As the season approaches, we simply cannot contain our enthusiasm for the return of football on Sundays. With fantasy seasons and divisional matchups starting in Week 1, every game feels important, but there are a couple games that everyone will be watching. Here are the games to circle on your calendar this season.
1 Week 2: Green Bay Packers At Atlanta Falcons
In a rematch of last year’s NFC championship game, elite signal-callers are what to expect in this matchup. These teams featured two of the best quarterbacks in 2016. Aaron Rodgers ended the season as the biggest threat to Matt Ryan’s first MVP, but in the end, the Falcons helped their quarterback push past another superb Rodgers season.
QBs in 2016 Comp % TD INT QBR Aaron Rodgers 65.7% 40 7 76.9 Matt Ryan 69.9% 38 7 83.3
Last year these two teams faced-off twice, with the Packers losing both a nail-biting 33-32 game in Week 8, followed by a blowout in the NFC Championship, 44-21. The lack of talent around Rodgers showed as he tried to carry the whole offense on his back, throwing for seven touchdowns combined, but more importantly also leading his team in rushing in both games.
Despite last year’s results, this game will be more important for Atlanta. Green Bay has made the playoffs eight straight seasons (tied for the longest current streak in NFL), and will no doubt be right there again regardless of this game’s outcome. The Falcons, on the other hand, are notorious for underperforming, and while last year was great, it did not fully shake the stigma from Atlanta. In the three years prior to their Super Bowl run, the Falcons combined record was 18-30. Matt Ryan's last two seasons have been his career worst and his career best, so it's reasonable to ask, which Ryan and which Falcons will we see in 2017?
The Falcons have never had to leave the nest to face the pack, having home-field advantage in both games last season, and will have it again in Week 2.
2 Week 7: Seattle Seahawks At New York Giants
This game will likely be a battle for the top dog in the NFC. The last three years the best defense has made the Super Bowl, and Seattle and New York bring back the top two defenses in the NFC. Both have also added pieces to their offense (RB Eddie Lacy and WR Brandon Marshall) that could get them over the hump in a Super Bowl run.
Still, both teams do have questions that will need to be answered during this game.
Seattle’s running game took a huge hit in their first year without Marshawn Lynch. The offense finished 25th in rushing yards per game (99.4), compared to just a year earlier in 2015 where they finished 3rd (141.8). The Seahawks are hoping Eddie Lacy can mimic Lynch’s style and production for them this year, but it remains to be seen.
The Giants have their own issues running the football. New York finished 29th in yards per game (88.3) and 30th in yards per attempt (3.5). Unlike Seattle, the Giants failed to make meaningful improvements to either their running back position or the lackluster offensive line. Instead, they padded what was already a pass-heavy offense with Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram.
Regardless of any offensive improvements on the ground, both defenses will be top-10 in stopping the run, so expect a lot of passes from the elite QBs in this one. This game, the NFC, and the MVP could be decided on the play of Russell Wilson and Eli Manning this season.
3 Week 11: New England Patriots at Oakland Raiders (In Mexico City)
There is the student, and there is the master. New England has made the playoffs every year since 2009, while Oakland just broke through for the first time since 2002. Yet Oakland may be the biggest challenger the Patriots face in the AFC. Last year they had their playoff dreams dashed after their leader Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16, and the Raiders have this game marked on their schedule to show the Patriots and the rest of the AFC, they’re here to stay.
New England has won two of the last three Super Bowls, and have won at least 12 games the last seven seasons. Oakland needs the Patriots to falter, and if that’s going to happen, it will start from within. Tom Brady has turned 40, and regardless of how great he’s been, he’s going to slow down. If this is the year Brady starts to break down, Oakland is ready to seize the opportunity.
Oakland is out to prove last year was not a fluke. Their 12-4 record came with many last second victories, finishing the season with a point differential of just 31, behind teams like Denver (9-7), Philadelphia (7-9), and Arizona (7-8-1). Derek Carr and Marshawn Lynch will lead an explosive offense that was in the top-half in both passing and rushing last season, thanks to an outstanding offensive line. Week 11 might be the passing of the torch in the AFC, or it might just be the Patriots shaking off a pretender. Either way, it's a matchup we wanted to see last season and finally get this year.
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