Football Is Back! The Top 10 Games to Watch This NFL Season
America is definitely ready for some football. And so are the NFL's players and coaches: Trades have been confirmed, and training camps are wrapping up.
"This season is going to bring with it enormous relief to people who just want a sense of normalcy back," says Joe Buck, lead announcer of NFL on Fox.
All eyes are on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they welcome star quarterback Tom Brady, who won a record six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots. At the age of 43 — the oldest QB in the NFL — can Brady win a seventh? His new gig is "the story of the season," says Mike Tirico, host of NBC's Football Night in America. The big move led veteran Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement and reunite with his former teammate in Tampa.
Also strengthening the Bucs offense: running back LeSean McCoy, exiting last season’s Super Bowl champs, the Kansas City Chiefs. "I'm in the camp that Brady's going to have a hell of a year," says Buck. "Is he older? Absolutely. Can he defy his numeric age? Yes. The Buccaneers are going to be a tough team to beat."
Rivaling Brady in buzz is Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, 24. He cemented his rising-star status in a come-from-behind win watched by 102 million viewers in the 2020 Super Bowl and was named MVP. The QB, who just signed a 10-year, $503 million contract, is "probably the most dynamic player in the league at that position," Buck says. Fans will have to wait for the most anticipated head-to-head between Brady and Mahomes — it takes place November 29, when the Chiefs visit the Bucs.
Other QBs looking to prove their mettle are Pittsburgh Steeler "Big Ben" Roethlisberger, returning to play after elbow surgery; and Philip Rivers, now with the Indianapolis Colts, who brings years of experience to a team that’s missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons.
Last year, NBC's Sunday Night Football averaged 20.5 million viewers per game. Now with stadiums limiting attendance, more fans than ever will be cheering from home and ratings should soar. No one expects tackling a football season in the shadow of COVID-19 to be easy, but the league is aiming to complete its regular 256-game schedule. "If any group can handle the logistical challenges ahead, it's the NFL," Tirico says.
So settle in on your sofa and don't miss 10 more electrifying matchups below.
Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs
Thursday, Sept. 10, 8:20/7:20c, NBC
The season opener is a rematch of January's AFC divisional playoff, in which the Texans were ahead 24–0 early in the game. Then quarterback Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs answered with 28 points in the second quarter and ultimately won 51–31. The Chiefs went on to victory in the Super Bowl, so the Texans have extra motivation to take the champs down.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints
Sunday, Sept. 13 4:25/3:25c, Fox
After winning six Super Bowl titles, four Super Bowl MVPs and three league MVPs with the New England Patriots, Tom Brady suits up for the first time as the Bucs' quarterback. Can he start a new dynasty for the NFC team?
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
Sunday, Sept. 13 8:20/7:20c, NBC
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald and the Rams will be sporting spiffy new uniforms and an updated logo when they open the just-built $5 billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. (The Los Angeles Chargers share the complex.) And the underachieving Cowboys (they ended last season 8–8), led by star quarterback Dak Prescott, start a new era under Mike McCarthy, the Super Bowl–winning coach of the Green Bay Packers from 2006 to 2018.
Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns
Thursday, Sept. 17 8:20/7:20c, NFL Network
Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback and 2020's No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Burrow leads the Bengals against the Browns' third-year passer (and No. 1 selection in 2018) Baker Mayfield, who slimmed down and added some muscle during the off-season. Plus, the NFL will celebrate its 100th birthday throughout the broadcast.
New England Patriots at Seattle Seahawks
Sunday, Sept. 20 8:20/7:20c, NBC
A lot depends on how the Patriots' new starting quarterback gels with the offense and demanding head coach Bill Belichick. (At press time, three-time former Carolina Panthers Pro Bowler Cam Newton was expected to replace Brady.) This road test against the Russell Wilson – led Seahawks and their defense's top safety, Jamal Adams, may be a good indication.
New Orleans Saints at Las Vegas Raiders
Monday, Sept. 21 8:15/7:15c, ESPN/ABC
The long-wandering Raiders — since 1960, the team has been based in Oakland, California; Los Angeles; then Oakland again — now settle in Las Vegas and host their home opener at Allegiant Stadium (without any fans in the stands to celebrate the occasion). The game also marks the 50th anniversary of Monday Night Football and will be simulcast on ABC and ESPN.
Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday, Sept. 27 1/noon c, CBS
It's the Watt Bowl! For the first time, all three brothers will play in the same game. Texans defensive end JJ goes up against his younger siblings, linebacker TJ and fullback Derek, of the Steelers. "We've never all been on the field at the same time in a true competition," Derek has said. "That will be extremely special for the family."
Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens
Monday, Sept. 28 8:15/7:15c, ESPN
An epic shoot-out could be in store on Monday Night Football as last year's league MVP, quarterback Lamar Jackson, and the high-scoring Ravens welcome 2020 Super Bowl MVP Mahomes and the Chiefs for a colossal clash that feels like an inevitable playoff preview.
Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Thursday, Nov. 5 8:20/7:20c, FOX/NFL Network/Amazon
Niners running back Raheem Mostert pummeled the Packers in last season’s NFC championship game, rushing for 220 yards and four touchdowns. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Pack return for revenge against Defensive Rookie of the Year defensive end Nick Bosa and the 49ers.
Tennessee Titans at Baltimore Ravens
Sunday, Nov. 22 1/noon c, CBS
Jackson and the Ravens were spectacular in 2019, winning 12 straight games to finish the season with a 14–2 record and earning the AFC's top seed in the playoffs. Unfazed, running back Derrick Henry and the Titans pulled off a big 28–12 upset and eliminated them from Super Bowl contention. This rematch should be fun to watch.
—Ryan A. Berenz