Power Rankings: The Top Primetime Games of the 2012 NFL Season

Thomas ConroyCorrespondent IAugust 4, 2012

Power Rankings: The Top Primetime Games of the 2012 NFL Season

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    Parity is alive and well in the NFL, as this year’s schedule offers too many good matchups to choose from. It gets harder each season to decide which primetime games are a must-watch.

    No game on the schedule is a gift; teams must play error-free football to win. If they don’t, then you will lose the contest regardless of the quality of the opponent.

    Here are the top primetime games for the upcoming NFL season:

Dallas Cowboys at the New York Giants, September 5th, 8:30 PM NBC

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    Over the last few seasons, this NFC East rivalry has become a must-see game on the schedule. Both franchises and fan bases have one common goal: win a Super Bowl or your season has been an utter failure…period.

    It must burn Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that his team was swept by the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in last year’s season series.

    It’s a pretty simple gameplan for the G-Men, as they must pressure quarterback Tony Romo to either make a bad throw or cause a turnover. The 'Boys must counter this by being able to run the football and control the game clock. 

Pittsburgh Steelers at the Denver Broncos, September 9th, 8:20 PM NBC

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    The stats don’t lie...or do they?

    The Pittsburgh Steelers defense was ranked No. 1 in total defense last season, but no team feared them on the field. They had trouble creating turnovers (last in NFL) and consistently putting pressure on the quarterback (17th in sacks). Thankfully, the Steelers defense will have two linebackers—LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison—returning to the starting lineup, as each recorded double-digit sacks in the last three seasons.

    It might be to their advantage to play Peyton Manning early in the season, before he has had an opportunity to settle in with his new team, the Denver Broncos. Remember, he hasn’t played competitive football in over one year, so there’s some rust that needs to be taken off his game. You can expect a few miscues, as chemistry will be an issue in the early portion of the season. 

New England Patriots at the Baltimore Ravens, September 20th, 8:20 PM NBC

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    This game is a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game, as both teams have made key additions to their rosters.

    Defensively, the Baltimore Ravens will be better prepared for the New England Patriots no-huddle offense, which they used extensively in their last meeting. They patiently waited for the Pats to set in their final offensive formation before implementing their defensive scheme. This was a useful tool in January and could be once again this September. 

New York Giants at the Philadelphia Eagles, September 27th, 8:20 PM NBC

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    You can expect another classic NFC East matchup, as both teams have the talent to win the division outright and contend for a Super Bowl title. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning loves to play in a hostile environment on the road and snatch a victory away from the home team.

    Each team has made the necessary changes to still contend for many years to come. The depth on each roster will play a key role in determining the winner of this game. It should a hard-hitting contest, as both teams could lose key starters due to injury. The outcome could be decided by which bench is ready to out-perform the other. 

Houston Texans at the New York Jets, October 4th, 8:30 PM ESPN

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    The self-proclaimed best defensive mind in professional football, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, will have his hands full when the Houston Texans come to the Meadowlands this October.

    Granted, he was a part of building a great defense in Baltimore and was the main cog in turning around the franchise in New York, but last season was a disaster, both personally and professionally for Ryan.

    The Jets will need to establish a pass rush or the Texans will put up points with their high-powered passing game. This game will be an excellent barometer to determine if quarterback Matt Schaub has successfully recovered from multiple injuries sustained last season that ended his year prematurely. 

Denver Broncos at the San Diego Chargers, October 15th, 8:30 PM ESPN

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    The AFC West is a wide-open division, as each team has quality starters but lack the depth to be the prohibitive favorite.

    Right now, the Denver Broncos are the glamorous pick, but as the season progresses, we will learn more about this team. Team president John Elway is banking on Manning's charm to help win them an AFC West divisional title.

    Historically, the San Diego Chargers have been able to confuse Peyton with their defensive alignments, as they cleverly disguise their blitz packages against him. 

New Orleans Saints at the Denver Broncos, October 28th, 8:20 PM NBC

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    The New Orleans Saints don’t owe the NFL an apology, as BountyGate had no role in their Super Bowl win. This contest could be a determining factor on the Saints becoming a true playoff contender. A road win in Denver could give them the necessary momentum to secure a top-seed in the NFC.

    The Broncos will rely less on the running game with Peyton Manning under center this season. Barring any training camp trade, Elway has still neglected to acquire a true No. 1 receiver for his new star. 

Baltimore Ravens at the Pittsburgh Steelers, November 18th, 8:20 PM NBC

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    The hiring of Todd Haley as the new offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers provides a new twist to this divisional rivalry. Under Bruce Arians play-calling, the Baltimore Ravens struggled to keep them out of the end zone, while Haley is winless in head-to-head meetings.

    Hopefully, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been a good student in learning Haley’s complex offensive attack, as he will need to make the right audible calls against this tough defense. Pittsburgh fans are hoping and praying that Big Ben’s “do what it takes to win” attitude doesn’t clash with Haley’s micro-managing style of coaching. 

New England Patriots at the New York Jets, November 22nd, 8:20 PM NBC

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    What a tremendous divisional matchup to end Thanksgiving Day, as this game will begin a tough stretch in the schedule for the New England Patriots. If they play well, then a playoff berth is almost guaranteed.

    In years past, the Pats have benefited from an easy schedule. But having the best record in the NFL hasn’t produced much success in the playoffs for them as of late.

    You expect Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to add a few wrinkles to his game plan against a fierce rival. The New York Jets will try to establish a pass rush from the outside to harass Tom Brady all game long.

Green Bay Packers at the New York Giants, November 25th, 8:20 PM NBC

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    NFL fans know how explosive the Green Bay Packers powerful offensive arsenal can be from week-to-week, as this alone could make them a Super Bowl contender. But they do have major question marks with their woefully weak defense.

    Last season, the Packers were susceptible to the big pass play, as their defensive secondary lacks a true leader on the field. The position has been hit with too many injuries and a large turnover of roster depth, thus making it hard to gain any consistency on the field.

Houston Texans at the New England Patriots, December 10th, 8:30 PM ESPN

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    That’s what the Houston Texans received from the league office, who gave them a ringing endorsement with the amount of prime-time games on their 2012 schedule. If they can travel to the Northeast and defeat one of the most successful franchises (New England Patriots) in recent history, then the Texans will have changed the opinion of all football fans about them permanently. They will need to set the tone early and stay away from the big turnover or mental mistake to win the game.

San Francisco 49ers at the New England Patriots, December 16th, 8:20 PM NBC

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    This primetime game could be a Super Bowl preview, as both teams have been the preseason pick to play on the final Sunday of the season.

    The San Francisco 49ers have questions that need to be answered before January:

    Has the clock struck midnight on them?

    Can the Niners compete for a Super Bowl title without having a quality quarterback under center?

    Was last season just aberration for quarterback Alex Smith?

    This team is capable of playing in the Super Bowl, but are they the clear-cut favorite?

    Maybe. We’ll have to just let the regular season play out.