By Steve Silverman
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The NFL does everything with pomp and circumstance, and that includes the releasing of its schedule.
This is a prime-time event these days, much like the annual selection meeting – known commonly as the draft – as well as the season opener.
In the last decade, the NFL has given that opener to the newly crowned Super Bowl champions, and it pits them against an attractive opponent.
However, the NFL doesn’t usually go all-in by pitting the Super Bowl champs against the team they beat in that game. But if the crew of schedule makers had any doubt about it, they took a look at how baseball’s World Series champion Kansas City Royals opened up against the New York Mets.
In addition to the uniqueness of an American League team opening up against a National League team – a fairly recent development in interleague play – there was an element of rubbing it in the Mets’ faces. It wasn’t enough to get beaten by the Royals in the World Series. They had to watch the Royals raise their World Series banner and wear their gold-trimmed uniforms.
There will be at least an element of that as the Broncos open up at home against the Carolina Panthers Sept. 8. Few defending Super Bowl champions are as different from one year to the next as the Broncos – no Peyton Manning, no Brock Osweiler, and many other changes – but Denver will still have much of the defense that spanked Cam Newton.
That season opener will get the attention of every football fan and set the tone for another year of hard hits, strategy and eye-opening plays.
The New England Patriots will go to the desert to play the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl that could have been. If the Pats had outlasted the Broncos in the AFC title game and the Cardinals beaten the Panthers, these two would have met in Super Bowl 50.
Instead, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer will duel in the first Sunday night game on Sept. 11. That game will feature former Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones chasing after Brady in his first game with his new team. The Patriots struggled with their protection schemes against elite pass rushers last year, and Jones certainly qualifies.
The nastiness will reach a fever pitch in Week 2 when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers got the best of the Bengals in their playoff game last year, but by the end of that game, the carnage and dirty play was so thick that the Steelers were in no position to compete with the Broncos in the divisional playoffs the following week.
It’s not going to get any cleaner this time around, and the team that survives this matchup with the majority of its starting lineup intact will probably go on to have a strong season.
The Jets are going to get tested in a big way in Week 4 when they host the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 2. While Seattle got knocked out in the divisional playoffs by the Panthers last year, they still represent the kind of hard-hitting, physical NFC teams that love to go on the road and embarrass their hosts.
This game will require a championship mindset on the part of the Jets if they are going to compete on even terms with the Seahawks. It will be an excellent test for second-year head coach Todd Bowles to see how well he can prepare his team for an elite opponent.
The Giants will play at Green Bay in a Sunday night game in Week 5. It’s been a long time since the Giants were a legitimate contender, and the offseason acquisitions appear to have put them in a much better position than they have been in for years. Optimism surrounds the team after finally saying goodbye to Tom Coughlin, and new head coach Ben McAdoo will get the benefit of the doubt in his first season.
However, this Oct. 9 game will be a major test for McAdoo, as he goes up against creative Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy and the Giants defense has to face Aaron Rodgers. If the Giants lose touch early in this game, McAdoo may no longer have the benefit of the doubt.
The Broncos will have another crucial game in Week 7 when they face the Houston Texans in a Monday night game Oct. 24. The Texans nearly always look good on paper, but coach Bill O’Brien has not been able to bring the best out of this team yet.
However, he will have Osweiler, the former Broncos quarterback, under center. Osweiler will be motivated to burn his old team.
Few teams have had better rivalries over the past decade than the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Those two teams will meet in Baltimore in a Week 9 matchup on Nov. 6. The health of quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco will likely determine the outcome here. Look for a high-scoring game here served with a large side dish of nastiness.
The Chicago Bears and Giants will meet at MetLife Stadium in Week 11, and this Nov. 20 game may have a lot more to offer than most observers would expect. Both teams have been quite optimistic about their offseason acquisitions, and this classic matchup could feature two of the most improved teams in the league. The Bears and Giants both have two of the easiest schedules in the league, so they could come into this game with winning records.
Week 13 will open with a Thursday night game between the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings. Head coach Mike Zimmer’s Vikings appear ready to challenge the elite teams in the NFC this year, and Adrian Peterson appears to have plenty left in the tank. Look for the Vikings to show off their talent in this game against Jerry Jones’ boys. Dallas could be a contender this season if Tony Romo can stay upright.
The Patriots will be tested late in the season when they go to Sports Authority Field in Denver to face the Broncos. The Pats could have had homefield advantage in the AFC if they had passed their late-season tests against the Broncos, Jets and Dolphins, and if coach Bill Belichick doesn’t do a better job in these games in 2016, the Pats could be in trouble in the postseason.
The Jets again close the season in Week 17 against former head coach Rex Ryan and the Buffalo Bills. Jets fans are hopeful that this game will have playoff implications, just as Giants fans hope their season finale at Washington will also have an impact on the postseason lineup.
Optimistically, we will be watching both games intently as the playoffs beckon.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy