Don't believe any athlete who says they don't circle dates on the schedule.
Whether it's a matchup with the team that ended last season's playoff run, a one-on-one showdown with a personal rival, a hyped-up national TV holiday showcase or just an opportunity to know when they get to visit South Beach or L.A. or New York City, every athlete scans the schedule when it first comes out looking for something to anticipate.
NFL players are wired not to be afraid of anything in pads, but that doesn't mean some games on the schedule don't inspire a healthy nervousness.
Super Bowl contenders know when they'll get their toughest tests, up-and-coming contenders know when they'll be able to determine whether or not they're for real and the rest, well, they'll know which games to forget to mention to Mom and the boys back home.
Here are the scariest games on the 2011 schedule for each NFL team.
Ask any player, coach or fan who has ever been on the wrong end of a Michigan/Ohio State, Auburn/Alabama or Duke/North Carolina blowout. The worst thing for a slumping team to endure is having their arch-rivals punk them in front of everybody.
The Redskins are slumping and go into next season with perhaps less talent than any franchise in the NFL. We'll see how bad things are on the Sept. 26 edition of Monday Night Football when the 'Skins play the hated Cowboys.
Side note: Washington's projected starting QB Rex Grossman has a career 65.3 passer rating against Dallas, with four touchdowns and five interceptions and a 46.8 passer rating on Monday Night Football, with two TD's and four picks.
Last year, Tennessee was a solid 5-2 before a six-game losing streak essentially sunk their season. That skid began with a loss to the Chargers right before the Titans' bye week.
This year, Tennessee has a favorable early schedule and could conceivably get off to a 3-1 start against the Jaguars, Ravens, Broncos and Browns. But then Week 5—the game right before the Titans' bye week—brings them to Pittsburgh.
A big part of the reason the Titans fell apart in 2010 was that they couldn't establish consistency and production (and health) from their quarterbacks.
In 2011, they'll be relying on efficient but injury-prone veteran Matt Hasselbeck and athletic but unpolished rookie Jake Locker, a pair that could give the Titans flashbacks to Kerry Collins and Vince Young.
If you're a pessimistic Bucs fan, you're looking at Week 4's Monday Night Football matchup with the Colts as a disaster in the making.
The Bucs will prove to the country that last season's 10-6 record was a fluke, Josh Freeman will get a quarterback tutorial from Peyton Manning, and Tampa will probably use the MNF stage to break out those ugly Creamsicle throwback uniforms and embarrass themselves even more.
If you're an optimistic Bucs fan, Week 4 is when your team officially becomes a contender.
Freeman will hold his own in the QB shootout, LaGarrette Blount will leave cleat prints on those crisp white Indy unis, Tampa's defense will channel the days of Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks and those Creamsicle joints will look awesome under the Monday Night lights.
Any trip to Pittsburgh can be nerve-wracking for an offense, but the Seahawks have to visit the Steelers in Week 2, when new QB Tarvaris Jackson, new WR Sidney Rice, new TE Zach Miller, a new-look offensive line and O-line coach and a new offensive coordinator should still be in the development stages of their schemes and rhythm.
Not that the Seahawks defense has it any easier. They've also experienced a lot of turnover in the offseason and will be tested against Ben Roethlisberger and a Steelers offense that was Super Bowl-caliber last season.
There were only four shutouts in the NFL last season. One of them was Tampa's 21-0 blanking of the Niners in Week 11.
Has San Francisco's offense improved since then? Not by much.
Alex Smith is penciled in at QB1 with rookie Colin Kaepernick waiting in the wings. Star RB Frank Goreis waiting on a pay raise and possibly disgruntled, the franchise is waiting on talented WR Michael Crabtree to play up to his potential and first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh it trying to figure it all out.
Sandwiched between a tough road test against the Jets and a home date with Green Bay, the Chargers have what should be a hugely critical Monday Night Football game in Kansas City against the team that beat them for the AFC West title last season.
When the Chargers and Chiefs hooked up last season on a Monday night in KC, the Chiefs won a rain-soaked thriller that included three touchdowns of over 55 yards.
The silver lining for St. Louis is that the Week 8 matchup with New Orleans is the Rams' only home game in the middle of a five-game stretch where they also play at Green Bay, at Dallas, at Arizona, at Arizona and at Cleveland.
The dark cloud is that Sam Bradford had one of his worst performances of 2010 against the Saints—getting sacked three times, throwing two interceptions, and posting a 53.0 passer rating—during a blowout loss.
Depending on how you feel about the Browns and Chiefs next season, Pittsburgh's schedule is the equivalent of a college football "cupcake" slate following Week 9: Cincinnati twice, Cleveland twice, Kansas City, San Francisco and St. Louis.
There's also a bye week, and I think the Steelers play San Jose State somewhere in there, too.
There's a real chance Pittsburgh could lose its edge going into the playoffs, making the Week 9 matchup with rival Baltimore even more important. It could be the last real tough game on the Steelers' regular season schedule.
This is the NFL's answer to the Miami Heat versus the Boston Celtics.
The Eagles/Heat are a collection of cocky (DeSean Jackson), controversial (Michael Vick), flashy (LeSean McCoy), tough-defending (Trent Cole), extremely talented (Nnamdi Asomugha) players whose high expectations by the public are only exceeded by their own.
A lot of fans don't like how they constructed their team through free agency, even though it's completely legal and no different from how every other pro team operates.
The Patriots/Celtics are the championship-certified veterans who play the game "the right way" and rely more on savvy, toughness and execution than pure athleticism. They were put together in an allegedly more organic fashion, through the draft and trades.
At least that's the way the media and fans have spun the story. When the Eagles play the Pats, it will be the bad guys against the good guys, with a lot of people ignoring the fact that both sides are very similar.
None of this is what makes this the toughest game on Philly's schedule. It's just the simple reality that the Patriots might be the best team in pro football.
The Jets can beat Oakland at their own game. Or at least what used to be their own game. The trash talking, the attitude, the smash-mouth style—Al Davis would probably adopt all of the Jets and swap them with the 2011 Raiders if he could.
Getting beat by the upgraded version of yourself on your home turf isn't a good look, especially for a Raiders franchise trying to reinvent its famous swagger.
Whatever psychological hurdle that may have been created by that embarrassing 45-3 national TV loss to New England last season, the Jets cleared it by taking the Patriots down in the playoffs. Now they have to figure out how to beat Baltimore.
The Ravens won a bruising 10-9 defensive battle in last season's opener, the first of four games in which the Jets were held below double digits on the scoreboard. And since then, the Jets have lost their second-best receiver in Braylon Edwards and a multi-dimensional offensive weapon in Brad Smith.
Next season's rematch comes one week before the Jets play at New England, which might make Ray Lewis' squad the most dangerous "trap game" opponent ever.
Trying to find a "scary" game on New York's schedule, you could have just closed your eyes and pointed anywhere during the brutal four-game stretch that has them versus Philadelphia, at New Orleans, versus Green Bay and at Dallas, with no bye weeks in between.
And this is at a point in the season (late-November to early-December) when playoff spots are being decided.
When the Giants and Packers met last season, Aaron Rodgers ripped up NY's secondary for 404 yards and four touchdowns, Eli Manning threw four picks and the Giants took a 45-17 beatdown that probably cost them a playoff spot.
The Saints are too good to be worried about any particular team—it helps that Marshawn Lynch doesn't appear on the schedule—and most of their toughest games either fall on ideal dates on the calendar or will be played in New Orleans.
One potential stumbling block is the opener at Green Bay. Being the chosen opponent for another team's homecoming celebration is never good, and this is the night when the Packers will be hosting their Super Bowl championship party.
From a strategy standpoint, there's no way Saints coach Sean Payton will have his backfield situation figured out by Week 1. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory will still be unsure of their roles, which will hurt the Saints offense as a whole.
It looks like the Patriots loaded up this offseason specifically to beat the Jets.
Chad Ochocinco was brought in to put more pressure on NY's vaunted secondary, Albert Haynesworth to contain a Jets ground game that averaged 128 yards in New England's two losses to New York and Andre Carter to upgrade a pass-rush that registered only three total sacks in those two losses.
The Pats even got ex-Jet defensive lineman Shaun Ellis to share the enemy's secrets when he's not adding depth to the front seven.
The newcomers are now part of the NFL's hottest rivalry, which will be revisited in Week 5.
