In an era of professional sports where real rivalries are dying or in decline all over the place—and many remaining rivalries are more invention than organic—the NFL deserves credit for doing the best among America's four major sports in cultivating bad blood that is at least believable.
Part of the NFL's winning blueprint? Strategic scheduling.
It's no accident that the Patriots and Colts still hook up at least once a year, despite having been realigned in separate divisions. It wasn't a random act of chance that the Packers and Saints cross paths this season at the same time when Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees are snatching the NFC's elite quarterback torch from the gnarled fingers of Brett Favre. (Those two surpassed Favre a while ago, but it's symbolic now with Favre's retirement.)
And given the events of the past week or so, don't be surprised if NFL Network has a camera ready for the first awkward training-camp meeting between Steelers teammates James Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger.
This is not the NBA or NHL, where every team plays each other no matter what and the schedule-makers just have to make the right dates. It's not even MLB, where every team plays those within its league several times a year and interleague contests are more novelty than rivalry-building. Often times, the NFL has to make its marquee matchups happen.
With prospects improving for an imminent end to the NFL lockout, it appears safe to look forward to the 2011 season. And while the players will be starting behind the curve, the schedule isn't going anywhere. So ready or not, the games are coming.
Here are 16 games on the schedule worth an appointment viewing: