So, the NFL lockout is over, and we can now look forward to a new season. This prospect was threatened throughout the offseason as NFL owners and players could not consent to a new bargaining agreement.
But now, there is no need to worry about the season being disrupted, and we can look forward to a new season with many great matches taking place from Week 1 through Week 17. Whether the games are between two divisional rivals, have playoff implications, or are simply games that pit some of the most exciting teams in the league against one another, each week has great games to look forward to.
Here are the best matches from each week in the NFL; all of them are must-see encounters.
The NFL did well to select this game to begin the new season, as two of the most entertaining teams to watch take each other on in the curtain-opener at Lambeau Field. What could be better than a matchup between the last two Super Bowl winners in the first game of the new season?
Many are predicting that the Packers will return to the Super Bowl, as they are likely to maintain most of their Championship-winning players come Week 1 on both sides of the ball. This means they possess one of the league's greatest aerial threats on offense as well as the second best defense in the conference.
Meanwhile, the Saints are looking to bounce back from their shock exit in the Wild Card stage of the playoffs to the Seahawks in January and are the main challengers to the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC South title, perhaps the most competitive division in the NFL this season.
Most importantly, a heavily offensively-minded match is an ideal game for everyone to sit back and enjoy following an offseason which threatened to disrupt the new season.
All eyes will be on Michael Vick in this Week 2 Sunday Night Football game as he leads his Philadelphia Eagles to Atlanta, the place he began his NFL career. It was here that he won so many fans in six years with the Falcons and established himself as one of the most entertaining and talented quarterbacks in the NFL.
Even if we ignore the Michael Vick story that will inevitably dominate all of the buildup before this game, it should still be a great matchup between two top teams with points to prove.
The Falcons will have to show that they can repeat the form that earned them the NFC South title and best regular season record in the conference. With competition from the Saints and Buccaneers, it will be difficult to defend their divisional title, especially considering that no team has done so since the division was created in 2002.
The Eagles will also have a tricky task in trying to defend their NFC East title, something that hasn't been done since 2004. But, possibly with the exception of trips to their divisional rivals, this is the Eagles' hardest away game, and a win here would go a long way towards securing another title.
Another reason why this is a must-see football is that both of these teams have explosive, entertaining offenses, like the two teams in the game I chose for Week 1. This is clear because no team in the NFC produced more points than either of these two last year, and a Vick-less game last year in Philadelphia still produced 48 points in a home victory. Expect more points here.
Two of the AFC’s biggest teams meet up in Week 3, as another great Sunday Night Football game sees the Pittsburgh Steelers go to Indianapolis. The teams have represented the AFC in five of the previous six Super Bowls, and only twice in the previous 10 seasons have neither team managed to reach the AFC Championship game. Thus, recent history shows that the two should be challenging in the postseason.
But the Colts face a genuine threat from the Houston Texans this year in the AFC South, and questions will be asked about a team that showed its quality at times last year but was also very inconsistent. Performances in games such as this one will determine whether or not the Colts have it in them to push towards Superbowl XLVI, which takes place in Indianapolis.
On the other hand, the Steelers need to prove that their loss in the Super Bowl will not affect them this season. There is little doubt that we will see them reach the postseason again, but questions have been asked about a team featuring many over-30s on both sides of the ball.
For these reasons, this really is a must-see.
Once again, I chose a Sunday Night Football game because it was difficult to ignore this one, featuring the two AFC Wild Card teams from last year, both of whom were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs. Each team stands a great chance of returning to the playoffs again this season.
In a game likely to be dominated by defenses (unlike the games I chose for Weeks 1 and 2), it is hard to imagine many points being scored. The game is likely to be won by the team that pulls off the biggest plays on defense. This was the case when the pair met at the beginning of last season, in which the defenses dominated as the Ravens won a tight 10-9 victory.
This game will also say a lot about quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez in what must be one of the hardest matches either will play this year. As it will be difficult for either team to get many rushing yards, an extra burden will be carried by these two. Both have a chance to prove their doubters wrong, here.
In what is becoming one of the most entertaining rivalries in the NFL, the Jets go to Foxborough after having beaten their rivals at the divisional stage of the playoffs last season.
In a game that followed a week of trash talking in the press, the heavily favored Patriots, who were undoubtedly the best team in the NFL during the regular season, were beaten in a close, exciting encounter which earned the Jets a second consecutive trip to the AFC Championship game.
So, the Patriots will inevitably want to avenge that defeat in a game that will go a long way towards deciding who will win the AFC East title.
With a relatively easy start to their season, the Patriots should be 4-0 heading into this game, and will be looking to continue their winning run. Meanwhile, the Jets are coming off that tricky game in Baltimore. Should they remain undefeated after this week, they will have placed themselves in a strong position to push towards their first AFC East title in nine years.
The Houston Texans, a team who are expected to seriously challenge the Colts for supremacy in the AFC South, play the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6 in a game in which arguably the best defense in the game meets one of the league's most explosive offenses.
This is a great chance for the Houston Texans to finally show that they are capable of reaching the postseason, even though they have a tricky start to the season. And it is games like this Week 6 match in Baltimore that’ll give us an idea as to whether the Texans really are good enough to push towards the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's 10-year history.
This is also a key game for the Ravens, having hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets in Weeks 1 and 4 respectively. They could need a result here to stay in contention in the AFC North.
Considering that last year’s meeting between these two teams went into overtime before the Ravens secured a 34-28 victory, another exciting game should be expected here.
It was difficult to avoid picking the Colts-Saints matchup for Week 7, but this game at Wembley between two teams likely to be challenging for postseason places in the NFC was hard to ignore.
The Buccaneers, who played at Wembley in 2009, are expected to challenge Atlanta and New Orleans for the NFC South title this year and stand every chance at doing so should they remain in decent form entering this match, by which point they'll already have faced their two biggest inter-divisional rivals. With young, talented players on offense such as Josh Freeman and LeGarrette Blount, they are dark horses for the NFC South title.
But they face one of their toughest tests of the season in England when they come up against the Chicago Bears, the third best defense in the NFC last season, and a team who should once again be challenging for the playoffs at the end of the year.
For the first time since the International Series began, Wembley will host a top quality game, which really makes this matchup a must-see.
Two of the big guns in the AFC play each other in this Week 8 encounter, as the team with the best regular season record in the AFC last season plays the winner of last season’s AFC Championship game.
The Patriots have a good record against the Steelers in the last few years, having beaten them in four of their previous five meetings. They put 39 points past them last season at Heinz Field, which is the most points the Steelers have conceded at home since the 2004 AFC Championship Game. With the exception of a tough home encounter against the Jets, the Patriots have a reasonably easy start to the season, and could well be unbeaten when they travel to Pittsburgh.
The Steelers also look good heading into the new season, and despite losing the Super Bowl, they are expected to continue their recent success under Mike Tomlin, who has led them to three playoff appearances and two Super Bowl trips in just four seasons as head coach in Pittsburgh.
Another classic between two of the biggest teams in the AFC is expected here.
Arguably the best rivalry in the NFL is played out once again in Week 9 as the Ravens travel to face the Steelers in a crucial AFC North matchup.
The AFC Divisional playoff meeting, in which the Steelers came back from 14 points down at halftime to win on their way to the Super Bowl, will no doubt leave the Ravens wanting revenge on their return to Heinz Field.
A game of big-hitting, strong defenses and a drive to win that is rarely seen in any other fixture will make this one of the most entertaining games of any season and a must-see on Sunday night in Week 9. This game, like the three games between the two sides last season, is likely to be another close match. Neither team has won one of its matchups by more than seven points since the 2008 AFC Championship game.
In a year where the pair both have two of the easiest statistical chedules in the league, the two meetings with each other will likely determine who will win the AFC North title.
Two teams likely to dominate the NFC South division this season meet in Week 10. Although the rivalry between these two may not be as fierce as some of the games mentioned already, such as New York Jets vs. New England and Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh, there is no doubt that this game is huge for both teams.
Why? Because these two are the most threatening teams in what is becoming the most skillful division in the NFL, as shown by the fact that in each of the last two seasons an NFC South team has held the best regular season record in the conference. If that wasn't enough, the teams possess two of the best offenses in the league and are led by two of the most accurate quarterbacks in the conference.
Also, the games between the two teams last season were both exciting and very close meetings, which were won by just three points on both occasions.
So, if exciting games between two skillful and well-matched teams are what you want, then look nowhere else in Week 10.
In one of the most exciting games of last season, as I’m sure the fans of both teams remember well, the Philadelphia Eagles came back from a 31-10 deficit with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter to win 38-31 on a punt return touchdown by DeSean Jackson as time expired (left).
The win put the Eagles atop of the NFC East, a position they retained until the end of the year, while the defeat helped to put the Giants out of playoff contention as they were edged out of the Wild Card spots by Green Bay.
As the teams meet again on Sunday Night of Week 11 in New York, the Giants will want revenge for the embarrassing defeat. This will likely be, once again, a crucial game in deciding who will NFC East.
Although most will consider the "Harbaugh Bowl" between the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers to be the game to watch on Thanksgiving Day Week, this NFC North game is one that is worth keeping an eye on.
All those who believe that the Detroit Lions will finally be a team who can challenge for a playoff place have this match to prove their NFC North credentials against the World Champions. There is no doubt that the team, which was an embarrassment at 0-16 in 2008, has since made huge progress on offense and defense, and could be ready to really challenge the Packers and the Bears for NFC North supremacy.
But many are expecting the Packers to make another run in the playoffs. They have retained most of the team that won the Super Bowl in January.
Despite that, the Packers struggled at Ford Field last year, falling in a 7-3 defeat. Another close affair is expected at lunchtime on Thanksgiving Day, which makes this a must-see.
Another game between two heavyweights of the AFC sees the Colts and the Patriots meet on Sunday Night in Week 13.
Despite the fact that the two are in different divisions, they have played each other in each of the last eight seasons. The pair have won four games apiece in that time, and in only one game did the margin of victory exceed seven pooints.
At a time when one of the two could become the leading team in the conference, this really is a must-see game.
In a rather poor regular season for the NFC West teams, this fixture in the final week of the season was a winner-takes-all match, where the victorious Seahawks won to take the division with a rather dismal 7-9 record.
Although the winner of the division this year surely will not have such a poor record, this game in Seattle probably will still be crucial in determining the team(s) from the NFC West that will take part in the postseason.
The division is likely to be decided once again in the final week, but there is no doubt that this Monday Night game will go a long way towards deciding who will win the NFC West.
Seeing this game being classed as a ‘must-see’ may be surprising, especially considering that it is a game between teams of different conferences at a time where inter-conference games are so important in the battle for playoff places. But with two weeks to go until the end of the season all games where both teams are in playoff contention are big games, and this is no exception.
As this game represents the final run through to the playoffs, it is possible that the Steelers will secure a playoff place or maybe even a divisional title with a win, and will take the pressure off in the final two games of their season.
The 49ers are another team, with young talent in terms of players like Frank Gore, Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis, who feel that they are close to a push towards the playoffs. But there are still many questions on the offense that Jim Harbaugh has to answer, and this unit will face one of its hardest tests when they welcome the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night in week 15.
With two games left after this Monday Night Football matchup, away to divisional rivals Seattle and St. Louis, victory here in their final home game is key for the 49ers as they enter the two most important games of their season.
Although there were many games to pick from in this week, such as Houston vs. Indianapolis and Atlanta vs. New Orleans, this Christmas Day NFC North matchup at Lambeau Field stood above all of the others.
The Packers enjoyed perhaps the franchise's single most important victory over their biggest rivals in the NFC Championship Game last season on their way to a Super Bowl victory. Meanwhile, the Bears will inevitably want revenge in both matches this season.
Although the teams do meet in Week 3, this late-season game takes on further importance as the two teams are likely to be competing for playoff positions. It is inevitable that something in the NFC North will be decided as a result of this game, be it a divisional title, a first-round bye, or simply pride from beating your biggest rival.
The only division that I have been quite harsh with when conducting this list is the AFC West, as none of my must-see matches have yet included any teams from this division. This is despite the fact that the AFC West is one of the closest and most difficult divisions to predict, full of potentially exciting games.
None of these games are more eye-catching than this final day meeting between two teams who feel that it is their time to dominate the division and make a run into the postseason.
Although many expect the division to be dominated by the Chargers and the Chiefs, the Oakland Raiders are stronger than they have been in years, and will feel confident heading into this season after winning all six of the games against their divisional rivals last year. If they are in contention for a playoff place entering this final game, it certainly will be a must-see.