While this season lacks the obvious intrigue of a Tom Brady returns to Foxborough matchup, which, for both central parties involved, represented something more akin to a Super Bowl emotionally than the Super Bowl Brady had just played in, the NFL is no slouch when it comes to stacking its best games.
As purveyor of our drug of choice, the league knows we’ll diligently watch Panthers-Seahawks in early December because that’s what we’re trained to do. Like an old cowboy patting his inside jacket pocket for that pack of Marlboros, we take out the remote, plug in CBS and wonder why the hell we’re watching Sam Darnold spell a sidelined Matt Corral when we should be shopping for loved ones or salting the driveway.
But the league also gives us a treat every now and again, and this schedule is dotted with some delightful revenge games, matchups and homecomings for a slew of stars who’ve changed area codes this offseason. Here are the 10 best games we see on the 2022 schedule from our standpoint:
1. Week 1: Broncos at Seahawks, 8:15 p.m. ET Monday, Sept. 12, ESPN/ABC
Coming right out of the gate with the big one in Week 1. Russell Wilson returns to Seattle at a vulnerable time. Wilson is as buttoned-up a personality as exists in sports. His preparation rivals that of Brady. He will no doubt take to an offense run by Nathaniel Hackett which will meld the outside zone with Wilson’s favorite concepts. Hackett is the consummate people pleaser as a coach, and seems to be overjoyed at the prospect of working with Wilson. All that said, this is a dress rehearsal live at the palace where Wilson spent the last decade of his life. There is no guarantee his reception will be a warm one, depending on how the narrative shifts between mid-May and late August. We could (and plan to) find out more about the machinations of Wilson’s divorce from Seattle and what made him so obviously unhappy all those years. Ideally, Wilson would be far more comfortable in his new system and with his new receivers before a game like this. The NFL, however, cares little about these kinds of personal preferences. Last year, we opened the NFL season with the Darnold-Jets revenge game. Wilson in Seattle (will they play the Phish song?) is far better.
2. Week 3: Packers at Buccaneers, 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, Sept. 25, Fox
I am never a fan of describing games as X quarterback versus Y quarterback. If we look back on the annals of football history, a Cam Newton–Peyton Manning Super Bowl looks incredible on paper until you realize it was a tremendous defensive effort that won the game. That said, there may be something to the idea that we’re really and truly running out of chances to see Brady play against some of the other entrenched, elite quarterbacks who defined the NFL’s rise to unstoppable cultural force. Seeing Brady on the opposite sideline as Aaron Rodgers is a worthwhile juxtaposition for several reasons. Here is Rodgers starting over offensively, in a sense, without Davante Adams, but with all the power over his franchise that Brady never had. Here is Brady, potentially unhappy or slightly uneasy with making the move Rodgers never could, trying to will a Buccaneers team to the Super Bowl before beginning a life of broadcast leisure. In addition, this is the second straight week Brady will be on a Fox broadcast after signing a 10-year deal reportedly worth almost $400 million with the company. How will they treat incoming royalty on the broadcast? How will they explain their arrangement during America’s Game? What happens if Brady looks like a player in his mid-40s who is ready to hang it up (which I doubt, obviously)? Would they say as much? Can they be reasonably critical knowing that they have the most valuable property in sports television on the line? Will whomever is calling plays with Kevin Burkhardt acknowledge that Brady will soon be filling his seat?
3. Week 4: Chiefs at Buccaneers, 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 2, NBC
This is less about Brady and Patrick Mahomes and more about Todd Bowles and Andy Reid. Bowles rolled out one of the most dominating game plans in Super Bowl history against the Chiefs in 2021, a stunning teardown of the best offense in sports. The last time we saw both of these t.eams on the same field, Mahomes was running frantically from sideline to sideline trying to evade an impossible-looking Buccaneers pass rush. Kansas City’s rebuilt offensive line was a direct response to how bad it looked in that game. So what happens now? This can be looked at less as some game between legacy quarterbacks and more about how far the Chiefs have come since that loss. Getting knocked out by the Bengals in last year’s AFC title game was another indictment of how vulnerable they are to well-layered coverage and a dogged pass rush. While Bowles approaches his philosophy differently, bottling Mahomes was a career-defining moment for him. Doing so again in prime time will say plenty about both teams early in the season.
4. Week 10: Commanders at Eagles, 8:15 p.m. ET Monday, Nov. 14, ESPN/ABC
Editor (and esteemed Philadelphian) Mitch Goldich and I talk often about the reputation of Philadelphia fans and how much of their place in the horrid fan universe is deserved. I think I’ve settled on the idea that most of the time, a fan incident gets amplified because of our idea of Philadelphia, and our idea of Philadelphia comes from an amalgam of pop culture-y events that both encourage bad actors (who aren’t really Eagles fans) and entrench the idea that this is a truly ghoulish group of people at the stadium. Thus, the kind old souls like Jeff Garcia Baby, He’s Our Babyguy get obscured by the repeated horse-punching incidents.
All that said: My God, am I not looking forward to this game if I’m Carson Wentz. This is a difficult environment, especially given how much better the Eagles have made their defensive front. Philadelphia is going to be a plucky, surprise division contender in 2022, and there is going to be a parking lot full of people hoping to tell Wentz all about it.
5. Week 10: Cowboys at Packers, 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday, Nov. 13, CBS
Mike McCarthy will return to Green Bay, and while a great deal of time has passed (it will be almost four years since he was fired by the Packers), a contentious ending to one of the best coach-and-quarterbacking tandems in NFL history still remains. There is no doubt that Rodgers would like to shove a 40-point game down the throat of his former boss and then make some coded, passive-aggressive reference to something in the past in a postgame press conference. Similarly, McCarthy, if nothing else, has a dictionary’s worth of information on what Rodgers doesn’t like. McCarthy’s defensive coordinator, Dan Quinn, has one of the best and most creative blitzing linebackers (Micah Parsons) the league has seen in the past five years. This game will have more spice than a typical Packers-Cowboys affair with, say, Jason Garrett patrolling the sidelines. Tens of thousands of kind Midwesterners will likely applaud McCarthy when he’s shown on the big screen. But what about the displaced West Coaster who wanted him gone in the first place?
6. Week 17, Rams at Chargers, 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday, Jan. 1, NBC
It will be stunning if both of these teams aren’t in contention. Out of all the NFL’s games over the final two weeks, this has a chance to be both meaningful and explosive offensively. I remember covering the Jets-Giants game on Christmas Eve in 2011, which eventually propelled the Giants into the Super Bowl and the Jets into a tornado of dysfunction that signaled the end of the Rex Ryan era. Both teams were competitive. Both, at the time, had quarterbacks (Eli Manning and Mark Sanchez) believed to be capable of piloting their franchises for a long time. Both teams had real stars. I think the Chargers-Rams game can provide some similar heat, if more so for a Chargers team still hunting for postseason credentials and to legitimize the yearly NFL love affair with both their coach (Brandon Staley) and roster (a sentiment in which I share, by the way). The two franchises have not played each other since ’18, which predated the opening of the stadium they now share together. While nothing in the NFL happens by accident, the fact that both of these teams have young, star coaches (Staley and Sean McVay), star quarterbacks (Justin Herbert and Matthew Stafford) and transcendent defensive players (Joey Bosa and Aaron Donald) at visible positions, gives this matchup some real heft late in the season.
7. Week 7, Saints at Cardinals, 8:15 p.m. ET Thursday, Oct. 20, Amazon Prime
The Cardinals are, conveniently, in prime time the week DeAndre Hopkins’s suspension for performance-enhancing substances is up against a Saints team that aggressively moved up the board for wide receiver Chris Olave out of Ohio State. This could be as good a chance to see a legitimate shootout. The Cardinals at full strength, with No. 4 receivers capable of being No. 2 receivers elsewhere, versus an anything-can-happen Jameis Winston also stocked with talented pass catchers could yield an evening well spent in front of your streaming device. This is also a good chance to talk a little bit about Amazon’s slate of games in general. Prime gets some solid matchups in Year 1, such as Colts-Broncos, Bills-Patriots, Chargers-Chiefs and one of the only two prime-time games the Browns are playing this year (more on that in our companion post). I think, internally, the fear for Amazon has to be: Can people find us? And I know that sounds laughable with their owner being one of the richest and most powerful people on earth, able to buy the moon if he so desired. However, there is a large faction of this country still mechanically tuned to flipping on their main-room television and turning on the game. Will the integration process to a full-on digital platform have its hiccups? You bet. Will there be lag issues out of Amazon’s control? Absolutely. Will it be an innovative broadcast? No doubt. How do we reconcile all of those differences in the end?
8a. Week 10: Browns at Dolphins, 1p.m. ET Sunday, Nov. 13, CBS
8b. Week 7: Steelers at Dolphins, 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 23, NBC
Want to see some announcers twist themselves into pretzels? Here are two fun games to watch. Brian Flores could be facing his former team as his lawsuit against the NFL reaches a crescendo, or has recently been adjudicated in some fashion. Mike Tirico and Cris Collinsworth are going to have to delicately thread a story about race, power and owner ignorance into a broadcast that will be piped into everyone’s living room. In Week 10, buried in the 1 p.m. CBS slate, both the Dolphins and Browns, teams that either have already been investigated for tanking or are currently under investigation for tanking (with one team perhaps setting the bar for the other), will be on the field together. While I don’t imagine there will be a nuanced discussion about the NFL’s gambling partners or what constitutes a reasonable effort in assembling a roster every year, I do imagine whoever is calling that game will be on high alert for any kind of freudian slips.
9. Week 12: Bills at Lions, 12:30 p.m. ET Thursday, Nov. 24, CBS
Yes, the Lions. On our most recent episode of The MMQB podcast, our NCAA super analyst Richard Johnson projected Dan Campbell’s Lions to be playing meaningful football in January. He’s dead on. This is going to be a relevant, feisty Thanksgiving game featuring Detroit, which is something we haven’t been able to say for a half decade. Seeing Aidan Hutchinson try to take down the mobile, unplanted oak that is Josh Allen and watching the Lions’ polished offensive line try to ram through that Bills front will be fascinating and well worth fitting in before your turkey and stuffing. The Bills are among the most complete teams in football, and this will give us a good chance to gauge where they are for the stretch run of the season and into the playoffs.
10. Week 16: Bengals at Patriots, 1 p.m. ET Saturday, Dec. 24, CBS
I’m placing this one here strictly for the football nerds in the room. While Bill Belichick is not the standard bearer for NFL defense, I do always like to watch when quarterbacks face him for the first time. He has a habit of dismantling even the best of players, and one-armed Tom Brady during a dog fight of a game last year early in the season. Joe Burrow is rapidly becoming one of the best quarterbacks in football, someone whose game has been able to overcome a coverage-heavy revolution in the NFL. I would like to see whether he’s able to come in and pick apart an inferior Patriots team, or if this represents one of those wink moments from Belichick, who might uncover some hidden Achilles’ heel in Burrow’s repertoire.
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