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2021 NFL schedule release: Top 9 prime-time games

Happy NFL Schedule Release Day to you and yours!

I'm using capital letters because it's a holiday in our world. The hope. The anticipation. The possibilities. And of course ...

The prime-time slate!

I get so excited poring over the prime-time NFL schedule for the first time, annually picking my favorite night games in the windows of exclusivity. It's such a wealth of entertainment options that, every year, a number of enticing matchups get left on the cutting room floor of this Schein Nine rundown.

Baltimore sports fans of a certain age will feel quite nostalgic when the Colts visit the Ravens for Week 5's installment of Monday Night Football. Meanwhile, Chicago-Green Bay's always special after dark, as will be the case for Sunday Night Football in Week 14. I can't wait for the real opening of Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, when the Raiders face the Ravens in Week 1's Monday capper. And the thought of Buffalo hosting New England in Week 13's Monday nighter? Well, that makes me want to jump through a table like a card-carrying member of the Bills Mafia.

Crazy that none of those delicious matchups crack the final list. Which games do? Let's count it down, from No. 9 to No. 1, Schein Nine style!

For more information on game tickets for the 2021 NFL season, click here.

Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 28 at 8:20 p.m. ET on FOX/NFL Network/Amazon

For the sake of this exercise, I'm operating under the assumption that Aaron Rodgers remains a Packer. If he doesn't ... well ... we'll pretend this blurb was actually a captivating preview of the mid-October meeting between Carson Wentz and Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. But Rodgers and the Cardinals have some pretty special history. Show me the fadeaway Hail Mary! Remember, though: The Cardinals ended up winning that Divisional Round playoff game in overtime.

I think Arizona is loaded after an active free agency period and fruitful draft. Wisconsin native J.J. Watt gets his first piece of the Packers in a Cardinals uniform. Rodgers is always must-see TV, and if he does indeed stay with the Pack, Green Bay is a Super Bowl-caliber team. Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins are a show, too, and they have some pretty awesome Hail Mary history of their own.

Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 21 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC

There are a number of reasons why I chose this game, starting with Justin Herbert. I'm obsessed with the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. He screams prime time. And the Steelers equal eyeballs. Everyone will be watching. That's the kind of stage a spectacular talent like Herbert deserves.

I also want to see gorgeous, new SoFi Stadium filled -- and I want it filled with Chargers fans. I already named the Bolts as my Cinderella team in 2021. I love this squad, with Herbert under center, Brandon Staley in the big chair and a whole bunch of talent on defense. While I'm not high on this year's Steelers, I will operate under the assumption that this is Ben Roethlisberger's final season in Pittsburgh. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. This could be one of his final games in prime time -- I will savor it. Especially with Big Ben going against a younger, spryer version of himself.

Week 5: Thursday, Oct. 7 at 8:20 p.m. ET on FOX/NFL Network/Amazon

The key words above: "at Seattle Seahawks." After the COVID-19 pandemic kept them out of the building last season, the 12s will be rocking. But will this be their final season to root for Russell Wilson in Seattle?

This game always delivers. It's always fun and competitive, always down-to-the-wire and wacky. (I'm immediately reminded of "Greg the Leg" just missing a would-be game winner on Thursday night a couple years ago.) Sean McVay going head-to-head with Pete Carroll is a fabulous "game within the game." And the great Matthew Stafford gets his first taste of this division rivalry's nastiness in prime time.

Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 28 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC

Now here's a showdown I love being in prime time late in the year. These two teams provided an epic Monday night matchup last December, with the Ravens prevailing in Cleveland, 47-42. This year's late-November bout should be brimming with implications for the AFC North race and general playoff seeding.

These two teams are both loaded in 2021, and they do NOT like each other. Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson will always be linked together by the 2018 NFL Draft, in which Mayfield went first overall and Jackson came off the board with the last pick of the first round. Cleveland's stacked defense trying to chase down Lamar will be worth the price of admission alone.

Week 4: Thursday, Sept. 30 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NFL Network

Too high? Oh heck no! Trevor Lawrence vs. Joe Burrow in a matchup of the last two No. 1 overall draft picks. Two young studs at the game's most important position going head-to-head, with a bevy of weapons at their disposal. I'm obsessed with this game -- and it's early in the season, so the hype won't be muted by the win-loss totals of two teams that could be substandard by year's end. Brilliant job with the placement, schedule-makers! This is what you live for as a football fan. The last time we saw these two on the same field, Burrow's LSU Tigers were taking it to Lawrence's Clemson Tigers in the 2019 national title game. Something tells me the new face of the Jaguars hasn't forgotten that loss.

