The average law-abiding citizen of Football Nation treats the NFL season much like a small child treats Christmas: we sit here in a giddy haze of anticipation, eagerly awaiting a kickoff that sometimes feels like it will never arrive.
But now that the NFL has just released its complete 2012 schedule, we know it’s only a matter of time before Pigskin Claus slides down the chimney and deliver 256 gift-wrapped games are life-affirming pro football.
A lot will change between now and September and, of course, once the footballs start flying in anger. But here are 10 games you should mark immediately on your 2012 football calendar.
“Sorry, baby. Cam Newton is facing RGIII that day. We’ll have to get married some other season.”

Indianapolis Colts at Houston Texans (or Houston at Indianapolis, whichever is first)

The Texans earned their first AFC South title in 2011, stealing it away from the Peyton Manning-less Colts, who had dominated the division for some many years.
The Colts expect to bounce back behind Andrew Luck, perhaps the best “can’t miss” QB prospect since Manning himself. But Houston fielded one of the best pass defenses in football last year. So this is going to be a considerable early test for the young QB against a team hoping to prove it was more than a one-year wonder.  

Carolina Panthers at Washington Redskins (Month Date, Week X)

Cam Newton won the 2010 Heisman Trophy and went on to a spectacular rookie season with the Panthers in 2011. Robert Griffin III won the 2011 Heisman Trophy and many fans expect him to go on to a spectacular rookie season – and expect him to do it with the Washington Redskins, who moved up in the draft to take the No. 2 pick behind the Indianapolis Colts.
If all goes according to the best hoped-for plans, Carolina-Washington could prove a harbinger of the future of quarterbacking in the NFL and the first meeting of the potential Next Great QB Rivalry.

Denver Broncos at New England Patriots (Month Date, Week X)

Denver’s last visit to New England ended in disaster: a 45-10 victory by Tom Brady and the Patriots in the divisional playoffs back in January. This time the Broncos will return to Foxboro with former Colts legend Peyton Manning at the helm of the offense. It gives sports fans another precious chance to revisit the greatest quarterback rivalry in NFL history: Brady vs. Manning.
Never in history have the two elite quarterbacks of their time produced so prolifically and/or met so consistently with so much on the line. The winner of the regular-season meetings between Brady’s Patriots and Manning’s Colts went on to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in the 2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2011 seasons. Manning, of course, did not play in the 2011 match-up. But, wow! What a history between the two.
This year, Brady and Manning will take into battle of the AFC’s four defending division champs. Might feel just like old times for two quarterbacks now deep into the back nine of their respective careers.

New York Giants at San Francisco 49ers (Month Date, Week X)

Coach Jim Harbaugh’s 13-3 49ers of 2011 were minutes from matching the legacy of Bill Walsh’s legendary 13-3 49ers of 1981 by representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
You know what happened: back-up punt returner Kyle Williams fumbled away two punts – one in the fourth quarter to help give the Giants a 17-14 lead and another in overtime to hand the G-Men the game-winning field goal attempt. New York walked away with a 20-17 overtime victory and went on to win Super Bowl XLVI.
The 49ers have an opportunity to gain some semblance of revenge in what looks like, at this point five months before the season, a meeting of NFC heavyweights.

New England Patriots at Baltimore Ravens (Month Date, Week X)

Admit it: the Patriots were lucky to get to the Super Bowl last year, after the Ravens handed them a pair of gifts in the final moments of the AFC title game. Receiver Lee Evans dropped what would have been a game-winning TD pass from QB Joe Flacco and then kicker Billy Cundiff shanked his shot at a game-tying 32-yard field goal with just seconds to play.
The two get a shot to meet again in a battle of AFC heavyweights. It’s a battle that usually ends in frustration for the Ravens. They are 1-7 all time vs. the Patriots.

San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints (Month Date, Week X)

Saints at 49ers in the 2011 divisional playoffs gave us one of the most thrilling games of the entire season: San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith pulled two late-game drives out of his hat to lift the 49ers to a 36-32 victory. But this time the Saints are at home in the Superdome – an arena in which they were virtually unstoppable last year, scoring 41.1 PPG in the regular season. That’s a total of 329 points in eight games. For a little perspective, 12 NFL teams failed to score 329 points in all 16 of their games last year.
Big problem for the Saints: thanks to Bounty-Gate, they’ll be playing the 2012 season with major handicaps – not to mention an unhappy quarterback. It’s a great chance for the 49ers to prove it’s defense is legit and shutdown the wounded Saints on their home turf.

San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers (Month Date, Week X)

The 49ers were the NFC’s No. 2 seed in 2011. The Packers were the Senior Circuit’s No. 1 seed. The two heavyweights went a combined 28-4 – but missed a chance to face off as each team was upset by the Giants in the 2011 postseason.
We’ll get our chance to see what might have been in this game. The Packers and 49ers are two of the NFL’s most glamorous and successful franchises over the years and faced off in several notable postseason battles in the 1990s. Keep in mind, though, they Green Bay OWNS the 49ers. The Packers have won eight straight in this series dating back to 1999 and are 13-1 vs. San Francisco since Joe Montana last played for the 49ers.  

Buffalo at Houston (Month Date, Week X)

There’s little chance the Bills will be contenders this year. Houston, meanwhile, was one of the best top-to-bottom teams in football last year and a legit Super Bowl contender before QB Matt Schaub was injured.
But this game will be interesting for the various sub-plots. Buffalo signed Houston’s former No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams to a record-setting deal for a defensive player that includes $50 million in guaranteed money. Foolish deal. The Texans D actually got better last year when Williams is lost to injury.
It was a classic over-valued bad signing that desperate teams make. And why are the Bills desperate? They’re desperate because their former head coach, Wade Phillips, now the defense coordinator with the Texans, benched Doug Flutie before Buffalo’s 1999 playoff game at Tennessee. You know how it ended: the Titans beat the Bills thanks to the Music City Miracle.
Buffalo is still haunted by the Curse of Doug Flutie. The team has never returned to the playoffs. Phillips is also still haunted by the decision. He did an incredible job turning around Houston’s defense. But then the Curse of Flutie struck down Schaub and back-up QB Matt Leinart. The Texans were forced to enter the playoffs behind third-string rookie QB T.J. Yates. The Curse works in mysterious ways.

New Orleans at Denver (Month Date, Week X)

Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are probably the two most popular quarterbacks in the history of New Orleans – Brees, for leading the Saints to their only Super Bowl title; Manning because he was a schoolboy hero in New Orleans and a Favorite Son of South.
Oh, the two QBs have a bit of a history: Brees and the Saints beat Manning and the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. This time the meeting will be a little surreal – way up on Mile High. Brees, by the way, has never won in Denver. He went 0-3 there went quarterbacking the Chargers and lost his only game in Denver while with the Saints.

New York Jets on Monday Night Football(Month Date, Week X)

The Monday Night Football Circus rolls into (Xxx) complete with big-mouthed Rex Ryan, a Big Apple showdown and, in all likelihood, a Big Time QB Controversy for the Ages.

Bonus Games: the NFC North bloodbath

The old Black & Blue Division returned to prominence in 2011. Green Bay flirted with an undefeated season. Detroit put itself back on the map behind record-setting seasons from QB Matt Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson. And, lest we forget, Chicago was actually a legit threat at 7-3 before quarterback Jay Cutler was lost to injury for the season. The NFC North should provide plenty of fireworks in 2012. Keep the final Sunday of the season free: the NFC North battle may come right down to the wire and xx visits xxx in Week 17.