I live for the NFL schedule release. Hope! Hype!! It's the best.
And the 2022 campaign's prime-time slate is just incredible. How incredible? Well, Russell Wilson is returning to Seattle on the very first Monday night of the season -- JUICY! -- but that emotionally charged tilt doesn't make the countdown below. Neither does another scintillating Monday nighter in the regular season's penultimate week: Bills at Bengals. And I'm fascinated by what we'll get from the Dolphins, Saints and 49ers in 2022, but you won't find any of their contests in this piece.
So, which enticing showdowns make the cut? Here's my annual ranking of the best prime-time games, Schein Nine style.
Dallas is America's Team, and it's a party whenever it's on national TV. Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb and Micah Parsons are all marquee stars worthy of the exclusive viewing window. That said, Mike McCarthy's offense is going to have its hands full with a loaded Indianapolis defense. Led by the sensational Darius Leonard and DeForest Buckner, the Colts scooped up Yannick Ngakoue and Stephon Gilmore this spring. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus taking the top job in Chicago is a loss, no doubt, but new Colts DC Gus Bradley has a whole lot of talent to work with.
When Indy has the ball? Well, I believe new QB Matt Ryan makes the Colts a playoff team. And this matchup will be particularly interesting, as it will pit Matty Ice against his old head coach, Dan Quinn, who's doing a brilliant job with Dallas' D. This Colts offense obviously starts with the ground game, though: Reigning rushing champ Jonathan Taylor is so much fun to watch behind Indy's great offensive line.
History! Ever heard of "The Immaculate Reception"? This is one of the most storied non-divisional rivalries in the league. And while the Raiders haven't exactly lit the NFL world on fire this millennium, they've taken four of the past five against the Steelers, giving the Silver and & Black a 17-13 all-time series advantage. The tradition, the uniforms, the pomp and circumstance -- I'm a sucker for a matchup like this.
Oh, and I love the Raiders this year. I think they are a playoff team -- yes, despite their placement in the brutally tough AFC West. The Derek Carr-Davante Adams connection is going to sizzle on offense, while the Maxx Crosby-Chandler Jones combo will wreck shop on defense. And don't sleep on Pittsburgh, which will be better in 2022. With all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger, the future Hall of Famer clearly wasn't at the peak of his powers last season. The Steelers improved this offseason. First-round pick Kenny Pickett throwing bombs to second-rounder George Pickens? I'm into it! And with this game taking place on Christmas Eve, the incredible Steelers fans will have Heinz Field rocking.
A Super Bowl LV rematch in the same venue, Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers surprisingly blew out the Chiefs two Februarys ago. This will be the sixth -- and perhaps final -- matchup between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, with the G.O.A.T. holding a 3-2 edge, including wins in the Super Bowl and AFC Championship Game. These are the quarterback matchups you crave and save.
With the game scheduled for Week 4, the Chiefs might still be getting used to life without Tyreek Hill. Meanwhile, Bucs WR Chris Godwin could still be working back from the torn ACL he suffered in December. Regardless, something tells me this contest will feature some scoring.
New Year's Day! Los Angeles buzz! SoFi Stadium bragging rights! And a potential Super Bowl preview? Not a crazy thought, given the immense talent on each roster, starting at the game's most important position.
Still just 24 years old, Justin Herbert is dreamy as a preternaturally gifted quarterback with the most passing touchdowns (69) and passing yards (9,350) ever in an NFL player's first two seasons. Battling for attention in a two-team city featuring the reigning Super Bowl champs, Herbert could steal some L.A. fans by outdueling Matthew Stafford while scoring on Aaron Donald. Another layer of drama in this chess match: Chargers head coach Brandon Staley was Sean McVay's defensive coordinator before taking over the Bolts.
NFC title game preview? Quite possibly. After all, the Packers have earned the conference's No. 1 playoff seed in each of the past two seasons, and the Rams just lifted the Lombardi Trophy. Both teams lost key pieces this offseason -- the Rams will be without Von Miller, Andrew Whitworth, Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr., while the Packers will miss Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Za'Darius Smith -- but these organizations have the leadership and star power to overcome attrition.
I also love that this game's at Lambeau Field in December. It's one of the most unique environments in sports. And in this game, the flashy champs out of Hollywood will be tossed into this cinema-esque setting. Aaron Rodgers loves playing in the cold in Green Bay. A head-to-head showdown with another first-ballot Hall of Famer and fellow Aaron in Mr. Donald? Sign. Me. Up!
This one just oozes fun. Joe Burrow brings sensational swagger to every field he takes. And fresh off the run to the Super Bowl, the bar is rightly raised for more greatness. Flanked by Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon, Burrow should lead one of the league's most explosive offenses in 2022. Especially after the significant work Cincy did in the offseason to upgrade Burrow's protection, snagging OT La'el Collins, OG Alex Cappa and C Ted Karras in free agency.
Of course, Lamar Jackson is always must-see TV. Jackson vs. Burrow is why you love football: Two highly confident 25-year-olds with two distinctly different styles duking it out under the Sunday night lights. The Ravens were snakebit last year with an unprecedented rash of injuries. It's honestly kind of impressive that they even flirted with a winning record. Don't sleep on John Harbaugh's group. This divisional rivalry has real hate, and it's awesome.
The late, great John Madden told me years ago that he loved when Sunday night games in October were scheduled with no possible World Series conflicts for the participating cities. Well, it doesn't get much better than this, with Green Bay visiting Buffalo on the eve of Halloween. You think Bills Mafia will be fired up? Thinking a table or two (hundred) will be broken.
Aaron Rodgers vs. Josh Allen? The two-time reigning MVP vs. one of the game's ascending superstars? Yes, please. Rodgers and Allen have faced off one time, with the Packers blanking the Bills 22-0 back in Week 4 of 2018. That was Allen's third NFL start. He threw two picks and lost a fumble. A lot has changed since then.
I think the Chargers are the best team in a power-loaded AFC West. It sounds good when I say this on radio or TV, but I'll look foolish if the Bolts don't come to play in Week 2 at Kansas City.
Now, the Chargers did hand the Chiefs a loss in Arrowhead last September, with Justin Herbert throwing four touchdown passes, including the game-winner in the final minute of play. Then the two teams played an instant classic on Thursday Night Football, with Patrick Mahomes and Co. prevailing in overtime, leaving Brandon Staley to answer questions about some controversial fourth-down decisions.
Mahomes vs. Herbert is going to be special for a long time. And I cannot wait to see the Chargers' revamped defense, with J.C. Jackson and Khalil Mack joining Derwin James and Joey Bosa. Will Mahomes remain his dominant self -- especially when it comes to blowing the top off the defense -- sans Tyreek Hill?
YES!!!!!!!!!! I've been calling for this -- begging for this -- since the Rams won the Super Bowl. What a Kickoff Game! What a way to start the new campaign! This could've been the Super Bowl last season -- and it will be the Super Bowl in February. Yup, I'm calling it. Let's go!
Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Donald, Cooper Kupp, Jalen Ramsey and Co. will raise the championship banner with all the stars out in L.A. The scene will be right out of Hollywood -- like seriously right out of Hollywood. And you know this team isn't remotely satisfied with just one ring.
On the other side, Josh Allen enters Year 5 as a leading MVP candidate, and rightfully so. He's one of the most unique -- and most dominant -- players at any position in the game today. And he's the headliner of an extremely well-rounded Buffalo team that looks like the best group in a deep AFC field. Talking to Brandon Beane recently on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," the Bills general manager stressed the need to handle success and meet expectations as a mega-hyped title contender. Perfect way to start: Ruining the defending champs' banner celebration by handing them a home loss right off the bat.