2012 NFL Schedule: Highlighting the 10 Biggest Games of the Year
The league has added some new twists to this year's version. NFL Network will now feature 13 games—all on Thursdays—from Weeks 2-to-15 (excluding Week 12 on Thanksgiving night), while ESPN will televise one game each Monday night in Weeks 2-to-15, and a Saturday night contest in Week 16, so as to avoid Christmas Eve.
Of course, what fans really want to know is when their favorite team plays their hated rival. They want to know when to plan that trip to see their favorite team on the road. And they want to know which of the hundreds of regular-season games that don't involve their favorite team will be worth making time for.
That's why we're here.
Without further ado—the 10 biggest games of the 2012 NFL season.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants
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Kicking off on a Wednesday night for the first time in the modern era, the NFL will showcase its defending champion, as has become tradition, against its hated division rival.
While most fans will obviously remember the Giants beating the Cowboys in Week 17 last year and going on to win the Super Bowl, that memory could cloud their ability to see just how closely matched these teams are in terms of talent.
Both teams have made notable moves this offseason. The Cowboys, no doubt tired of watching the Giants' deep receiving corps running free through their secondary, went out and signed Brandon Carr, who wasted no time getting into the spirit of the rivalry, telling ESPN's NFL Live that he planned on putting an end to Victor Cruz' salsa dancing:
I know he's got to run through me to get wherever he's running, so I'm going to be patient at the line. All that salsa dancing, that's fine, but you've got to come through me.
I don't plan on seeing no dancing.
The Giants have not been resting on their laurels. General manager Jerry Reese signed former Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency after watching his top two tight ends go down with injuries in the Super Bowl. Reese also traded for a former Top 10 pick, sending a fifth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for linebacker Keith Rivers, who should help instantly upgrade the unit.
One is a reigning Super Bowl MVP and soon-to-be-SNL host. The other is a perennial tease who seems to take Cowboys fans on a roller-coaster ride not only from season to season, but seemingly from week to week.
The other behind-the-scenes showdown pits Cowboys owner Jerry Jones versus Giants co-owner John Mara. After the NFL took away $10 million in cap space due to purported violations during the uncapped year, Mara was quoted as saying the Cowboys were "lucky not to lose draft picks."
This prompted a quick response from Jones, when he was asked about his relationship with Mara:
I would like to settle this on the field. Our relationship is good from my perspective.
No defending Super Bowl champion has ever lost the prime-time kickoff game since the league started the practice in 2004. Jerry Jones and the Cowboys would love nothing more than to be the first road team to rain on a champion's parade, particularly this one.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos
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While Peyton Manning made mention of the fact that he was not yet "all the way back" in his introductory press conference with the Denver Broncos, the league office sure seems to be operating under the assumption that they will be getting vintage Peyton.
Scheduled for the maximum five prime-time games, the Broncos start right off the bat in the league's premier slot on the opening-Sunday-night game against the team it sent packing in last year's playoffs, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While Pittsburgh didn't get to Tim Tebow in the playoffs, the Broncos will be running a completely different offense, with a quarterback who has not played in a regular-season game since 2010. You can bet Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will test Manning early to see how quickly the four-time MVP is able to regain his old form.
The Steelers have gone through some changes of their own, with a new offensive coordinator in Todd Haley calling plays for Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense. They could also be facing the Broncos without running back Rashard Mendenhall—again—due to a torn ACL the running back suffered in early January.
Broncos head coach John Fox saw his defense get to Roethlisberger five times last time these teams met, but that was a hobbled version of Big Ben. It will be interesting to see if a fully mobile Roethlisberger is able to get away from the Broncos' pressure and create some big-play opportunities downfield for his young receivers.
No matter the outcome, this should be a fantastic football game with two of the games best quarterbacks showcasing their talents.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: Detroit Lions vs. San Francisco 49ers
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Call it "The Handshake Bowl."
Jim Harbaugh and Jim Schwartz made all the headlines following their teams' showdown in Detroit last year, but what got lost in the aftermath of their postgame meltdown was the fact that the 49ers and the Lions played one of the best games of the 2011 season.