If Donovan McNabb was looking for a challenge, he's going to get a lot of them in his introductory run with the Vikings.
In Week 1, he'll face the league's No. 1 pass defense from last season in San Diego. Then he'll have to find his receivers against Tampa Bay when they're not blanketed by Aquib Talib and Ronde Barber.
Then he'll have to keep Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley from squashing him against Detroit. Then he'll have to watch his back for Tamba Hali and keep the ball away from Eric Berry in Kansas City.
But McNabb's toughest test will be in Chicago in Week 6. The Bears will be focused on Adrian Peterson, who has averaged 112 rushing yards per game in his career against them, while McNabb will have to avoid Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and the rest of the NFC North's best defense.
While the Patriots have geared themselves for another run at the Super Bowl this offseason, the Dolphins appear to have settled into rebuilding mode.
And there's nothing like a Monday Night Football stage to show the whole country how far apart the two teams have grown.
But hey, at least Miami gets to play this one at home, right? Too bad they were 1-7 at their own place last season.
If you're part of the faction wondering if the defending AFC West champs are legit, you're going to find out during the five-game stretch beginning in Week 11: at New England, home for Pittsburgh, at Chicago, at the Jets, home for Green Bay and Oakland.
Of that group, the worst could be traveling to Chicago in early-December weather, where sprinters like Jamaal Charles who were raised in the South tend to lose a little looseness in their legs.
Maurice Jones-Drew played his worst game of last season against the Chargers, when he was held to 31 yards on 12 carries in a 38-13 loss in Week 2.
In fact, that was the Jaguars' worst performance as a team. They turned the ball over six times, gave up 151 rushing yards, and allowed Philip Rivers to complete 75 percent of his passes (22-of-29) for 334 yards and three touchdowns.
It would have been a 38-6 final had the Jags not thrown on a meaningless TD in the game's final minute.
While the bruises from their annual battle with New England (on the road) still have some color to them, the Colts will have to travel to Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata's house of pain in Baltimore.
Peyton Manning has a solid track record against the Ravens, with a career 6-2 record, a touchdown/interception ratio of 17-to-5 and a passer rating of 103.8 in eight games.
But he's 35 years old and coming off a second neck surgery, and the Ravens defense doesn't seem to age.
The Texans can put points on the board. They had the ninth-best scoring offense in the NFL last season and three stars at the skill positions in QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson.
But the Texans missed the playoffs again because they couldn't keep opponents from putting points on the board. They had the fourth-worst scoring defense in the league and gave up more passing yards than any other team.
Houston acquired standout cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning in free agency, and used its first five draft picks on defensive players. The unit that failed the Texans last season will get perhaps its biggest test against Drew Brees and the Saints on the road in Week 3.
Why would the defending Super Bowl champs care about a Week 2 matchup with the team that put up the NFL's worst record last season?
The Panthers present a classic trap game for the Packers—falling in between Green Bay's season opener against New Orleans and a big Week 3 road game at Chicago—and will be a good gauge of their potential for a championship hangover.
Last season, Aaron Rodgers and crew were vulnerable in trap games. They lost to the Lions the week before playing the Patriots, and lost to the Dolphins the week before facing Brett Favre and Minnesota.
Will the Packers be able to focus and take care of business against inferior teams like Carolina next season?
With Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Nick Fairley and Stephen Tulloch on the roster, Detroit's defense should be a beast against the run next season. But how will the secondary hold up—and how will the offense keep up—when opponents start airing it out?
The Lions may not find out until Week 7, when they face their first truly explosive passing attack against Matt Ryan and the Falcons. With Ryan throwing darts to Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez, the Lions' defense will get a new kind of test.
And it's not like Atlanta RB Michael Turner will give them a break on the ground, either.
Welcome to the new regime in Denver: The first impression comes against a Raiders team that slapped 59 points up on the Broncos in one game last season.
Denver is playing at home in this one, but with expectations so low and a quarterback debate that could stretch into the regular season, it probably won't be the most electric vibe for this Monday Night Football opener.
The Cowboys have almost always been the NFC East's most flashy team, even if it was by default. Now they've been replaced by the Eagles, who have put together a Super Bowl team on paper and a Madden juggernaut on the Xbox 360.
Dallas is trying to bounce back from a 6-10 season, with QB Tony Romo returning to action healthy and head coach Jason Garrett entering his first full season operating with all of Jerry Jones' financial muscle behind him.
The 'Boys open with the Jets on the road, and travel to New England in Week 6, but the game they all have circled on the calendar will be against an Eagles team threatening to make Dallas officially irrelevant.
This is a setup.
The Browns will go into next season as a chic dark horse playoff pick, then maybe land a Sports Illustrated cover after upsetting the Colts in Week 2 or after they've run their record to 6-1 or 5-2 following Week 8. And just when you thought it was safe to buy Cleveland playoff tickets, the collapse will happen.
Four out of Cleveland's last five games are against the Steelers and Ravens. The cruel twist of scheduling begins in Week 13 against Baltimore and of course will end with another screening of the tired "Cleveland Sports Misery" video montage that we've seen too many times during Indians, Cavs and Browns games.
Jobs could be on the line here. After opening the schedule at Cleveland, at Denver and home for San Francisco, the Bengals could realistically be 0-3 going into its matchup with the Bills.
And a loss to Buffalo in that scenario would be one of those games after which coaches get fired—or at least sign their employment death warrant until the bye week.
General consensus is that Marvin Lewis' team will be pretty bad (again). So if nothing else, the equally bad Bills should be a depressing barometer of just where Cincy sits in the NFL power rankings.
Considering the Bills dropped 49 points on the Bengals when they met last season, that's not something to look forward to.
The Bears were beaten decisively two times last season. Once against Tom Brady and the Patriots and then against Eli Manning and the Giants.
Although Matt Ryan and the Falcons shouldn't be a cakewalk in Week 1, the superstar quarterback most likely to shred the Bears next is Drew Brees in Week 2.
On the flip side, Chicago's first three games—against Atlanta, New Orleans and Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers—are a perfect opportunity for Jay Cutler to shut up his critics by out-gunning some elite counterparts.
If franchise rookie QB Cam Newton isn't starting by the season opener, it's going to be VERY tempting to hand him the keys for this game, a home date against another rebuilding team that had one of the NFL's worst pass defenses last season.
So why is that a potentially scary game for the Panthers? Just think of how nervous everybody will be—from the owner to the GM to the coaches to the fans—on every snap watching Newton try out his new bike for the first time without training wheels.
And then after that Jaguars game? Carolina has the Bears, Saints and Falcons all in a row. It'd be like letting Newton get his feet wet against the JV squad, then throwing him out there against three state tournament teams.
Wins are going to be in short supply in Buffalo next season. Even more scarce will be games that look like certain wins on the schedule.
One of those games could be against Cincinnati in Week 4. So let's say RB Fred Jackson and DL Kyle Williams and the guys take care of business there. How good are Buffalo's chances of capitalize on the momentum when the "Dream Team" Eagles are coming up next?
Or what if the Bills lose to the Bengals? That could definitely be considered a low point early in the season, meaning Philly and their roster of Pro Bowlers would be swooping in to feed on the scraps of Buffalo's pride.
The Ravens and Steelers square off in Week 1, when offenses are still working out some rough spots and guys are just getting used to playing "real" football again.
By the time Week 9 rolls around, the Ravens and Steelers will be in rhythm, checking the AFC standings and ready to resume the hardest-hitting rivalry in football. This game will have playoff implications and Super Bowl intensity.
Like the Chiefs and Bucs, among others, the Falcons are one of those teams out to prove last season wasn't a fluke and that they're a serious contender.
After opening the schedule against four tough opponents—Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Seattle—the Falcons face the team that ended their 2011 playoff run when Green Bay comes to town.
By the end of this one, we (and Atlanta) will know how good this team can be.
There's a lot not to like about Arizona's schedule. They play Pittsburgh and Baltimore in back-to-back weeks. They play Philadelphia and Dallas. At one point have three road games in a row without a bye week in between.
But the Week 4 matchup with the Giants is the one that should tell us the most about Arizona. That is the first time Kevin Kolb and the Cardinals' revamped offensive line will face a truly dangerous pass-rush.
Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul will allow Kolb to show how he performs under pressure, and that game comes on the heels of a crucial NFC West matchup with Seattle.