In the NFL, everything is an event. Even the release of the schedule often draws more viewers than actual games in most other sports.
The NFL is king, and on Wednesday evening, the king set forth a proclamation of who plays when in 2021.
Beginning with the Dallas Cowboys traveling to face the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Thursday night opener on Sept. 9 and culminating on Jan. 9, 2022, the NFL is about to enter into uncharted territory with its first-ever 17-game slate.
We've known the matchups for the 2021 slate for some time now. But now, we also know which big matchups we'll see early in the season and which ones will come in December and January.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and the 2021 slate features all kinds of interesting duels at the position, beginning with Dak Prescott against Tom Brady in the opener. In Week 4 alone, there is an old-school showdown between Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a battle between the last two No. 1 overall picks (Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Joe Burrow of the Cincinnati Bengals).
Singling out the biggest quarterback matchups of the season isn't easy, but that won't stop up from trying.
Here are the top five quarterback duels of 2021, with preference given to games that figure to have major postseason implications.
5. Baker Mayfield vs. Patrick Mahomes (Week 1)
For the second time in the last three years, the Cleveland Browns head into the summer as one of the NFL's hype darlings. The Browns won their first playoff game in over a quarter-century last year, and after retooling their defense in the offseason, they've gotten buzz as a potential Super Bowl contender.
In the AFC, the road to the Super Bowl goes right through Kansas City.
The Chiefs knocked the Browns out of the postseason last year on the way to their second straight Super Bowl appearance, and Patrick Mahomes and Co. are once again the clear front-runners in the conference.
We won't have to wait long to see if the Browns have what it takes to challenge the Chiefs. They open the 2021 campaign right where their 2020 one ended: at Arrowhead Stadium.
This game isn't the only stiff challenge Baker Mayfield and the Browns will face this season. Their schedule contains trips to face the Packers and two games each with the Ravens and Steelers. But those bookends against teams high on the list of Super Bowl contenders will be the true litmus test for a Browns team looking to join that conversation.
And a quarterback with his eyes on a massive extension.
If the Browns can avenge last year's playoff loss, it will go a long way toward establishing them as legit contenders in the AFC. But if the Chiefs cruise, it will send an equally clear message that the AFC champs aren't getting dethroned without a fight.
4. Matthew Stafford vs. Lamar Jackson (Week 17)
When the NFL approved its 17-game season, it decided to add an interconference game pitting first-place team against first-place team, second-place team against second-place team and so on.
In the case of the NFC West against the AFC North, that set up quite the brouhaha.
Both the Baltimore Ravens and Los Angeles Rams have aspirations of playing in Super Bowl LVI. They each won a postseason game last season. When the two meet in Baltimore on January 2 in a late-season contest that could have major playoff implications, they'll pit an MVP quarterback in Lamar Jackson against the player whom the Rams mortgaged their future for in veteran signal-caller Matthew Stafford.
It will also feature some bad blood.
Back in 2019, Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters was in Los Angeles. Not only did the Rams trade Peters to Baltimore, but they immediately replaced him with another Pro Bowl cover man in Jalen Ramsey.
That didn't sit especially well with Peters, as he said on Catching Fades with Aqib Talib (via ESPN's Jamison Hensley): "F--k them. I felt disrespected. In the sense of, yeah, you can trade me. That's part of the business. But two minutes after that, you bring in another guy who do the same s--t I do, maybe a little bit different. If we want to play this compare game, I do a little bit more. That s--t was disrespectful to me."
Get your popcorn ready.
3. Russell Wilson vs. Kyler Murray (Week 18)
The NFC West is going to be an absolute meat-grinder in 2021.
Three of the teams in the division finished last year with at least a .500 record. The only team that didn't, the San Francisco 49ers, represented the NFC in the Super Bowl two years ago.
The Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Rams both made the playoffs last year. The Arizona Cardinals did not, courtesy of a late-season swoon. But the Redbirds took major steps toward improving their roster in the offseason, adding a trio of Pro Bowl veterans in defensive end J.J. Watt, wide receiver A.J. Green and center Rodney Hudson.
Expectations are high in the Valley of the Sun, and so is the pressure on young quarterback Kyler Murray.
Expectations are always high in the Pacific Northwest, too. But the stress level has been for the Seahawks this offseason as well amid reports that veteran signal-caller Russell Wilson was unhappy and may want to be traded.
Wilson didn't wind up going anywhere. He'll once again be at the helm of an offense that ranked eighth in scoring last year. In DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, Wilson has one of the league's best one-two punches at wideout at his disposal.
Meanwhile, Murray has DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, Green and rookie speedster Rondale Moore.
By the regular-season finale, the NFC West could be all sewn up, and these teams may be resting players. But it's more likely that a playoff spot and/or division title will be on the line and that a shootout will ensue.
2. Aaron Rodgers vs. Patrick Mahomes (Week 9)
This one would probably rank higher on this list were it not for the uncertainty surrounding Aaron Rodgers' future in Green Bay. There's enough concern about it that the NFL removed this game from its schedule release promo, as Brad Callas of Complex noted.
But we're going to give Packers backers a break (at least temporarily) and work under the assumption that No. 12 will remain the team's quarterback in 2021. If that's the case, Green Bay's Week 9 sojourn to Arrowhead has to be on this list.
The Packers and Chiefs are both easily the front-runners in their respective divisions. Both teams are led by MVP quarterbacks and have advanced at least as far as the conference championship game in each of the past two seasons. They each ranked inside the top five in the league last year in total offense, too.
There's the battle between arguably the best quarterback of the "old guard" in Rodgers against the best of the "new guard" in Patrick Mahomes. A duel between two of the best receivers in the league in Green Bay's Davante Adams and Kansas City's Tyreek Hill. A pair of the league's best players in the secondary in Tyrann Mathieu of the Chiefs and Jaire Alexander of the Packers.
Assuming that Green Bay hasn't begun the Jordan Love era by then, this midseason matchup could easily be a preview of Super Bowl LVI.
1. Josh Allen vs. Tom Brady (Week 14)
The Buffalo Bills are coming off their most successful season since the Jim Kelly heyday of the early 1990s. They finished the regular season 13-3 and were only one win short of a Super Bowl appearance.
Given last year's success, an MVP-caliber quarterback in Josh Allen and a generally well-received offseason, the Bills head into camp as the distinct favorites in the AFC East. Among AFC teams, only the Kansas City Chiefs have better odds to win the Super Bowl at DraftKings.
And with one of the 10 easiest schedules in the league in 2021 in terms of opponents' winning percentage, the Bills would appear to have a relatively clear path to a fourth playoff trip in the past five years.
That isn't to say there aren't potential obstacles, though. On Sunday Night Football in Week 5, the Bills will travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs team that ended their 2020 campaign. In addition to that and a Thanksgiving trip to New Orleans, there are home dates with the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, a trip to Tennessee and two games against a Miami Dolphins club that was 10-6 last season.
But the biggest test of all for Allen and the Bills comes in Week 14, with a potential Super Bowl preview in Tampa against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers.
By that late juncture in the season, playoff chases will be in full swing and every game will be that much more important. Allen will be tasked with showing he and the Bills are capable of winning it all against a quarterback who has done so seven times.
The Bills won't have the advantage of December weather in Buffalo, either.