The Niners were able to neutralize Detroit's Ndamukong Suh and his fellow defensive-line mates by using a play known simply as the "Wham." Essentially, while most teams spend their time trying to run around the Lions, the 49ers ran right at Suh and company.
The Lions will undoubtedly be ready for this tactic a second time around, but look for the 49ers to go to the air a bit more than they did last year. The Lions have been a very different team on the road when it comes to getting to the quarterback, and Harbaugh will definitely be itching to get his new toy, Randy Moss, going vertical at some point in this game.
Meanwhile, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford would probably like nothing more than to not have to put the ball up 50 times against the 49ers' defense the way he did last time. Calvin Johnson, who caught seven passes for 113 yards last time around, will surely have another big game—but the Lions can't rely on Stafford and Johnson alone if they hope to get revenge and hand the 49ers a home loss early on in the 2012 season.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: New Orleans Saints vs. Green Bay Packers
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A repeat of last year's opening game, the Packers and the Saints went up and down the field in that contest with a dizzying display of offense that came down to a defensive goal-line stand on the last play of the game to give the Packers the victory.
While we might be able to expect more of the same on the field in terms of the prolific offenses which will be on display, the dynamic on the sidelines and off the field will be interesting to note as well.
The Saints will be coming to Lambeau without their suspended head coach Sean Payton, most likely without a few suspended defensive players—and the knowledge that the Packers are aware they had a bounty on Aaron Rodgers' head the last time the two teams met.
Both defensive coordinators will be up for months having nightmares about this game. New Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have his hands full trying to stop Rodgers and his arsenal of receivers, while his Green Bay counterpart, Dom Capers, will need to figure out a way to slow down Brees with a defensive squad that rewrote the record books last year, having given up the most passing yards ever in a regular season.
While the drama will be pumped up, you can bet Packers head coach Mike McCarthy will downplay all the outside elements and focus on getting his team ready for one of its many nationally televised games.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: Denver Broncos vs. New England Patriots
The quarterback showdown will obviously be the focus going into this contest, but you can bet that John Fox's focus will be on his defense and how Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense tore it apart the last time these two teams met.
In that playoff matchup, Brady threw for six touchdown passes and thoroughly embarrassed the Broncos' defense, and that was before the Patriots added (former Bronco) wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd's presence will provide Fox and company with an all new headache to go along with the problems caused by Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and receiver Wes Welker.
On the other side of the ball, it is a real blessing to be able to watch Peyton Manning and Bill Belichick play their game of cat and mouse, and this game figures to be no different. The Broncos' should have settled in by this point in the team's schedule.
The Patriots were pretty difficult to watch on defense last year, but there were signs of improvement down the stretch and in the playoffs. Still, it will be a long day for the Patriots if they are unable to get to Manning, and the Pats had trouble getting to the quarterback all last year.
Simply put, this promises to be an instant classic.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
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Whenever the Steelers and the Ravens used to get together, you knew what to expect—a tough-as-nails football game, with insane hits, guys spitting blood and a final score that was something like 13-10.
Then came Week 1 last year, and all those preconceived notions went out the window, as the Ravens blew the doors off the Steelers' defense during a 35-7 whooping that had people asking if Pittsburgh's defense had finally gotten old.
The Ravens went on to sweep the season series in a much closer contest later in the year, but the statement has been made—the Ravens have surpassed the Steelers.
While the Steelers boast the better quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, the Ravens boast the better defense. One of the reasons the Ravens made the move to lock up cornerback Lardarius Webb with a new contract is due to the young, pass-catching talent the Steelers posses.
In a strange scheduling twist, these two teams meet on Nov. 18 in Pittsburgh in prime time—and then again just two weeks later in Baltimore on Dec. 2. This three-week swing will go a long way in determining the outcome in the AFC North and will make for some excellent theater down the stretch in 2012.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: Thanksgiving Games
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The NFL has been playing games on the Thanksgiving holiday since 1920. It's possible the league has never had a slate of games as promising as the three scheduled to be played in 2012.
First, the Houston Texans travel to Detroit to take on the Lions in what could be a possible Super Bowl preview. Yes, both of these teams are that good. And yes, the Detroit Lions are one of the two teams.
The Lions' resurgence is not only an exciting time for their fans, but for all of football-watching America. How many years have you and your family settled in to watch football on Thanksgiving only to have the Lions make you lose your appetite? Not anymore. This football game should be good eats.
Next on the 2012 Thanksgiving docket, we have the Washington Redskins and their presumptive new franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III taking on their hated division rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. Rookie quarterbacks have traditionally been tough to watch, but lately, we've seen signal-callers jump into the pros and make a splash right away. RGIII looks to be that type of quarterback.
Finally, we have the nightcap, with the New England Patriots visiting MetLife Stadium and the New York Jets. Obviously there's no mystery when it comes to the franchises in question—these teams (and their fans) hate each other, and this will no doubt be another in a long line of knock-down, drag-out fights between the two teams.
The real mystery is—will Tim Tebow be starting by Thanksgiving? Stay tuned...
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints
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A rematch of the the divisional playoff game where Gregg Williams delivered his now-famous pregame speech.
What may have been forgotten in the hype surrounding "Bountygate" is what an absolutely fantastic game this was. The 2012 matchup promises to be another classic.
The big difference this time around, other than the off-field developments, will be the location of the game. The Saints are a potent offensive machine no matter where they play, but they operate on another level in the Superdome. You can bet Saints fans will have the decibel level cranked to beyond rock-concert loud to support a team that many in Saints Nation feel has been unfairly targeted.
For all of Williams' pregame bravado, it was the 49ers' defense that hit the Saints in the mouth last year. You can bet Drew Brees and company have not forgotten the way San Francisco manhandled them.
On the other side of the ball, you can bet plenty of Saints defenders have not forgotten how Alex Smith lit them up in last year's game—the same Alex Smith who looked so pedestrian against the Giants in the NFC Championship Game the following week.
Will the bounty story hang over this game? You bet. Will it be an electric atmosphere and a fantastic football game? Without a doubt.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: Houston Texans vs. New England Patriots
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This late-season, prime-time showdown could very well be an early playoff preview. The Texans need to stay healthy, of course, but they match up well with the Patriots and won't back down from the defending AFC champs.
It may seem odd seeing the Texans on this list, but make no mistake—they will be a team to reckon with not only in 2012, but well beyond. While there have been naysayers pointing out their losses in free agency, this team getting its starting quarterback back in the lineup will go a long way in getting them back in the playoffs. On the other side of the ball, the Texans have an abundance of talent up front, despite losing Mario Williams in free agency and trading away DeMeco Ryans.
As for the Patriots, this could very well be a game that comes into play when determining home-field advantage in the playoffs. Bill Belichick and company gave up a ton of yards and a lot of points last year, and the Texans' offense produces both in a hurry.
Probably the matchup that will be most intriguing to watch here is how Tom Brady tries to move the ball against Wade Phillips' defense. With the weapons at Brady's disposal, he should be able to keep pace with the Texans in a game that promises to have both great offense and defense on display.
2012 Biggest NFL Games of the Year: Green Bay Packers vs. New York Giants
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The game that many thought would open the season will instead be played on a Sunday night late in November.
Featuring the last two Super Bowl champions, along with the reigning Super Bowl and regular-season MVPs in Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers, this will be yet another classic between Tom Coughlin's Giants and Mike McCarthy's Packers.
What is interesting, when you look at the history of these teams facing each other, is that the Packers seem to have the upper hand during the regular season—it's during the postseason when Manning and company take control and run away from the Packers.
Green Bay will, without question, be up for this game after finishing the 2011 regular season with a 15-1 record, only to be the recipients of a beating at the hands of the Giants in the playoffs. The Packers then had to watch as New York went on to win the Super Bowl.
The Packers will be returning the majority of their record-setting offense in tact, while their defense will be looking for redemption after Manning and the Giants' offense embarrassed them the last time they met.
The Giants won't take this game lightly—not only will this be an important late-season conference matchup, but it could be yet another playoff preview that very well determines who gets home-field advantage in the NFC.