). The cool aspect of this AFC battle is, of course, the obvious angle: Baltimore ended the Broncos' season on their field in January -- thanks in large part to Joe Flacco's desperation heave to Jacoby Jones that tied the game with just 31 seconds left in regulation. Now, we all get to see how far the Ravens have descended without the aforementioned key contributors. Oh, and an initial peak at Wes Welker in orange and navy blue.

Prime-time classic: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, Week 9, Monday Night Football (ESPN). Green Bay will travel to Chicago to play its long-time rival on Dec. 29 -- the top contest on the final Sunday of the regular season. The first showdown, however, is a prime-timer: Bears at Packers on a Monday night in November. FYI: In this 184-game series, the Bears hold a slim 91-87 lead, with six ties. Donovan McNabb did not start in any of those six games.

Underrated prime-time game: Washington Redskins at Minnesota Vikings, Week 10, Thursday Night Football (NFL Network). The heading says underrated because this might not be a ballgame that people circle on their schedules. That said, it was Vikings-Redskins in Week 6 of 2012 when Robert Griffin III served notice he was the real deal, completing 17 of 22 passes while rushing for 138 yards -- including a 76-yard touchdown run to seal the deal. But don't sleep on the Vikes, who recovered from the loss to earn a playoff berth with 10 wins. And Minnesota will be playing host this time around. This should be a dogfight between postseason hopefuls.

Turkey Day dessert: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens, Week 13, Thanksgiving night (NBC). Both teams might not be as solid as in years past, but when the Ravens and Steelers lock horns, fans take notice. This year, the league's most physical rivalry (over 49ers-Seahawks??) plays on Thanksgiving night, a national platform for what usually is a great game. Last year, Charlie Batch walked into M&T Bank Stadium, threw for 276 yards and delivered a W.

Scheduling oddity: Not sure whether to call this an "oddity" or "major advantage." The Saints will play at Atlanta on Nov. 21 (Week 12), as mentioned above, then have 10 days off before taking on the Seahawks in Seattle on Monday Night Football. Gee, you think that helps Sean Payton's club? The Seahawks are one of the strongest teams in the league, no question, and have the strongest home-field crowd in pro football. Make no mistake, this is the toughest stop on the Saints' sked, and they just got a discount from the wedding planners.

Six-pack for the couch potato:

» Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears, Week 14, Monday Night Football (ESPN): Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli run a new D in Big D -- the same scheme that allowed the Bears to score nine defensive TDs in 2012.

Anybody's interconference game: Miami Dolphins at New Orleans Saints, Week 4, Monday Night Football (ESPN). Two teams that look to be much better than their 7-9 records from a season ago. Miami added Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, Brent Grimes, Philip Wheeler and Dustin Keller. The Saints got their leader back. Flip a coin.

Do you remember ... : ... the last time Houston played in San Francisco? It was Jan. 1, 2006. The Texans lost in overtime in sloppy, wet conditions, earning them the rights to the first overall pick. Initially, everyone thought it would be Reggie Bush. Of course, Mario Williams ended up as the pick. The Texans travel to The 'Stick to compete in a Sunday Nighter in Week 5.

Playoff positioning, both sides of the coin:

Most probable dud: Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos, Week 3, Monday Night Football (ESPN). You seen Oakland's roster lately?

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter _@HarrisonNFL_.

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