This contest also represents Urban Meyer's first prime-time game as an NFL head coach, and it takes place in the state where he's an icon following his legendary run at Ohio State.

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC

Patrick Mahomes vs. Lamar Jackson is electrifying for the football soul. You won't find two more exciting players in the NFL today -- not to mention, it's a matchup between two of the past three league MVPs. And these teams are tied together in some intriguing ways. The Ravens now employ former Chief Sammy Watkins. Also, Kansas City and Baltimore got together for a pre-draft trade that benefited both teams, with the Chiefs landing Orlando Brown to protect Mahomes and the Ravens gaining a pick package that ultimately netted explosive first-round edge rusher Odafe Oweh. Brown and Oweh figure to go up against each other at times in this very game.

With consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, Kansas City has become the class of the AFC. Baltimore has been stellar in the regular season of late, but the Lamar-led Ravens have yet to truly make their mark when it matters most. A win over the Chiefs would be a huge statement in the 2021 season's opening month.

Week 1: Thursday, Sept. 9 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC

CAN'T WAIT. I'm so thrilled this was the league's choice for the Kickoff Game. Talk about starting a new season off with a bang! Tampa's running it back in an effort to go back-to-back. Like, seriously running it back. Every offensive starter returns. Every defensive starter returns. Shoot, the head coach and both coordinators return. The great Bucs fans couldn't fill the stadium in the midst of the global pandemic last season, so the joint will be jumping in 2021. But don't underestimate the Dallas intrigue in this opening-night tilt.

Dak Prescott is healthy and ready to rock after his devastating ankle injury abruptly ended a scintillating start to last season. (Don't forget that this cat averaged 422.5 passing yards per game over the first four weeks of the 2020 campaign.) Plus, he's armed -- finally -- with the nine-figure megadeal that he long deserved. Cowboys COO Stephen Jones was on my SiriusXM Radio show last week, and he didn't hide the high expectations in Big D after Dallas went heavy on defense in the draft. The Jones family is right to think big in 2021. With Prescott back at the controls, the offense will explode. The fresh faces on defense -- and the unit's new coordinator, Dan Quinn -- should help that side of the ball improve significantly from last year's historic awfulness.

I won't be surprised if the Cowboys win this game. I won't be surprised if these teams meet again in the playoffs.

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 10 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC

A nice AFC title game rematch in October? Yes, please!

Heading into the 2021 season, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen could be the top two candidates for league MVP. They are must-watch players on their own. Going against each other? Dreamy! Furthermore, think about all of the incredible pass-catching talent in this game. Stefon Diggs just led the NFL in catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535) during his first season in Buffalo, while Cole Beasley fell just short of his first 1,000-yard season and Gabriel Davis scored seven touchdowns as a rookie. And then there's Kansas City, which boasts the most explosive wideout (Tyreek Hill) and tight end (Travis Kelce) in football.

The Bills know they can play better than they did this past January on Championship Sunday. It's an early-season revenge game. And if Buffalo can knock off Kansas City -- in Arrowhead Stadium -- watch out!

Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 3 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC

It's the game of the year, bar none. This was a no-brainer decision for me, making Bucs-Pats the prime-time king. Tom Brady vs. Bill Belichick for the first time ever. I get chills just typing that. And I'm glad it's this year, as opposed to last. Not only is Tampa Bay fresh off a Super Bowl title, but New England figures to be more competitive in the wake of a highly productive offseason that restocked the roster with oodles of talent via free agency and the draft. I'm also glad the game will take place earlier in the season, so the feel of Tampa being the defending champ still looms in a major way.

Belichick is the greatest coach in sports history, with an earned reputation of flummoxing the greatest offenses and quarterbacks. Will Brady feel the heat? Or will he rip Belichick apart? And with TB12 back in Foxborough, will the G.O.A.T. get a hero's welcome in the pregame? (He should, obviously.) What about during the game?

There's just so much juice in this matchup. It's bursting at the seams. Is it October yet?? Let's go!!

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

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