Revenge Games

2021 NFL schedule release: Seven must-watch revenge games in the upcoming season

Ahhhh, revenge. You might call the very idea of it petty and small-minded -- and if so, you can get right the hell out of here. I declare vengeance upon you.

'Round these parts, we adore revenge. Slights, perceived or otherwise, are always welcome. Vindictiveness is a character trait we hold in equal regard to tired warhorses like loyalty and valor.

And the best news? Revenge and pro sports are deeply entwined. The mix of ego, money and insane competitive spirit creates a delicious brew that powers the whole athletic experience.

And when you think about revenge through the prism of the 2021 NFL schedule release, there's really only one place to start.

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Tom Brady vs. Bill Belichick

Long before his departure, Tom Brady seemed to know he'd eventually leave the New England Patriots.

"There's not many happy endings in sports, and you know that's just the way it is," Brady told Jim Gray in November 2017. "You always wish for everything to go, you know, like a fairy tale, but it doesn't. Michael Jordan played for the Washington Wizards. I mean who would have ever believed that? And that's just pro sports."

Many thought Brady's decision to sign with the Buccaneers in March of 2020 would turn into his Washington Wizards moment: an all-time great limping to the finish line in a uniform that didn't make any sense on his body. Of course, that's not how it turned out. Surrounded by a superior supporting cast, Brady performed like a star in leading the Bucs to their second Super Bowl championship in franchise history.

Bill Belichick will never say he made a mistake in letting Brady get out the door. It's not his way, and besides, maybe he doesn't even believe it. We imagine there will be a lot of "We're on to Mac"-like responses to the beat reporters who have the courage to ask The Hooded One about his old quarterback. Both sides of this broken marriage are unlikely to spill the beans on how the divorce really went down (at least until there are books to sell in retirement), so let's enjoy the next best thing: Tom Brady, for the first time in his life, facing off against Bill Belichick -- in Foxborough, no less!

It's the no-brainer of no-brainers on the NBC Sunday Night Football slate, and it almost makes you want the Bucs to keep their QB in bubble wrap until Week 4 to ensure we get this gift of pigskin and melodrama.

Jared Goff vs. Rams

The Rams didn't come out and say Jared Goff was The Problem after the season, but they danced right up to the edge of that line. Sean McVay told reporters immediately after L.A.'s Divisional Round loss to the Green Bay Packers that the team was evaluating every position on the roster, including quarterback. A week later, GM Les Snead coyly addressed the viability of trading Goff and his bloated contract by telling reporters, "Anything can be done." Four days later, the Rams and Lions pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Goff, two first-round picks and a third-rounder to the Detroit Lions for Matthew Stafford.

If Goff feels like he was treated as something as a scapegoat, he has a solid case. Though the 26-year-old QB's play clearly regressed in recent seasons, there's something to be said for the possibility that the league started to catch up to McVay's offense. Goff wasn't good enough to get a pass for the Rams' offensive downturn, but pinning it on him and kicking him out the door seemed a bit … well … neat. The competitor in Goff has to be going mad with excitement about the opportunity for payback.

Sam Darnold vs. Jets

Sam Darnold's relationship with the Jets was so promising at the start. New York traded up to the No. 3 overall pick in 2018 to select the USC star; team brass proudly told the media after draft night that Darnold was the top player on their board all through the process. It seemed like a match made in heaven for a team that had waited more than 40 years to find a franchise quarterback who would serve as a true successor to Joe Namath.

So imagine Darnold's surprise when the team spent the next three seasons making a series of catastrophic decisions that doomed the young quarterback. Former GM Mike Maccagnan swung and missed repeatedly in the draft before his 2019 dismissal. Expensive free-agent signings (hey, Le'Veon Bell; hi, Trumaine Johnson) blew up in the organization's face. The offensive line was ignored. The skill positions were overlooked. Adam Gase was hired and gainfully employed for two years.

With all that dysfunction, how could anyone be surprised that Darnold struggled mightily for most of his three seasons in New York? The team bottomed out at 2-14 in 2020, Gase was fired and the Jets hemmed and hawed internally about what to do with the No. 2 overall pick. Eventually the decision was made: New York would draft BYU star Zach Wilson and Darnold would be moved in a trade.

You can't say the schedule makers don't have a sense of humor: Darnold, now the locked-and-loaded starter for the Panthers, will face his former team in Week 1. That sound you hear is every Jets fan on Earth groaning at the thought of Darnold's inevitable 23-for-28, 4 TD performance.

DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt vs. Texans

Revenge can come in different forms.

If you fed them truth serum, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt would probably tell you they were thrilled to escape the Texans -- and their completely overhauled (but not necessarily improved) roster. But the chance to play against their former team offers a platform for the two stars to respond to the series of poor Texans decisions that disillusioned a fanbase and set an organization back immeasurably.

The unsettling legal situation surrounding Deshaun Watson does not fall under the umbrella of Texans malfeasance, but the decision to trade Hopkins basically for David Johnson and a second-round pick felt like the beginning of the end for the team as a contender in the AFC. (It certainly was the beginning of the end for Bill O'Brien in Houston).

Watt's release was handled delicately by management, but the sum of it all ultimately felt like a great big shame. A shame that a superstar like Hopkins was traded for 50 cents on the dollar, and a shame that Watt -- a true giant on the field and in the community -- would want to finish his career elsewhere. If these two stars thrive against their former team, it might even feel cathartic for a segment of the Texans fan base who feel embittered.

Jameis Winston vs. Buccaneers

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport had the scoop the morning of a 2019 Week 16 Saturday matchup between the Buccaneers and Texans. "My understanding is the Bucs are planning to bring Jameis Winston back (in 2020). They like a lot of what they've seen, especially lately. … More than enough promise under Bruce Arians."

Heading into that game, Winston had guided Tampa to four straight wins and eclipsed 400 yards passing in each of the previous two games. The former No. 1 overall pick was still throwing interceptions, but he seemed to have turned a corner under Arians. It wasn't crazy for the Bucs to think this way!

Well … poor Jameis would've been better off calling in sick for those last two weeks. He threw four interceptions that day in Houston, then two more against the Falcons in Week 17, including an almost-ceremonial overtime pick-six to end the season. The Bucs, understandably disturbed by the latest breakdown of the JameisCoaster, pivoted to some old guy named Tom Brady.

Fast forward to 2021. After a year largely spent in the shadows behind Drew Brees, Winston appears in line to start for the Saints -- which means two potential matchups against his old team. Even Winston wouldn't argue the Bucs made a mistake by importing Brady (the Lombardi Trophy sitting in the team lobby dooms any debate there), but the competitor in Winston will want to show the Bucs he really is the quarterback they always hoped he'd become.

Cam Newton vs. Panthers

It's not that long ago that the Panthers decided they wanted out of the Cam Newton business. In early 2020, the team had a new owner in David Tepper and a new coach in Matt Rhule, and the updated braintrust started their relationship with a bold move at quarterback. Enter Teddy Bridgewater, who represented to the powers that be a more efficient path to success than the former MVP who put the franchise on his back for a decade.

Bridgewater fizzled out during his lone season in Charlotte, and Newton struggled in his debut campaign with the Patriots. When Sam Darnold breaks the huddle for the Panthers in Week 1, he'll be the third quarterback in as many years to take the first snap of a new season in Carolina. Would the franchise have been better off all along simply sticking with Newton? You know that's the message Cam will try to send in Week 9.

Trevor Lawrence vs. Joe Burrow

Trevor Lawrence dreamed of going his entire college career without a defeat. That dream was dashed when Joe Burrow's LSU squad dismantled Clemson in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship. Lawrence didn't throw a touchdown pass and completed less than 50 percent of his throws in a 42-25 loss he called "devastating in the moment."

Now Lawrence gets his first shot at revenge against a Burrow-led group -- this time with both leading upstart teams as No. 1 overall picks in the NFL. In a way, both young men have already won by making Jaguars vs. Bengals must-see prime-time television.

Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter.

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