NFL Predictions 2011: Ranking the 50 Can't-Miss Games of 2011
Every season, the NFL presents a large number of games that their fans recognize as "must see."
Because of the comparative parity in the NFL, there are so many possible classic games lurking out there. It's one of the reasons why the NFL is so popular: fans simply can't predict when a once-in-a-lifetime game is about to occur.
Yet, there are always great games that we can see coming a mile away. So I've decided to make a list of 50 games I won't want to miss in the upcoming 2011 season.
What makes a great game? Well, for the purposes of this list, I'll say the raw matchup (the teams involved in other words) and the context (is it early or late in the season?).
Obviously certain games take precedent over others, no matter when they take place (we'll see a few of those), but by and large the the higher ranking games on this list are ones which will be played in the latter part of the season.
The enormous elephant in the room is, obviously, what if there aren't any games? Will the lockout derail any, or all, of football's 2011 season? For the sake of this list, I'll think positively and assume that it won't.
(And try to keep in mind that, yes, I realize it's a subjective list.)
No. 50: New Orleans Saints at Green Bay Packers, September 8th
First game of the season! Always a game to see, no matter if you're a football fan or not.
And what a matchup. Two extremely high-powered offenses squaring off in Green Bay. That it will only be September means two things.
First, the weather shouldn't play too much of a factor unless it's downpouring.
And second, it will be an intriguing early game but not in anyway decisive. Thus, it only ranks 50th on the list.
No. 49: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens, September 11th
This game always makes happy. Guys get hit, and they get up. There's no sign of diving or any shenanigans like in so many other sports these days.
(Note to soccer and basketball fans, I still love you guys, but you have to admit that's true.)
And the two teams seem to have a grudging respect for one another (well, depending on you ask anyway).
Basically it's good old fashioned football that has decided the fate of the AFC North the past few seasons. I love it.
No. 48: Dallas Cowboys at New York Jets, September 11th
This one will be weird for the Cowboys, since 99 percent of the time they're coming to the Jersey Meadowlands to play their familiar rival, the Giants.
Yet this time they'll face Rex Ryan and the Jets.
Behind two defenses who pride themselves on "getting the quarterback," I predict it will be a game for quarterbacks Tony Romo and Mark Sanchez to forget. Not so for the fans, who should relish the carnage.
No. 47: San Diego Chargers at New England Patriots, September 18th
Whenever two of the most competent (and confident) quarterbacks in the league play each other, touchdowns are bound to happen by the bag-full.
Still, it will be a very interesting contest considering New England has been trying to improve their pass defense over the last few seasons.
Furthermore, their curious decision not to address their pass-rush in the draft will be given an early examination.
No. 46: Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons, September 18th
Another Sunday night matchup, Mike Vick and his incredible array of weapons march into Atlanta looking to make a statement of intent for the regular season.
This game is probably more important for the Falcons, as it will show how they measure up to one of the league's most talented teams.
If the Falcons can get a win (which is entirely possibly given that they're at home), then it should send a clear message to the rest of an increasingly competitive NFC South.
No 45: Denver Broncos at Tennessee Titans, September 25th
On paper it looks like a random game, but think about it for a second.
Denver still has lingering quarterback issues, and so does Tennessee.
This could be the game where either Tim Tebow is given the starting job for either the first time or full-time.
And it could also be the debut of Jake Locker (if Vince Young is traded, whoever the veteran QB is usually starts to lose their grip on the starting spot around the week 3-5 area).
No. 44: New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles, September 25th
Think about the last time these two teams played...
...yup, it was that game. No escaping it, Giants fans, this is an important game whether it's played in the first month or the last month.
For whatever reason, and even before Mike Vick played a prominent role for Philly, the Eagles have been a bogeyman for New York, winning an extremely high percentage of their games since 2001.
If New York can get a win on the road, it would go an enormous distance towards restoring confidence.
No. 43: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts, September 25th
This has "Colts win" written all over it simply because they're at home and on the turf. Their pass-rushers will be able to explode off the line of scrimmage as will their receivers.
But the most important aspect, for me, will be the performance of Indi's running game. Have they improved? Well, if you want to know, then there's no one better to face then Pittsburgh's defense. They specialize in stopping the run.
If Big Ben can keep plays alive like he does so well, then the Steelers will be in it late, where anything can happen. Potential AFC Championship matchup.
No. 42: New York Jets at Baltimore Ravens, October 2nd
Another mention for the Ravens, another very physical game.
Both of these teams will certainly try to out-hit one another. That's great news for fans, since it usually makes for a close game.
I could very well see this coming down to the final few minutes. Can Flacco or Sanchez make something happen?
No. 41: Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears, October 2nd
Another case where it could be the debut for a high-profile rookie QB. This time it would be Cam Newton, the first overall pick from the 2011 draft.
