Analysis

Top 10 games of the 2021 NFL season: Bills-Chiefs, Giants-Cowboys make list 

NOTE: This story has been updated with the dates, times and networks for each game below.

We've known for several weeks who each NFL team will play this season, but with next week's unveiling of the full 2021 NFL schedule, we'll finally learn the when.

The table-setting extravaganza kicks off at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, May 12, on NFL Network, NFL.com and the NFL app. In anticipation of the full release, and in the wake of the 2021 NFL Draft, let's take a look at the 10 best matchups we know are coming this fall that we can't wait to watch.

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 26 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS

The draft's top two quarterbacks clash in a battle of 2020 bottom-feeders hoping to turn things around in 2021. On one side is No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, new coach Urban Meyer and the new-look Jaguars. On the other is No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson, new coach Robert Saleh and the revamped Jets. It's not guaranteed either comes close to postseason contention, but it is a marker of the start of a fresh era for two franchises sorely in need of a reason to hope beyond a draft pick. These two will likely be measured alongside each other for the next few years, starting with this showdown.

Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 10 at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX

This meeting is all about the returns. For the Giants, it's the return of Saquon Barkley following an ACL injury that ended his 2020 season prematurely. And for the Cowboys, it's the comeback of quarterback Dak Prescott, whose close to fully recovered from the devastating leg injury he suffered in Week 5. It's about getting down to business (especially now that Dak's handled his) for two teams that have the potential to make the playoffs this season.

Which team is closer to its goal? Which returning player ends up being more important to his team's fortunes? Is this NFC East rivalry about to be renewed with full strength in 2021?

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 26 at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX

Tampa Bay is the bully on the block after taking home (and expertly tossing) the Lombardi Trophy, but the Rams are firmly in the conversation to contend for the NFC crown. They'll have a whole lot to prove against the reigning champs.

Last year's back-and-forth affair gave the national audience a viewing treat, with the Rams edging the Buccaneers in a Monday Night Football game that sparked hope we'd see a postseason rematch. We didn't get one, with the Buccaneers instead facing the team that vanquished the Rams, the Packers, in the conference title game. But there's a new player in town -- Matthew Stafford -- who could put the Rams over the top and into a postseason meeting with the Buccaneers. Before we get that far, though, we'll first have a chance to learn where the Stafford-led Rams stand when they battle the champs.

Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 12 at 4:25 p.m. on CBS

If the Bills are looking for a test of their true ability -- one that doesn't have "KC" on its helmet -- they'll receive one in the form of the defending champions. After losing by two touchdowns to the Chiefs in the AFC title game, Buffalo sat at home and watched the team that just defeated them get its doors blown off in the Super Bowl. The team that delivered the beatdown is on Buffalo's schedule this season. It's time to see how the surging Bills stack up.

Buffalo won't be meeting a complete stranger in this game, either. Tom Brady single-handedly ruined Western New York's hopes for two decades, save for a stray upset win with Drew Bledsoe at the controls, and it's about time a strong Bills team attempts to avenge its many losses at the hands of the greatest of all time. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, gets a chance to further prove its supremacy by taking on the AFC's runner-up a year after dominating its champion.

Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 26 at 8:20 p.m. on NBC

The LaFleur family connection is gone after Packers head coach Matt LaFleur's younger brother, Mike, left the Niners' staff for the Jets, but there's still plenty of intrigue in this matchup. Last year's meeting left much to be desired after San Francisco was ravaged by injury, but the 49ers are poised to make a roaring comeback with a healthy team in 2021.

The last time they met in a significant setting, San Francisco bludgeoned Green Bay, running all over the Packers to the tune of 285 yards and four scores in a 37-20 win in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. As sweet as last year's win might have tasted to the Packers, there's no better opportunity to truly exorcise the lingering demon from the postseason loss than this meeting. We get another litmus test, too, of the 49ers a year after their ambitions were sunk by an incredibly unfortunate rash of injuries. Oh, and you've probably heard a little Aaron Rodgers-49ers intrigue recently, too.

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

This matchup has consistently produced thrilling contests, and the two meet once again in the latest iteration of Lamar Jackson vs. Patrick Mahomes. The Ravens are again gearing up for a deep playoff run, but in order to finally reach their goals, they'll first have to overcome the back-to-back conference champion.

Kansas City has something to prove, too: Can its defense do enough to shut down Baltimore's dominant rushing attack? Can the Chiefs bottle up Jackson? And most important: Are they still the kings of the AFC? We'll learn plenty when these two meet.

Week 17: Monday, Jan. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN

The Browns exorcised multiple demons in 2020, including two associated with Pittsburgh. First, Cleveland split with its rival to get into the postseason, then stunned the football world by smashing the Steelers on Super Wild Card Weekend at Heinz Field. Sure, fans weren't there, but this win stood as proof for hopeful Browns backers that the tide was turning.

Standing in their way once again is Northwest Ohio product Ben Roethlisberger, the reaper to Cleveland's hopes and dreams for most of the last 20 years, leading the Steelers to years of consistent success the Browns could only wish for. In 2020, the Browns were significantly better, adding much-needed fuel to a rivalry that had become dormant for far too long. Make no mistake: The turnpike rivalry is back and stronger than it has been since before the turn of the century. There's a statement to be made for each participant, and they'll get two chances to do so this fall, with the most important one coming at the site of Cleveland's greatest football triumph since the early 1990s.

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

Last season's AFC Championship Game got off to a promising -- if not stunning -- start before Kansas City's offense woke up and removed any real intrigue. It was a disappointing end to what was initially billed a high-flying conference title game between the reigning champions and perhaps the only AFC team equipped to keep pace with them.

Instead, it was largely a flop. But after an offseason in which the Bills quietly added in areas of need and the Chiefs impressively revamped their offensive line, this rematch of two top-tier squads could give us a much more entertaining showdown, set to once again take place at Arrowhead. Can Josh Allen outduel Patrick Mahomes? Will we get more defensive resistance from the Bills this time around? Might this be a key result that could sway the conference's seeding? Check back in for the answers this fall.

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

"Revenge" and/or "redemption" will be heard more than one could believe possible in the lead-up to this meeting. Tom Brady returns to Gillette Stadium for the first time since joining the Buccaneers (and winning a Super Bowl in Year 1 with his new team). Brady left behind a team that ended up in relative shambles in 2020, forced to turn to Cam Newton at quarterback in what eventually proved to be a transition year.

With the expectation of having full or near-full stadiums in 2021, you've got to imagine this will be a tough ticket to get a hold of. It will be fascinating to watch such a passionate fan base react to seeing their most beloved player take the field in the opposition's colors. While many fans expressed appreciation and gratitude for Brady's incredible contributions to the franchise, others were less forgiving of a perceived lack of loyalty to the team. Will they cheer him? Would they dare to boo?

Come fall, we'll have our answer -- and it could become even more complicated if the Patriots are back in contention after a very productive offseason.

Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 7 at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX

The Super Bowl I rematch many thought we were getting in Super Bowl LV arrives in 2021, and we can thank the forward-thinkers in high places at the NFL for this gift. This Packers-Chiefs meeting is a product of the added 17th game, which follows a format of pairing two cross-conference teams based on their finish in the division standings in the previous season. That means we get the AFC West champion versus the NFC North king, who also happened to be the two conferences' top seeds this past January.

Of course, this game loses a ton of luster if Aaron Rodgers' ongoing drama with the Packers results in his departure. But for now, with Rodgers still on the roster and both teams poised to again contend for their respective conference titles, we're in line for an Aaron Rodgers-Patrick Mahomes showdown that could tell us a lot about where each team stands whenever they meet -- especially if this game comes late in the season.

Additional games to consider

Green Bay Packers at Baltimore Ravens (Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 19 at 1 p.m. on FOX): Two vastly different styles of offense meet in a clash of contenders that could give both sides a good idea of where they stand among the NFL's elite.

Miami Dolphins at Las Vegas Raiders (Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 26 at 4:05 p.m. on CBS): Last year's meeting was a thriller, complete with some FitzMagic. And while Ryan Fitzpatrick is no longer a Dolphin, these two teams are both trying to earn a playoff berth after falling short last season.

Arizona Cardinals at Cleveland Browns (Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 17 at 4:05 p.m. ET on FOX): Cleveland was a media darling after a busy offseason in 2019, much like Arizona is entering 2021. Are these Cardinals for real, and can they prove it by taking down a playoff-game winner?

Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers (Week 15: Thursday, Dec. 16 at 8:20 p.m. ET on FOX/NFLN/Amazon): Justin Herbert vs. Patrick Mahomes became a surprisingly fascinating division rivalry; with a year under Herbert's belt, will the Chargers make a leap and take down the Chiefs in a non-empty SoFi Stadium?

Las Vegas Raiders at New York Giants (Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 7 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS): Each flirted with the postseason in 2020 and has experienced an interesting offseason. Which team has improved more?

New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Week 11: Monday, Nov. 22 at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN): Here's a good litmus test for the rebuilt Giants against a team they stunned two years ago thanks to the efforts of Daniel Jones.

Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens (Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 17 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS): A 2019 playoff matchup is revisited with a Chargers team that looks much different but looms as a potential dark horse to upset the AFC hierarchy. Taking down Baltimore would send a message to the rest of the league.

Jacksonville Jaguars at Cincinnati Bengals (Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 31 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS): It's time for a battle of No. 1 picks and franchise saviors in Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence. Urban Meyer also gets a reunion with the signal-caller he once passed on for Dwayne Haskins at Ohio State.

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills (Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 31 at 1 p.m. ET on CBS): The AFC East looks to be more competitive than it has been over the last two decades. Miami can force its way into the conversation with a win over the reigning division kings.

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers (Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 14 at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS): One disgruntled quarterback (Russell Wilson) meets another (Aaron Rodgers) in a revival of a matchup that produced some postseason classics in the past.

Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Rams (Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 24 at 4:05 p.m. ET on FOX): The key pieces (Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff) of the 2021 offseason's blockbuster quarterback trade meet in their first face-off since switching teams.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

Related Content

Gamepass_vert_web_r

See all the Action

Replay every game all season.