One of the first things I used to find myself doing when the NFL schedule would come out is run through the Monday Night Football schedule to see what were the must-see games and which ones were merely there to take up space on the schedule.
Now, NFL fans everywhere give much the same treatment to the NFL's new marquee game, the Sunday Night game.
And with all apologies to the Worldwide Leader, there's a reason that game has replaced the Monday Night game as the NFL's must-see TV every week.
So with that thought in mind, I now present to you my rankings of the NFL's Sunday night contests, from one through sixteen, with a brief explanation as to why I think that way.
Three brief disclaimers: One, the games listed in Weeks 11-16 are subject, as always, to the NFL's "flex scheduling" policy, and the Week 17 game is open-ended pending whichever game on the schedule's final week has the most playoff-related stakes on the line, hence the reason no game is listed in the Sunday night timeslot in the final week. Three, I will be listing the games in reverse order from 16-1, and not go week-by-week on the schedule.
Everybody got that? Good, let's go...
#16: Chargers @ Jets (Week 16):
In this case, I happen to have the last scheduled Sunday night game in the last spot on my list. And I bet I know what everyone's thinking: why would I be hating on this game? Well, I'm going to tell you: I have absolutely no desire to see this game in primetime. None. The Jets, as always, will likely be a complete and total mess by this point, as it is Week 16, and I have a feeling the Chargers will have urinated away another season by then, as well. Luckily, this is probably one of the few late-season games that appears to be headed out, courtesy of our friend flex scheduling.
#15: Chargers @ Saints (Week 5):
It should be no surprise, given my take on the Chargers above, that I have a certain disdain for them at this point. That really pales in comparison, though, to how I feel about the Saints. So that's why this game checks in at #15 on the list. It does have a few certain plot points going for it, such as Drew Brees going up against his old team and who will be coaching the Saints in the first half of the season while their second-half interim coach, Joe Vitt, is suspended. But seeing as how the Saints' season will be a complete and utter train wreck due to Bounty Gate, I no longer have any interest in them.
#14: Saints @ Broncos (Week 8):
I may be the only person on the face of the Earth to say this, but I have no interest in seeing a broken-down 36-year-old quarterback with a trick neck try to play football again. I don't care if his name is Peyton Manning. Add in the fact that they're playing a team that is going to be in shambles this year for trying to do the same kinds of things to guys like Manning that caused him to miss a season in the first place, and that's a snoozer to me. Oh yeah. There is the whole "Peyton Manning playing his hometown team" thing if you're interested. I obviously am not.
#13: Lions @ Packers (Week 14):
I will probably be rubbing some people the wrong way by placing this one so low on the list, but the biggest reason for that is a simple one really: it's a Week 14 game, and while I'm fairly certain that the NFC North might still be up for grabs by that point, the simple truth is I once again expect the Lions and Packers to both make the playoffs, thus limiting it's true "do or die" importance. That being said, if you like points, this is one to watch, especially since the Packers put up 45 on the Lions the last time these two played at Lambeau. With Aaron Rodgers on the sideline.
#12: Lions @ 49ers (Week 2):
At the risk of making it seem as though I'm hating on the Lions (I'm not), I once again rank them low on the list here. It's also not a slight on the 49ers, as many expect, even if I may not necessarily be among them, for the 'Niners to be Super Bowl contenders again this year. Other than the obvious storylines of the 49ers' secondary trying to slow down Megatron, and of course the incessant replaying of "handshake" gate between Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz last year, it's fairly typical of an early season game. It's big, but until the season unfolds, you actually have no way of knowing how big it will be in the end of the year.
#11: Cowboys @ Falcons (Week 9):
By Week 9, we should know a lot about how these two teams are going to operate, which, long story short, is exactly what makes this game so unappealing to me. The Falcons, to put it bluntly, have probably never had a better chance to usurp the Saints' authority in the NFC South than this year, what with all the off-field *cough...bounty...cough* issues surrounding them. And then there's the Cowboys. We'll be getting to them in a little more detail in my next piece, but for now, let's just say I don't have high hopes for them.
#10: Texans @ Bears (Week 10):
This seems like a pretty good little matchup, and it is, but if there's one thing you should know about me, it's that I like the classics. And while you can't really get any more classic than Soldier Field or the Bears, a matchup with the Texans, no matter how great they might prove to be this season, doesn't scream "classic" to me. But since it is a game pitting a team with Super Bowl aspirations (the Texans) and a team looking to bounce back from an injury-riddled disappointment of a 2011 (the Bears), and this one does have enough to crack the top ten on this list.
#9: Eagles @ Cowboys (Week 13):
I'd like to make one thing perfectly clear about this game: if I had any faith at all in the Cowboys to actually live up to the incessant hype that surrounds them every year, I would put this game much higher on the list. The Eagles know a little something about not living up to the hype themselves after last year. The smart money says one of these teams is going to live up to it for once this season, and that plus the late-season attraction of the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry is enough to sell me on it. And yes, I believe it will stay on Sunday night.
#8: Steelers @ Broncos (Week 1):
Remember what I said about Peyton Manning before? Well, I still mean it here, but since this happens to be the opening Sunday night for him in a new jersey and the fact that it's against the Steelers, who like to headhunt quarterbacks for a living, but who Manning also has a history of success against, it's enough to intrigue me ever so slightly. Not to mention the Steelers are returning to Denver for the first time since their Wild Card loss to the Broncos and That One Guy Who's A Jet Now.
#7: Patriots @ Ravens (Week 3):
When it comes right down to it, all you really need to sell this game on is "AFC Championship Game rematch." But before anyone gets sentimental in Baltimore about how close they came to the Super Bowl in that game (or angry, which I suppose is why title game scapegoat Lee Evans is in Jacksonville now), I'd strongly suggest that the Ravens win this one and then worry about style points later (as is usually the Raven way). Because a win here, even in Week 3, could mean a title game rematch in Baltimore this time around.
#6: Packers @ Giants (Week 12):
I don't know if a defending Super Bowl champion has ever had quite the finishing sequence of games as the Giants do this year. Add that with the fact that the Giants, with the exception of their two most recent Super Bowl runs, have long been late-season swooners under Tom Couhglin, and it's clear what the #1 storyline of many in this game is. There's also the small matter of the Giants ending the 15-1 Packers' run at a repeat a year ago in the divisional round at Lambeau. This is a juicy one all the way around, I'd say.
#5: Steelers @ Bengals (Week 5):
Early-season divisional showdown between the haggard, old veteran and the young lion ready to take the next step and prey on the grizzled veteran? Yes, please. That's just what we'll have in Cincinnati when the Bengals host the Steelers. Can the Bengals take the next step and go from playoff team to trying to wrest the division away from the Ravens and Steelers? This game might go a long way toward determining that. Or it could reinforce that the greybeard Steelers still run the AFC North's town. Either way, this one is quite compelling.
#4: Giants @ Eagles (Week 4):
As long as videotape still exists, there will always be a built-in storyline for the Giants and Eagles that makes it must-see TV. But if you're like me and grew tired of the DeSean Jackson punt return footage the first 10,000 times that ESPN ran it a year ago, there's something here for you, too. Namely, the Eagles trying to live up to their mostly-self-imposed hype of being the "Dream Team" and get where the Giants already are: Super Bowl champions. It's the first of an arduous journey of big games for the champs this year, as well.
#3: Packers @ Texans (Week 3):
After some of my earlier statements in this column, I do feel the need to explain myself on this one, so let me do just that. While it is true that I don't see much intrisic value in a storied, NFL original like the Packers playing a primetime game against a young upstart like the Texans, there is a reason, even early in the season, to be legitimately excited for this one, particularly if you're in Houston, as this is your first chance to see how your AFC-contending team will stack up against a top-level team from the other conference.
#2: Ravens @ Steelers (Week 11):
All of my chatter about wanting to see good old-fashioned grudge matches under the lights of Sunday Night has led us here. All you really have to say is "Ravens-Steelers" to get my attention, and judging by the fact that it seems to be one Sunday Night Football every year, it gets everyone else's attention, too. The only reason this isn;t #1 is that there's no possible way for this to be a Super Bowl preview. Otherwise, I see no other reason for it to fail in that quest. It should, however, determine the AFC North, as it often does late in the season.
#1: 49ers @ Patriots (Week 15):
Our top game from the Sunday night slate sees the 49ers going cross-country to face the Patriots. How many storylines are there for this game? Let me count the ways. First, it's a possible Super Bowl preview. Second, it's Tom Brady getting the rare chance to face the team he grew up rooting for, and third, you have the always-overblown "West Coast team going out to the East Coast" storyline. That might actually have merit for once due to this being a December game in Foxboro, but I digress. Anyway, this is the cream of the Sunday night crop in my humble opinion.
As always, rather you agree or diasgree, hit me in the comments and I'll be back this weekend with the blow-by-blow on the Cowboys' schedule.