The 2013 NFL schedule has just been released, and there are plenty of exciting Monday Night Football matchups to look forward to.
It's still a little early to figure out what implications these games will ultimately have, especially with the draft promising to change the league landscape just days from now. However, there are several tantalizing showdowns that are worth an early look.
Week 9: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers
As ESPN points out, this is only the third time these two teams will meet on Monday night in the past 10 years, which is surprising considering that this is arguably the best rivalry in NFL history.
It's the dawn of a new era in many ways for the Bears, with longtime coach Lovie Smith gone and West Coast offensive guru Marc Trestman at the helm. Star linebacker Brian Urlacher also won't occupy the heart of the defense any longer.
Two consecutive late-season collapses have resulted in missed opportunities at the playoffs for Chicago. But the Pack have had relatively underwhelming showings in their two trips to the postseason since winning Super Bowl XLV.
Green Bay's defense has been poor over the past two seasons, and QB Aaron Rodgers has taken a pummeling with shoddy pass protection and a mostly nonexistent running game.
With the young Minnesota Vikings coming off of a surprisingly successful 2012 and the talented Detroit Lions poised for a bounce-back campaign, the NFC North should be one of the most competitive divisions.
This midseason barn burner will be a telling indication of where both teams are. Bears WR Brandon Marshall proclaimed the two teams' last encounter to be the biggest game of his career, and it resulted in a 21-13 Packers victory.
There shouldn't be a shortage of chatter from both sides this time around, either.
Week 11: New England Patriots at Carolina Panthers
This is hinging on the Panthers having a stellar season, and it's certainly feasible since they won their final four games in 2012.
With Cam Newton in his third year and expected improvement arriving on the defensive side of the ball, it seems about time Ron Rivera's bunch got it together and made a push for the playoffs.
Should that be the case, this will have massive ramifications. The Pats should be perched atop the AFC East, but unless their suspect secondary drastically improves, it could be a long day against Newton and Co.
Tom Brady's Patriots continue to overcome lackluster defensive units to consistently set themselves up for deep playoff runs, though, and 2013 shouldn't prove to be any different in that regard.
Carolina will be coming off a home contest against NFC South rival Atlanta and a trip to San Francisco, so it will be interesting to see how they respond in this part of their critical stretch.
Job security isn't an issue for Bill Belichick or any of the Patriots' leading figures, but for Rivera, this contest will likely be the make-or-break juncture of his time with the Panthers. If the team continues to struggle, look for Carolina to move in a different direction in 2014.
The former No. 1 overall pick, Newton will be under tremendous pressure to notch a victory, especially since only two of his 13 wins as a starter have come against eventual playoff teams.
Week 16: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers
It's a rematch of last year's NFC Championship game, but this time it will be in San Francisco. It will be the last contest ever held in Candlestick Park before the 49ers switch stadiums. Not much else needs to be said.
The Falcons have certainly circled this contest on their calendars after blowing a 17-0 lead to miss out on a Super Bowl appearance.
Atlanta's passing offense gave the Niners serious problems in that clash, as Julio Jones got off to a ridiculous start en route to 11 catches, 182 yards and two touchdowns. Roddy White also had 100 yards on seven receptions.
It remains to be seen how GM Trent Baalke utilizes his plethora of draft picks, but he did acquire the services of former elite corner Nnamdi Asomugha, who could be in the midst of a resurgence by this point in the year.
New Falcons RB Steven Jackson will get a crack at the Niners defense behind a slightly better offensive line and should be on a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the first time in his illustrious career.
Those are just some of the storylines surrounding this game, and it could very well be a battle for one of the top two seeds in the NFC.
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