The 2012 season is upon us, or at least the matchups are. No exact dates yet, but we know each team's slate, home and away.
It seems like just yesterday I was wondering why some dude at FoxSports.com stole my seat in the Lucas Oil Stadium press box and the New York Giants were hoisting the Lombardi hardware. Unreal. As so many of my colleagues in the business have said -- Steve Wyche, the mysterious press box chair thief, Michael Lombardi, Snuffleupagus ... you know, all our guys -- there is no offseason anymore. It's April, and we're already talking about 2012 games. No April Fool's here, either.
So, what are the matchups that jump off the proverbial page -- the 12 for '12, if you will?
Well, let's first go over a couple teams that you won't find below. No New York Jets games. Do we know when Tebowmania begins? No. Will the Jets-Niners showdown present a classic, mano-a-mano defensive duel, reflective of early '70s football? No. Not unless the Jets of 2009 show up. Andrew Luck doesn't show up below, either. While some Indianapolis Colts games are sure to be intriguing, it's not the same without No. 18 there. At least not yet ...
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But 18 will be suiting up against Dick LeBeau's aging -- and extremely effective -- defense. Peyton Manning has faced off against LeBeau's Steelers defense three times in his career. Manning got the best of LeBeau in the two regular-season matchups, throwing five touchdown passes to just one interception during a pair of wins in 2005 and '08. But LeBeau's crew knocked Peyton out of the 2005-06 playoffs by sacking the quarterback five times in a 21-18 Pittsburgh win. But what makes this AFC tussle interesting is the fact that Denver's former starter eliminated the Steelers in last season's playoffs with the best start of his career. What if Manning fails where Tim Tebow delivered?
Let's also not forget that these are both playoff-caliber clubs. Good game.
There are multiple aspects to this AFC East-AFC South battle. Of course, you'll hear a lot about Mario Williams playing his former team. But this game is also a laboratory for the theory that one high-priced, marquee free agent can change a defense (and a culture). And of course, the Texans are the guinea pig in a long line of teams that have lost their "best" defensive player and moved on, for better or worse: the 1993 Eagles sans Reggie White, the '94 Falcons sans Deion Sanders, the 2011 Raiders sans Nnamdi Asomugha, and so on.
In another man-versus-working-for-the-man storyline, this game has juice. Carson Palmer is the Bengals' former franchise quarterback that owner Mike Brown said he would never trade. But alas, Palmer was shipped to Oakland last season. And less than a year removed from the trade, it looks as though Brown got the best of the silver and black.
Palmer threw 16 picks in just over half a season on the job. Meanwhile, the Bengals have an extra first-round pick in this year's draft and a conditional second-rounder in 2013 to further stock a young, talented team that includes quarterback Andy Dalton. You can bet Palmer will be motivated to show Dalton and the Bengals that the Raiders came out OK in the deal, too. And in a very odd twist, Palmer will actually be playing against the man who brought him to Oakland: Hue Jackson. Fired by the Raiders in January, Jackson has returned to the Bengals' staff.
While the Texans lost a few guys this offseason -- Williams, Eric Winston and DeMeco Ryans -- they still have the horses to compete in the AFC. Hitting the road to take on the conference's strongest force should be exciting and could be an AFC Championship Game preview. This will be a formidable task for Tom Brady & Co., facing off against a defense that finished second in the NFL without Williams's services for most of last season. Of course, the Texans' front seven better apply pressure early and often, as New England added Brandon Lloyd to its two-headed tight end monster.
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Panthers-Redskins doesn't exactly whet the palate, does it? Except when you consider that Robert Griffin III, provided he's starting, will be going toe-to-toe with last year's top prospect at quarterback, Cam Newton. While it doesn't appear that he'll be going No. 1 overall like Newton, Griffin will undoubtedly come off the board by the second pick. Obviously, his game is similar to Newton's, and RG3's high draft position is probably partially attributable to the 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Panthers' young leader proved last season that an athletic, dynamic quarterback can produce inside and outside of the pocket right out of the gates.
Will RG3 do the same? Who knows. But this type of clash of phenomenal athletes at the highest level of football just doesn't happen very often. Especially with both being so young.
This game is dripping with storylines. If Bill Parcells takes the Saints' interim coaching gig, he'll come back to the last city in which he roamed the sidelines -- the place where his coaching career ended on a botched snap. The man Parcells would replace -- the embattled Sean Payton -- has been linked to the Cowboys as a potential replacement for head coach Jason Garrett. Payton, of course, was instrumental in Tony Romo's development when he was an assistant in Dallas under Parcells. The quarterback on the other side of the field, of course, is Drew Brees.
Brees and the Saints are scheduled to host the 49ers in a rematch of the most scintillating playoff game of last season. San Francisco comes to the Big Easy with a little more offensive firepower in Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and Brandon Jacobs. Along with the league's most talented front seven, the 49ers could be game to get past the Saints again.
What makes this matchup really cool is seeing whether or not that defense can slow the Saints' offense on the Superdome turf. New Orleans averaged 41 points per game at home last year. Patrick Willis and the Niners' defense only allowed 17 points per game on the road. Strength on strength. Good football.
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Why the second meeting? Recent history suggests that this divisional/traditional battle will come late in the year, like it did in 2011 (Week 16) and 2010 (Week 17). And there certainly could be a lot on the line.
Fans missed out on what could've been when Jay Cutler broke his thumb in Week 11 last season. The Bears not only have their quarterback back, but have added Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush to the mix, as well. New GM Phil Emery is aiming to strike now. The Packers will be fully motivated after going 15-1 ... and then losing their postseason opener. The second meeting between two of the NFL's oldest clubs (their 184th) could decide the NFC North and perhaps homefield in the playoffs.
The Patriots should come to town a little bit stronger than in 2011, with their own baggage: the sting of a blown Super Bowl. Like the Packers and Bears, this fight between AFC juggernauts will conjure more than just NFL Films footage from past years. Who plays where in the playoffs should be heavily influenced by this bout.
The Giants host the hated Cowboys in the annual kickoff game. It's hard to get better than that. The last time these division rivals met, the NFC East crown was on the line, and Big Blue won handily. But just three weeks prior, these teams played in one the best regular season games in recent memory -- a game in which Tony Romo (four touchdowns, 141.3 passer rating) and Eli Manning (400 yards passing and two touchdowns) played the quarterback position at the highest level. It was a 37-34 track meet that partially decided the fate of the 2011 season.
If that's not enough, how about the fact that this is the first football that counts?
Both lead pretty good squads that figure to make the postseason tournament. Manning might have difficulty keeping up in a complete shootout with New England's offensive juggernaut. But his presence, and ability to put points on the board nonetheless (Manning's teams have averaged 26 points per game), should take some pressure off a Broncos defense that couldn't catch a break in the divisional playoffs in January. That means Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller, who had 21 sacks between them last year, have a chance to impact the outcome in this one.
By the way, the current scorecard reads: Manning 4, Brady 8. Just saying.
It's hard to pick one game as THE matchup to circle in the 2012 campaign. But it's hard to argue with Giants-Niners. The NFC title battle between these two was freaking epic. Close calls, special teams gaffes, big plays, great defense and overtime decided one of the best conference championships ever.
The conference rivalry is just the latest installment of many classics, from four playoff tilts in the '80s, to the LT strip of Roger Craig in the '90 championship, to the wildest of wild-card games in 2002. Special teams mistakes killed Jim Fassel's Giants 10 years ago. In January, it was the San Francisco's special-teams blunderama that did in Jim Harbaugh's upstarts. And don't forget the 27-20 battle at the 'Stick in Week 10 last year (a Niners victory). You could make a case for either of these teams representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLVII.