The schedule release is coming! The schedule release is coming!
Yep, between all of the free-agent signings, the trades, the Browns’ makeover, the releases and the Andrew Luck news bites, you might have forgotten: The NFL typically drops its schedule on the football-starved masses in April, a week or so before the NFL draft. And hey, we’re entering that period right now!
Of course, every team’s list of opponents has been available online for months, as the league’s annual matchup-making process is formulaic — an ancillary component of the 2002 realignment. The catch is that so much personnel has changed hands since every organization’s opponents were officially finalized way back on January 1. Alex Smith wasn’t game-managing in Washington. Jon Gruden wasn’t coaching the Raiders. Dez Bryant wasn’t a spurned wideout, denouncing “Garrett guys.”
Thus, a revisiting of 2018’s itinerary reveals many, many enticing matchups. I’ve performed this exercise at NFL.com for seven years, and 2018 has more initial juice than any other year in memory. Thus, picking the choice 18 for ’18 was not effortless.
There are a few random affairs to get us started, for reasons beyond merely how strong the involved teams are. (Side note: If we actually knew when Luck were suiting up again, his first start would’ve made this list.) Not making the roll: any division games. While 49ers at Rams is sure to be fun with Jimmy G, we left out the garden-variety matchups, no matter how alluring. After all, we see them every year.
Without further ado, check out the top 18 games of the 2018 season. Let me know what I left out: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
18) Kansas City Chiefs at Cleveland Browns
You read that right. Read it again. Browns. B-R-O-W-N-S. They kick off the top games of 2018 due to all the offseason changes — moves that have created a genuine buzz around a franchise which, for quite some time, has been associated with something brown that has nothing to do with the nickname. Tyrod Taylor, Carlos Hyde and Jarvis Landry join the organization, refitting an offense that features new/old face Josh Gordon. And don’t forget Myles Garrett, who shined in his rookie season when he wasn’t hurt. So, can Cleveland take down a good team like the Chiefs? With my editor’s input, we picked Kansas City as a highly intriguing Browns foe, because Patrick Mahomes was one of the quarterbacks Cleveland could’ve had. League observers cite Deshaun Watson in this regard. We’ve seen what he can do. We’re about to find out about Mahomes. Sam Darnold vs. Mahomes would be darn interesting. As would Josh Allen vs. Mahomes. Baker Mayfield vs. Mahomes? Already was a spectacular watch (12 touchdown passes!). The Chiefs’ newly minted starter was essentially a redshirt last year, so presuming Cleveland goes quarterback at the first or cleanup pick, we’ll get to see what amounts to one rookie franchise QB against another.
17) Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins
While the anticipation of watching Alex Smith toil in Washington might not be as interesting as Luck suiting up again, thought this was the most intriguing of the Redskins’ matchups on the 2018 schedule. Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in 2005, while Aaron Rodgers and his matted-gel-LA-Looks hair had to wait 23 more selections before going to the Packers. In some ways, no matter what Smith accomplishes in what has already been an impressive career, it will be overshadowed by Rodgers’ production and theatrics. That said, it was Smith, not his more famous counterpart, who led the NFL in passer rating last year at 104.7. Can he continue to flip the old narrative that he won’t go deep in 2018? Last year, Smith was top-flight at just that, contributing to a robust passing figure of 8.0 yards per attempt.
16) Los Angeles Rams at Denver Broncos
Rams at Broncos features the classic employee-takes-on-his-former-employer subplot, with Case Keenum seeking great vengeance against a team that discarded him. (Aqib Talib also fits this bill, while we’re at it.) From Keenum’s perspective, you see, the 2016 Rams were (loosely) in the playoff hunt before Jeff Fisher and Co. benched him to get a look at the rookie. (The rookie who just so happened to be the No. 1 overall pick, but I digress.) Oh, and don’t forget that 2015 debacle in Baltimore, either, when everyone watching the game knew Keenum had sustained a head injury. Well, everyone except the Rams’ staff, who apparently had their heads up their … well, they left him out there. The Commish wasn’t happy about it. Keenum rebounded with the Vikings last season, even producing a solid outing against his former team: 71 percent completions, 280 yards, 100.8 passer rating. Meanwhile, Keenum’s former understudy in L.A., Jared Goff, has endured few starts on the road against stout defenses and rowdy crowds. He did fare very well in Seattle. We’ll see about the Mile High City.
15) Arizona Cardinals at Minnesota Vikings
One thing to note right off the bat: I don’t think the Cardinals are going to touch .500 this season. Yet, the money Arizona shelled out for Sam Bradford ($20 million for 2018, babe), juxtaposed with the fact the Vikings were more than willing to see him fly the coup with the Cards while they wooed Kirk Cousins, makes this matchup a wee bit sexy. Sans Tyrann Mathieu, will the Cardinals be able slow down a quarterback they allegedly were far more interested in than Bradford? That’s right, the former No. 1 overall pick in 2010 wasn’t exactly first choice in Arizona. He was that Bumble swipe that you find in your feed and say, “Yeah, my last few dates sucked — why not?” One other reason to watch this game: a healthy David Johnson against that formidable Vikes defense.
14) Los Angeles Chargers at Los Angeles Rams
The obvious storyline for this deal at the Coliseum is the battle for Los Angeles. Not to be confused with “Battle: Los Angeles,” an Aaron Eckhart-driven film that didn’t feature long hair and a motorcycle, but arguably was better than the much-ballyhooed football flick in which he played an assistant coach. Yes, “Any Given Sunday” was worse than that sci-fi movie nobody remembers from seven years ago. It’s been over three times that long since these two franchises squared off in Los Angeles. In case you were wondering, Jeff Hostetler won the game at quarterback. This time around, it’s the well-promoted Rams against the well … well … the Chargers. OK, no joke: These Bolts have legit potential, despite their lack of hype (at least compared to the Rams). Anthony Lynn’s guys have the pieces to make a move in the West, a la their L.A. brethren last season. The Bolts were mostly quiet during free agency, until GM Tom Telesco made a big move for center Mike Pouncey. Think the Chargers win this sucker. Calling it now. Joey Bosa gets two sacks, while Andrew Whitworth contains Melvin Ingram.
13) Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars
Now that we’ve soared past some players pitted against their former teams — and a little regional fare — let’s take our first dive into a game that should feature two bona fide Super Bowl contenders. Steelers at Jaguars is part of a handful of 2018’s top-shelf games that harken back to last season. The Divisional Round bout was nothing if not riveting. No one really knew if the upstart Jags — present because of their defense — could hold on in a video game type of event, one which went markedly different from the regular-season meeting at Heinz Field. While you should not anticipate another 45-42 showing from these two teams, the relevance of this matchup can’t be underestimated. The Jags are on the upswing, and usually play much better defensively in Jacksonville. On the other hand, the Steelers went an impressive 7-1 on the road last year, with hardly anyone noticing. There’s a reason the Steelers are always in games, starting with No. 26 in the backfield and No. 84 out wide. It doesn’t get any better than Antonio Brown vs. Jalen Ramsey. Like Schlitz Beer.
12) Dallas Cowboys at Houston Texans
Only one Cowboys game makes this list. For good reason, too. Specifically, Dallas won’t be all that good. Afraid Jason Garrett’s group could be in for another meh 9-7 campaign. What makes this matchup stellar is that it features a rare intra-state meeting between these two organizations, combined with the fact that both should at least contend for the playoffs (though it will be an uphill battle for the team three hours north of Houston). While on the subject of the Texans, the return of J.J. Watt — and what kind of player he’ll be at this stage of his career — has been lost in the underpass of Deshaun Watson’s expressway to stardom. Of course, we don’t know what to make of the latter’s return from a serious injury of his own. Yet with Watt back in the fold, Whitney Mercilus’ return and the Honey Badger’s arrival, Houston looks formidable on all sides of the ball.
11) New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Some folks might think Patriots at Steelers should be higher in this rundown. Yet, since we get this game nearly every year (because of how high both teams finish in the standings, which is to their credit), it fails to nab a loftier slot. Truthfully, most of the matchups between Bill Belichick’s squad and Mike Tomlin’s guys have been dull to mediocre. Last season’s game was an exception, with Rob Gronkowski Winslow-ing the crap out of Pittsburgh’s secondary from his tight end spot … before the other, significantly-less-famous tight end made the most significant non-play in the NFL since #Dezcaughtit. Given Ben Roethlisberger’s propensity to torch great teams at home (as opposed to playing down to the cruddy outfits on the road) and the not-surprising departure of Malcolm Butler from New England, we might see another fourth-quarter shootout. Home-field is always on the line when these two franchises link up.
10) Philadelphia Eagles at Jacksonville Jaguars
This was the hardest matchup to place on the top 18 of ’18. We know the Eagles will be aiming for the first repeat since the Patriots pulled off the double-play in 2003 and ’04. Plenty of league observers think Jacksonville could very well be the team that stands in Philly’s way come February. Quarterback remains the central issue for both franchises. Will Carson Wentz assume his pre-injury form? Will Blake Bortles play viably enough to keep Jacksonville in games when necessary, and not press when it’s not necessary? Both teams have a few new faces. Compelling on this front, even if it didn’t garner headlines, is Donte Moncrief joining a Jags offense that lost Allen Robinson to free agency. Since Robinson’s season-ending injury in Week 1 of last season, Jacksonville has lacked a WR1. Moncrief might not be that — however, it’s hard to gauge his career considering all the injuries he’s endured. On the other side of the ball, the Jags’ defense will be a heckuva matchup for Wentz and Philadelphia’s offense.
9) Oakland Raiders at San Francisco 49ers
We already discussed L.A.’s regional affair in the 14 slot. Now head up the 5 for Raiders-Niners. Well, the far more scenic drive is up the 1. (In what other state can you alternatively take in ocean and farm views, back to back? With all the negative publicity California has shouldered lately, this an appropriate forum to stand up for the state … in a football article.) Jimmy Garoppolo shoulders the expectations (and burden) of the 49ers faithful this season. Which is not too dissimilar from what Derek Carr experienced last season, after a prolific 2016 campaign. If Jimmy G’s winning streak is to continue — or rather, be halted — Oakland’s secondary must step up. The unit was bad last season. The Raiders allowed opposing QBs to rack up a 101.8 passer rating. At least they made up for it by not picking off passes — Oakland was dead last with five interceptions. Jon Gruden’s AFC West hopes will be D.O.A if that isn’t fixed. Maybe Shareece Wright, Marcus Gilchrist, Leon Hall and Rashaan Melvin will help. They’re not exactly John, Paul, George and Ringo.
8) Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints
Why is this game on the list? Because it was badass last year. And I’ll give you a Buffalo Nickel if both teams aren’t in the playoffs again this season. Bad sci-fi is on the brain: That Buffalo Nickel bit was an ill-advised line from Billy Bob Thornton in “Armageddon.” Also ill-advised: Everyone allowing Alvin Kamara to last until the 67th pick of last year’s draft. Especially after watching him charge the Rams defenders, then run right by them all day at the Coliseum. Get this: In 11 touches vs. the Rams, Kamara managed 188 yards from scrimmage. That’s 17.1 yards per touch. Think about that. He also scored twice. This matchup is important for Los Angeles, as the organization’s breakthrough 2017 season was somewhat blemished by an inability to handle a few premium teams (see: losses to the Vikings and Eagles, and most prominently, a home playoff defeat to the Falcons). Of course, one of the premium teams Sean McVay’s crew did handle was New Orleans. Another reason to love this matchup: If you’re over 35, you remember Henry Ellard, Flipper Anderson and Greg Bell against the Saints’ “Dome Patrol” linebackers in the late-’80s NFC West days. Who could forget Flipper’s 336-yard receiving masterpiece in the Superdome?? Sweet uni matchup, too.
7) Houston Texans at New England Patriots
Revisionist history has declared that Deshaun Watson’s coming-out party officially came to be when he torched the Seahawks for nearly 500 yards of offense near the end of last October. Yet, his real emergence occurred 35 days prior, when he stuck right with Tom Brady during a roller-coaster shootout in Foxborough. Watson threw for over three bills against the defending champs in just his second NFL start, adding several quality runs to keep the Texans in the game. Until they weren’t. Despite Houston losing 36-33, Watson made quite an impression on the league. Of course, the week following Watson’s aforementioned single-man uprising in Seattle, football fans lost him for the season. That’s right: Not just Texans faithful, but fans everywhere. For all the fanfare generated by Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 and Todd Gurley in ’15 and Odell Beckham Jr. in ’14, Watson was the most exciting rookie to enter the NFL in years. Unfortunately, his debut campaign constituted of a fleeting fraction of the schedule. Now we’re champing at the bit for more in 2018.
6) Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles
An NFC Championship Game rematch, although that battle for conference supremacy wasn’t much of a match at all. Should be different this time around. The obvious factor is the change at quarterback for the Vikings, with Kirk Cousins taking over for the departed Case Keenum, who didn’t perform anywhere near the mean of his 2017 catalogue in January’s NFC title bout. On a much smaller scale — but worth noting — is the absence of the man who made the key play, the turning point, in that game: Patrick Robinson. The veteran cover man is now back with New Orleans, and no one thinks his departure will derail Philadelphia’s repeat hopes. Perhaps not, but one season doesn’t carry to the next, especially not in the salary cap era that accounted for Robinson’s egress. And it’s those mid-tier players like Robinson (and Nick Foles) who make all the difference in a championship run.
