Out of the smoke and into the lights, much like the NFL schedule for 2011.
First off, as a journalist, I will try not to sound biased towards my favourite team (New England) and try to focus on the games that not only I am looking forward to but what many fans out there are looking forward to.
With the schedule released, the NFL has stepped forward to the 2011 season. Barring more disagreements, the CBA should be settled as both sides have agreed to start talking again.
With week one, I see tons of match ups that I am salivating over and they take up four of my top 10 games to look forward to and it gets a little sporadic after that.
So with that, here, in no particular order, are 10 games that the NFL has to look forward to in 2011.
In a clash of the past two Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers host the New Orleans Saints in the first game of the 2011 season.
Aaron Rodgers will look for the beginnings of an encore performance. Whispers of consecutive Super Bowls have been rampant since the Pack beat the Steelers to claim their first championship since 1996.
Drew Brees will undoubtedly have an answer for them as the Saints look to improve off a successful 11-5 season that went down the drain thanks to a Wild-Card round loss to the surprising 7-9 NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks.
Marking the start of a great season on a Thursday night in prime time and sets up a bulk of intriguing games on the Sunday and Monday.
The Panthers hold all the keys to the NFL Draft as they will pick first after a 2-14 record last season.
This game in particular holds some relevance as it is pegged to be the debut of that first overall selection. One hopes it will be Cam Newton and is a great match up to start off with as the Cardinals aren't exactly the team in the lime light at this point and could even debut a rookie QB of their own, depending on how draft day goes. Should be a lock though, quarterbacks have been chosen first overall in eight of the last 10 drafts (Long in '08 and Mario Williams in '06).
Lets take a look at first overall picks of the past 4 years and how they did in their first NFL game (and let the speculation continue).
2010: Sam Bradford (QB) and the Rams squared off against the Cardinals. He was 32-55 for 253 yards and threw a TD. The downside was that he also threw three interceptions en route to a 17-13 loss.
2009: Matt Stafford (QB) and the Lions took on the New Orleans Saints. Stafford went 16-37 for 205 yards and threw three interceptions. He ran for a TD but it wasn't enough as the Saints won 45-27.
2008: Jake Long (OT) and the Dolphins took on the New York Jets. It was also Brett Favre's debut for the club he spent one season with. Long started the season at the top of the depth chart. Chad Pennington threw two touchdowns. He was also sacked three times and threw an interception and the Dolphins lost 20-14.
2007: JaMarcus Russell (QB) came into a game in the second quarter as a member of the Oakland Raiders against the Denver Broncos in Week 13. Russell was 4-7 for 56 yards in that game but the bulk of the work was already done as the Raiders came away with a 34-20 victory. Certainly a high spot in an otherwise bleak career thus far.
If you aren't looking forward to this game, you do not appreciate good football, plain and simple.
The Ravens and Steelers are fierce divisional foes and their games almost always have hard hitting, trash talking and point producing. Fuel was added to the fire in the playoffs last season as the Ravens will have something to prove after the Steelers knocked them out in a thrilling 31-24 win en route to the Super Bowl appearance.
That being said, the Steelers will have to overcome that loss and continue their high level of playing if they hope to get back to the Super Bowl this time around.
As divisional foes, they will meet again in Week 9 at Heinz Field but until then, the Ravens get hosting duties for a barn burner and unlike last year, Roethlisberger won't have to sit out the beginning of the season so this game is loaded up and ready to go, cannot wait!
This one is especially exciting to me. My favourite team, a divisional match up and the best part is that it is the first part of a double header for the first Monday Night Football of the year.
The Patriots are coming off a disappointing loss in last year's divisional round to their hated rivals, the New York Jets but also have plenty of upside coming into the season. Depending on how their draft and free agency goes, Brady will have the opportunity to be Brady for 60 minutes once again and his first victims are the Miami Dolphins. I say victims because last season, the Patriots won both of their games against Miami by a combined score of 79-21.
The Dolphins will have to put up a fight this year and this off-season is the best time to address it but the start of another promising season for the NFL's highest scoring franchise from a year ago is enough for fans to enjoy for the whole night (or until the Pats start coasting, in that case, just keep watching as the Raiders and Broncos go on right after).