Rookies aren't always handed the optimum times to debut (like when John Elway started his first game against the Mean Joe Green and the Steel Curtain).
Newton could very well get some playing time during this game, and what better way to acclimate to the NFL than running with the likes of Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher.
No. 40: Indianapolis Colts at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, October 3rd
For the Bucs, their franchise might look totally different than it did in 2003, but no doubt they'll be reminded of the horrible game from that season when they—as defending Super Bowl champs—blew a 21-point fourth quarter lead.
Peyton Manning, who orchestrated that comeback, is still the pillar of strength for the Colts and will be hoping he won't have to wait till the fourth quarter this time.
That it's on Monday Night Football again makes it that much better.
No. 39: Kansas City Chiefs at Indianapolis Colts, October 9th
After a key Monday Night Football game, Indi has a quick turnaround the next week to face K.C.
The Chiefs are a growing team and had a very productive draft. Going into the home of the Colts is a difficult proposition, even for a veteran team.
Getting a win on the road in such a tough place would be a large confidence boost for Kansas City.
No. 38: Oakland Raiders at Houston Texans, October 9th
Both of these teams have great potential ... and both of these teams have failed to reach that potential in quite some time.
The Texans are still seeking their first ever playoff appearance since their 21st century reincarnation.
And Oakland is still trying to erase the ghosts of futility that have haunted them since losing in the Super Bowl game in 2003.
No. 37: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons, October 9th
A playoff rematch from last season, both teams look very solid heading into this season.
As long as neither team is struck by injuries to their quarterbacks, I expect a high score.
No. 36: Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers, October 16th
The Jaguars perpetually seem to be a team that isn't quite able to get over the hump. Playing the Steelers is a good indicator of how close they might be (or might not be).
After seeing his team take Blaine Gabbert with their first pick, current Jags quarterback David Gerard must know that his days as the starter could be numbered.
For some people, this type of challenge inspires their very best. Winning against Pittsburgh would take exactly that.
No. 35: Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots, October 16th
An intriguing matchup for any fan of the game, since there are a lot of interesting dynamics.
It's also Rob Ryan, brother of Rex Ryan, taking on New England's offense. He beat the Patriots last year while coaching the Browns defense, so look to see similar tactics again.
No. 34: Miami Dolphins at New York Jets, October 17th
Another Monday Night Football contest between two franchises with a great rivalry. You think of the fake spike by Marino. The touchdown to Jumbo Elliot. It's really a great portfolio of games.
This year could be no different. Though the Jets are the decided favorites, no one can doubt Miami's ability to fight.
No. 33: Washington Redskins at Carolina Panthers, October 23rd
Ok...maybe this is just a sign that I really, really hope the lockout doesn't continue.
(And that I'm addicted to watching football.)
On a serious note, seemingly innocuous games like this one turn into instant-classics more often than you might realize. It's random to pick this one, but I'll just use it as an example.
Never underestimate the NFL!
No. 32: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings, October 23rd
With the final retirement of Brett Favre (as far as we know), the Vikings now face the situation that Green Bay found itself in only a few years before.
They have an unproven quarterback that they drafted in the first round, but the superstructure of a winning team still largely intact.
There are differences though, like the fact that Aaron Rodgers wasn't a rookie when Favre left. Plus, the Vikings are coming off a losing season (though they did make the NFC title game two years ago).
I could see anything happening in this game.
No. 31: Indianapolis Colts at New Orleans Saints, October 23rd
When two of the games finest quarterbacks square off, it’s always worthy of note (and our attention).
More importantly, it will be a chance for both teams to take stock of their defenses. In both cases, the defenses will determine whether they’re simply very good teams or Super Bowl teams.
No. 30: Cleveland Browns at San Francisco 49ers, October 30th
I have a sneaky feeling that both of these teams will surprisingly be in it.
For the 49ers, their division is much more open than almost any other.
And for the Browns, Colt McCoy might be an underrated quarterback in his second season.
No. 29: Miami Dolphins at New York Giants, October 30th
For two teams who could be on the early playoff bubble, this will be a great way to definitively put themselves in the race.
Miami will want to show they can win games on the road. The Giants, at least in the last few seasons, have had the opposite problem (remember their 2007 run came entirely on the road).
No. 28: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles, October 30th
People don’t exactly like the Cowboys in Philadelphia (understatement of the year). So the atmosphere should be great.
And with Vick going against a retooled Cowboy defense and Romo dealing with the Eagle blitzes, I look forward to a classic.
No. 27: Atlanta Falcons at Indianapolis Colts, November 6th
A battle of the Southern Division powerhouses.
Again, the Falcons pass-rush will be tested. If they can't get to Peyton Manning, then it'll be trouble.
