Here are 10 intriguing matchups to circle on your calendar for the 2010 season:
Week 1: Vikings at Saints
Thursday, Sept. 9, 8:30 ET
It's a rematch of the 2009 NFC Championship Game, which set the stage for the Saints to reach and win their first Super Bowl and left the Vikings to lament what might have been. The Saints' opening-drive victory in overtime was monumental for another reason: It proved to be a driving force in a change to OT rules for the postseason designed to enhance the chances of both teams getting at least one possession. Of course, this game is much bigger if Brett Favre returns. And what bigger stage to return on than the Kickoff game?
Week 2: Giants at Colts
Sunday, Sept. 19, 8:20 p.m. ET
The Manning brothers face each other for only the second time in the seven seasons they've been in the league together. The last time they met was in 2006, at Giants Stadium. The Colts won, 26-21, with Peyton throwing for 276 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Eli threw for 247 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Since then, both have won Super Bowl MVP awards. A Manning vs. Manning Super Bowl is the dream matchup, but for now we'll have to settle for this one in primetime.
Week 4: Redskins at Eagles
Sunday Oct. 3, 4:15 p.m. ET
Donovan McNabb vs. the team with which he spent his first 11 NFL seasons and a fair number of Philadelphia fans who opposed his arrival and blame him for their inability to celebrate a Super Bowl win. Do we need more? This will be the first indication of whether the Eagles should, in fact, regret trading the 33-year-old quarterback within the NFC East. We'll see how much his former coaches' thorough knowledge of his strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies works against him. We'll also see how he's greeted by Eagles fans, who booed him on his entrance into the NFL.
Week 5: Bears at Panthers
Sunday, Oct. 10, 1 p.m. ET
Julius Peppers, the biggest prize of free agency, gets a crack at his former team. The Bears signed the standout defensive end to play a key role in elevating them to contender's status, something they and their fans have expected since last year's acquisition of quarterback Jay Cutler. Now Peppers has a chance to show the Panthers what they're missing. And the Panthers, who also said goodbye to Jake Delhomme, will see how new starting quarterback Matt Moore holds up against Chicago's improved pass rush.
Week 6: Ravens at Patriots
Sunday, Oct. 17, 1 p.m. ET
When these teams last met, in the wild-card round of the 2009 playoffs, they seemed headed in very different directions. After the Ravens' 33-14 victory, many observers (including this one) suggested that the Patriots' dynasty had come to an end. Their performance was every bit as ugly as the score. Meanwhile, the Ravens appeared to firmly establish themselves as a rising contender with a young quarterback in Joe Flacco, who now has a dynamic playmaker in Anquan Boldin.
Week 7: Vikings at Packers
Sunday, Oct. 24, 8:20 p.m. ET
Last season Brett Favre enjoyed the revenge that he set out to get by joining the Vikings, leading them to victories in both games vs. his former team. If he's back and tries do the same this year, it doesn't figure to be as easy. The Packers should be a stronger team. For one thing, Favre's replacement, Aaron Rodgers, is a rising star with another year of experience. For another, with the NFL's No. 2 defense, the Packers proved that last year's conversion from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme agreed with them.
Week 11: Colts at Patriots
Sunday Nov. 21, 4:15 p.m. ET
An NFL schedule almost doesn't seem complete unless these teams face each other. Their rivalry is on a par with that of any opponents that actually reside in the same division. This marks their eighth consecutive regular-season meeting. Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady is still the primary reason this is an attractive matchup. They remain two of the NFL's best quarterbacks, although Manning did create a little separation after winning a record fourth league MVP award.
Week 12: Bengals at Jets
Thursday, Nov. 25, 8:20 p.m. ET
This one's on Thanksgiving night on NFL Network. It's a rematch of wild-card opponents from the 2009 postseason and should offer a pretty good indication of where these teams stand. The Jets' blowout win at Cincinnati last January proved to be the launching pad for their improbable appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Since then, they look to have made significant upgrades by adding cornerback Antonio Cromartie and wide receiver Santonio Holmes. If the Bengals are to be taken seriously as a contender, this is a game they must win.
Week 13: Jets at Patriots
Monday, Dec. 6, 8:30 p.m. ET
The AFC East figures to be one of the most competitive divisions in the league. These two teams are likely to have plenty to say about who comes out on top. Facing each other at such a late stage of the season should ramp up the stakes. Although Tom Brady and other key players are no strangers to pressure, the Patriots did show some vulnerability in big regular-season games last season. Mark Sanchez figures to be more mature in his second NFL season. He also will have a new target available in Santonio Holmes.
Week 17: Cowboys at Eagles
Sunday, Jan. 2, 1 p.m. ET
In an effort to add meaning to the regular season's final games, a full slate of divisional showdowns is slated for Week 17. This is the third year in a row that Dallas and Philadelphia are meeting in the season finale. In 2009, the Cowboys' 24-0 victory at Dallas gave them the NFC East championship and the home-field edge in their 34-14 playoff win over the Eagles a week later. With another division title possibly on the line, this could be a defining game for first-year Eagles starting quarterback Kevin Kolb.