If the Dolphins fall flat, there isn't too much to panic about, they don't play the Patriots again until Week 16.
Another much hyped game involving the Patriots are against the team that shattered their Super Bowl aspirations a year ago, the New York Jets. In that playoff game, Mark Sanchez was brilliant and unlike some of his teammates, decided to reserve his talking to the field and it paid off, going 16-25 for 194 yards and 3 touchdowns and a 28-21 victory.
The trash talking Jets have been slowly growing as the legitimate threat that the Patriots have cringed over after coasting with eight of the last 10 divisional titles in the AFC East. Last year was a dog fight up until the Patriots smoked the Jets 45-3 in Week 13.
This season, who knows what the Jets will have in store. Rex Ryan will probably give us media types plenty to work with in the week leading up to the game and beyond but as a fan of the team that isn't known for trash talk, I will definitely have mixed feelings going forward. I guess you can say I have a love/hate feeling when it comes to the brash Jets coach.
After this game in Foxborough, the Pats and Jets will lock up again in Week 10 at New Meadowlands Stadium.
An interesting match up as these two teams face off for the first time since the Saints defeated the Colts 31-17 to claim their first Super Bowl title at Super Bowl XLIV (44).
It will be viewed by a large audience as it is a Sunday Night game at the Superdome.
It fits great in the middle of the schedule, two top teams at a possible turning point in each of their seasons. We can only hope Peyton Manning and Drew Brees come out like they did in their Super Bowl season and if so, expect a classic!
I'm a sucker for games on neutral fields and a game between two teams that finished with at least 10 wins last year (and a Bears team that advanced to the NFC Title game), this one should be good from Wembley Stadium in London, England.
The Buccaneers may have some fans over there already after their last visit in the 2009 season, albeit, an unsuccessful one after losing 35-7 to the Patriots.
The Bears have a rough schedule, facing off against the Falcons, Saints and Packers in succession to open up the season. The Packers game should be interesting as well (however, I didn't put it on this list, it's more of an honourable mention) but after that, three straight games against sub-500 teams a year ago (Panthers, Lions, Vikings) will allow Jay Cutler to come into form for his trip across the pond.
Like I said before, I am a sucker for neutral playing fields and although Toronto is a stones throw away from Buffalo, I am standing by my statement.
The Bills may have something to be happy about after choosing third overall at the draft and could provide the spark needed to get more people out to the Rogers Centre and see what they have to offer against Donovan McNabb and Washington.
I can only hope Mike Shanahan has his game face on, like he usually does, and creates some excitement for the Canadian fans, or else, Buffalo may come out swinging and steal one.
They met in a pre-season tilt last season and Washington came out with a decisive 42-17 victory.
Thanksgiving in the United States means to have thanks for the gifts and qualities that life has to offer. It also means football all day and what a way to start it as we go back to Ford Field in Detroit.
After a nail biter last year against the Patriots, the Lions get a divisional foe and last year's Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers.
Matt Stafford will be in tough against a great Packers defense and Aaron Rodgers may even have some worrying to do himself as the Lions defensive system just seems to get better and better with new blood and experience coming in on a regular basis.
This will be a great game and a good lead up to their other game that will be played in Week 17.
This will be followed by a classic in Arlington, TX as Dallas plays host to the Miami Dolphins. A game between two storied franchises on a weekday? yes please!
The final enticing game in my eyes involves the Patriots and the Colts. Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady. Two of the powerhouses of the AFC and a combined 6 Super Bowl appearances since 2001, the Pats and Colts are set for another clash of titans in Week 13.
The Patriots won a close one in Week 11 last season by a score of 31-28 and will meet for the ninth straight season. Last time, the Pats were up 31-14 at half and Manning did what Manning does best and that's develop a comeback late but an INT late stopped any chance of a Colt win.
It'll be great to see where these two stack up in the standings at this point and as a game being played on a Sunday night, we can expect a shootout to play out at Gillette Stadium.