No. 26: New York Giants at New England Patriots, November 6th
The rematch of Super Bowl XLII is bound to bring out the best in New England. Tom Brady will be desperate to erase the bitter pill he and his teammates were forced to swallow on the cusp of an undefeated season.
They won't say it, but New England will be gunning for revenge.
That said, they'll have to overcome a reinforced Giants defense to do it.
No. 25: Green Bay Packers at San Diego Chargers, November 6th
Two of the best pure passers in the league with Aaron Rodgers and Phillip Rivers.
And in terms of stockpiled talent, the Packers and Chargers are near the top of the league.
Both played well last season and ranked high statistically, but with differing results.
No. 24: New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons, November 13th
This could be a game that sets the tone for the NFC South race.
Drew Brees and the Saints will be gunning to reclaim the division crown and possibly home-field advantage in the playoffs (where no one can deny the raucous support they get).
But Matt Ryan and the Falcons found a way to get it done last year and won't be looking to relinquish their toehold on the division. They traded heavily to acquire Julio Jones, and this will be the stage upon which that trade could be proven brilliant.
No. 23: Houston Texans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, November 13th
Two rising teams with extremely talented players.
Two underrated quarterbacks who could be poised to break onto the playoff stage and make noise.
Both will be grappling with finding some consistency in order to overcome more highly touted divisional opponents.
(Wait, that just sounded like a trailer for an action movie ... but really this will be a great game.)
No. 22: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears, November 13th
So much of the hopes for these teams are based on their quarterbacks staying healthy, and their offensive lines playing well (the two things are linked, no doubt).
And the Lions have slowly stockpiled talent on both sides of the ball.
The Bears are coming off a run to the NFC title game (the second of the Lovie Smith era).
I see this one coming down to the wire.
No. 21: New York Jets at Denver Broncos, November 17th
Interesting game for both sides due to the unusual Thursday night schedule.
For the Jets, they're playing on short rest after a very important game (we'll get to that game in a bit).
And don't sleep on the Broncos, whose defense will be much improved and who could be sneakily successful with Mr. Tebow.
No. 20: San Diego Chargers at Chicago Bears, November 20th
As the usual NFL season goes, the Chargers are getting ready to churn out another late-season run at this point.
Chicago also made a late run last year. What both teams should focus on is not starting out so poorly.
But as we all know, this isn't a perfect world, and I predict this to be a veritable must-win game for one or both of these teams.
No. 19: Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, November 21st
Two regimes built at least partially by Scott Pioli. Both of them are very talented.
As the season begins to enter it's homestretch, both the Pats and the Chiefs will probably be in tight divisional races.
They'll be looking for a statement win. New England might not be able to achieve that in this game, but Kansas City can.
No. 18: Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys, November 24th
It's turkey day game, part deux! (We'll get to turkey day game, part one in a second).
And it's Dolphins-Cowboys on Thanksgiving? You know what that means. They'll be showing that clip over and over and over again.
As a Giants fan, so long as I'm not in too much of a food coma, I'll be watching just to see that clip.
No. 17: Cleveland Browns at Cincinnati Bengals, November 27th
Who knows what the quarterback situation in Cincinnati will be.
We can't know that at this point. What we do know is that the matchups of these two teams generally produce exciting games, including that game a few years ago when the score was like 145-144.
Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. In this case, it could very well be familiarity breeds touchdowns.
No. 16: New England Patriots at Philadelphia Eagles, November 27th
This could be one of the best games of the season.
One of the best defensive minds of his generation (Bill Belichick) going against the best athlete and scheme-worthy player of his era (Mike Vick).
In terms of tactics, it will be fascinating to see what the Patriots do to counter the explosive Vick and his many equally explosive receivers/running backs.
No. 15: New York Giants at New Orleans Saints, November 28th
The Giants got demolished by the Saints on MNF two years ago, when the Saints went on to win the Super Bowl. It caused the season to spiral downwards for the G-Men and ended in disappointment.
So they will undoubtedly be looking to plant the flag in New Orleans this time by securing a win (which would be impressive to any neutral observer, even the tough New York media).
No. 14: Kansas City Chiefs at New York Jets, December 11th
If it's a normal year, then the Chargers will be breathing down the neck of whoever is leading the AFC West by this point in December.
So the pressure will be on Matt Cassell and the Chiefs to keep notching wins.
The Jets will probably be in their own tight race for the AFC East. No resting starters here.
No. 13: Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens, December 11th
Peyton Manning going against the Ravens is never a boring affair.
What will be more interesting will be the ability of Indi's running attack to move the ball against an impressive Raven front.
The game might mean more for the Ravens, if only as a psychological check to see if they can contain one of the game's best.
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, December 17th
A Saturday NFL game! Very rare circumstance, which only adds to the game's build-up.
Added to that, two very exciting teams who will probably be fighting tooth and nail for a playoff spot.