5) Minnesota Vikings at New England Patriots
Yep. Vikings at Patriots belongs in the top five. Here’s the laundry list of reasons why:
A) These very well could be the two franchises featured in Super Bowl LIII.
B) Kirk Cousins can certainly make hay against the New England secondary, a la Nick Foles in February. (It used to be that “a la Nick Foles” was something you didn’t want written next to your name.)
C) Somehow, 2,759 words into this piece, we haven’t yet broached the subject of Dalvin Cook returning to action in Minnesota. The Vikings running back looked awesome in brief duty last year before suffering a torn ACL in October.
D) Like Packers-Patriots (just below), it’s another matchup we rarely see.
E) Love them or hate them, the Patriots are always championship contenders, and in these days of parity (mediocrity), their games against top opponents are must-watch. Think of New England vs. the Seahawks in 2016 (Gronk versus Kam) or the 49ers in 2012 (Kaepernick withstanding the Pats’ second-half comeback).
F) There are plenty of Minnesota defenders who remember Brady destroying them in front of their home crowd in 2014. Those kids are all grow’d up now.
G) In that vein, will all those Pats combo routes work on the Vikes’ back seven? Maybe. But who’s covering Adam Thielen for the other side?
4) Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots
Given Tom Brady’s age (41 in August), the fact that neither he nor Aaron Rodgers will leave their current NFL addresses (especially with Jimmy G being shipped out of New England last year) and the fact that the AFC East and NFC North only play each other once every four years, this might be the last time these two future Hall of Famers square off. We’ve only seen Brady and Rodgers duel once before, which is rather hard to believe. It came in a great late-season game in 2014, when Brady, Gronk and the Pats couldn’t quite grab the road win at Lambeau. A Rodgers-to-Randall Cobb connection on third down put the clock hex on New England that day. In 2010, Rodgers was hurt, meaning Matt Flynn (you know, the guy who was supposed to be Seattle’s QB for years) had to deliver in Foxborough. He almost did, minus some really bad clock management. With all the coverage of the great quarterbacks today, this is the rare matchup that hasn’t been overexposed. It’s like “Blade Runner,” which screamed for a sequel for many years before the gift of Ryan Gosling.
3) New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings
You can probably guess why this game is on here. Even moving past the Stefon Diggs home-run ball from the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Saints at Vikings presents a fascinating matchup between an offense built to play indoors and a defense fully throttled to stop it. Then there’s New Orleans’, well, new-look defense, which was actually doing far more to impose its will in last year’s thriller than Mike Zimmer’s defensive unit. Kirk Cousins’ arrival in Minnesota actually makes this game juicier. Don’t forget the Redskins-Saints tussle last year, which Washington should’ve pulled out. Cousins torched Dennis Allen’s defense for 322 yards, three touchdowns and no picks in the 34-31 loss. This 2018 showdown should be another classic. Diggs repeat?
2) New England Patriots at Jacksonville Jaguars
This AFC Championship Game redux ranks higher than Vikings at Eagles because of how close the Jags came to dethroning the Patriots. Moreover, this time, Tom Brady will not be enjoying the friendly confines of New England. Against what is an already formidable Jacksonville defense, that’s saying something. The main factor as to whether this could be the matchup of 2018 is the quarterback … namely, Blake Bortles. He fared well against the Patriots’ defense back in January and was certainly not the reason the men in teal lost. Whether or not he can build off his strong postseason showing is another matter. Either way, it should be fascinating watching the Pats’ offense — with Julian Edelman back and Brandin Cooks not — line up against the most talented defensive unit in football.
1) Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Rams
The finest regular-season game of 2017 is the premier matchup of 2018. Who doesn’t remember Chris Long’s strip-sack of Jared Goff? Or that this was the contest where Nick Foles first entered the fray — and Philadelphia lore — for the Eagles? In that December showdown, Foles replaced Carson Wentz, then led two scoring drives and hit Nelson Agholor on a key third-and-long to salt away the clock. Philly’s road triumph was integral to Doug Pederson’s squad achieving home-field advantage for the 2017 playoffs. The loss partially cost the Rams a chance to get a playoff bye, while Wentz’s torn ACL abbreviated the opportunity for football heads to watch the second overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft duke it out with the only man taken ahead of him. Hopefully this year, the Goff-Wentz duel goes the full four quarters. With the Rams’ improvements at corner and defensive tackle, look out … they might be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this time around. #FlyEaglesfly #RamRamsram?
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.