The Cowboys are coming off a year which was riddled with injuries and failed expectations. They'll want to change that.
No. 11: New York Jets at Philadelphia Eagles, December 18th
Another interesting matchup of a savvy coach versus Mike Vick.
Rex Ryan will no doubt blitz Vick repeatedly. It was a strategy the Giants used well for three-and-a-half quarters last season, but any slip up can be disastrous.
No. 10: San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders, January 1st
The Chargers are going to need to win this game. That's what I'm willing for it to be, anyway. They struggle to make things easy for themselves.
As for the Raiders, I'm cautiously optimistic that they can compete for a serious playoff spot this year. Who knows, they might regress, and I might look like an idiot saying this, but this game could be a decider for the AFC West.
No. 9: Philadelphia Eagles at the New York Giants, November 20th
I wonder who will be more nervous for this game: Giants fans in general, or whoever the Giants punter is?
Seriously, if they lose the first game against Vick and the Eagles, then this will be a make or break contest of wills, regardless of their record.
These games have a history of being close and going right down to the wire.
No. 8: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons, January 1st
Each team will probably be in the playoff hunt. And each will probably need a win to either get into the playoffs or secure home-field advantage.
Since neither defense is particularly frightening, this should mean that there will be a ton of points going up.
No. 7: Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, December 25th
Christmas! Great game lined up, with two traditional rivals playing in what will probably be a critical game.
Both teams have capable and competent veterans who have played in big moments before, so look for a contest filled with well-executed football.
As we take stock of another holiday gone by, this should be the perfect way to close out the day.
No. 6: Chicago Bears at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, October 23rd
The Wembley match should happen again this year, as long as the lockout is settled by August 1st; otherwise they play it in the regular facility in Tampa.
People knock this game, but just look at the numbers. The tickets sell out literally in minutes. There is an audience in England and around the world.
Hopefully, we can finally give our British friends a truly great game. And the Bears/Bucs match could do just that.
No. 5: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers, October 30th
This rivalry has been one of the best over the past decade.
Whether it's accusations of cheating, Brady beating the flu, various players talking smack in the media or whatever, these games always have an extra charge.
It might be a midseason game, but it will feel like January (actually it might literally feel like January in Pittsburgh, you never know).
No. 4: New England Patriots at New York Jets, November 13th
The Patriots are only too aware of how last year played out. After demolishing the Jets in the return match of the regular season and trampling their New York rivals to the division title, they lost to Rex Ryan and his team in the playoffs.
Such a disappointing anticlimax will no doubt teach Bill Belichick's team the secret of not peaking too soon. Still, it's a tougher thing to do than to talk about.
And the Jets will be at home in the second game this year, always an advantage when you have such a fanbase.
No. 3: Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints, December 26th
The last Monday Night Football game of the 2011 season. And what a game it promises to be.
Falcons vs. Saints, part II. It may very well decide the division, or even home-field advantage.
And what about the fantasy implications? (Okay, maybe not.)
But both teams will be fired up to make a statement. The Saints will want to reassure themselves that their defense can play in a big game. The Falcons and Matt Ryan will want to do the opposite.
No. 2: New York Giants "At" New York Jets, December 24th
A Christmas Eve special of epic proportions. It's probably the weirdest game of the season simply from the standpoint of one team being considered the "away" team.
It will no doubt be a bizarre dynamic for Eli and the Giants to go to the same place where they work every single day and suddenly have to report to the visitor's locker room.
Add in the likely scenario that both teams will genuinely need to win the game and it makes for must-see TV.
No. 1A: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions, November 24th
Turkey day, part I!
Probably my favorite football game every year, if for no other reason than the fact that I'm generally in an awesome mood after chomping down a ridiculous amount of food.
But in terms of football, what's not to like here? The Lions, who only a few years ago went 0-16, are now creating a buzz after adding a myriad of talent since Matt Millen left the place.
If Matthew Stafford can stay on the field, I have a good feeling about Detroit in the NFC North.
And what better way to show how far you've come than playing (and maybe beating) the defending Super Bowl champions during one of the most watched games of the season?
I think Detroit will be supercharged for this one, and there's no question the Packers, with Aaron Rodgers, will bring it.
I know it's a wild decision, but this is my 1A early pick for the "can't miss game of the season."
No. 1B: Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots
Clearly it's a sign of age, or too much partying/too little sleep but in the original draft I somehow forgot to include the annual version of the NFL's best 21st century rivalry.
Peyton vs. Brady. Belichick vs. Peyton. However you want to classify it, the game is usually awesome. So while 1A on this list is the game I might love the most, this one has the best chance to be the greatest actual game.
Considering the talent of the two teams, their recent history in the Super Bowl and their recent history playing each other, no other contest is usually hyped as much.
And few other rivalries consistently deliver like this one.