The possibilities seem endless and the matchups mostly delicious on the day (and night) of the NFL's annual schedule release. They don't all live up the billing of course, but from the vantage point of mid-April, more than two months past our last taste of meaningful football, the schedule offers the hope of a coming season that in outline form is just now starting to take shape.
We've known the who and the where for quite a while when it comes to the NFL's 256-game regular season slate, and now we can add the all-important when to the equation. Here's our Snap Judgment-style assessment of the 15 most compelling showdowns on the way in 2019, in chronological order. Subsequent events may conspire to rob some of their significance — can you say, flexible scheduling? — but they all look to be must-see fare for now:
Steelers at Patriots, Week 1 on Sunday Night Football
The defending Super Bowl champions lost out on the traditional Thursday night opener honor, because the NFL wanted to go for the historic Packers-Bears pairing in Chicago as a nod to the league's 100th season. Understandable I suppose. But Steelers-Patriots on the first Sunday night of the season is a strong consolation prize, and you'd be hard-pressed to not tune in to see how both clubs survived some significant personnel losses this offseason.
Saints at Rams, Week 2
That vague, gnawing feeling that maybe the Rams didn't really beat the Saints last January in the NFC Championship game as much as they were gifted the conference title still lingers, even with the landmark expansion of replay review rules that game inspired. But at least we get a quick rematch to re-visit the story, this time in the L.A. Coliseum. Would anyone be shocked if it's also a preview of this season's NFC title game? Or if the officials call pass interference rather tightly this time around?
Rams at Browns, Week 3 on Sunday Night Football
Cleveland was going to be a wildly popular chic playoff pick even before the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, but now there's no limit to the expectation level for the loaded Browns. The first time we got a glimpse of Baker Mayfield's NFL magic was when he played in prime time in Week 3 last year, rallying Cleveland to a second-half comeback win at home against the Jets last season on a Thursday night. NBC has this one and fought hard for it.
Cowboys at Saints, Week 4 on Sunday Night Football
These two NFC rivals have played some great games in recent years, and it was Dallas's home upset of the surging Saints in Week 13 last year that snapped their 10-game winning streak and served to remind everyone that quality defense can still win games in the NFL. Drew Brees looked out of kilter against the Cowboys ultra-athletic, swarming linebackers that Thursday night, and he'll be out for payback in the Superdome on Sunday Night Football this year.
Ravens at Seahawks, Week 7
Besides being two playoff teams from 2018 that both have the potential to go further than last year's one-and-done postseason trip, here's hoping Earl Thomas is in the middle of everything all game long in Seattle, and that Pete Carroll and John Harbaugh meet at midfield afterward and have their own little "What's your deal?'' moment.
Washington at Vikings, Week 8 on Thursday Night Football
Kirk Cousins against his former teammates and that prickly front office in Washington. Adrian Peterson back in Minnesota, taking revenge against a Vikings club that cut him loose. That's enough for me, even if these two NFC rivals happen to not be on a playoff trajectory when they meet this season in prime time.
Browns at Patriots, Week 8
Big things appear to be on tap in Cleveland this season, but you do know Bill Belichick was the last Browns coach to win a playoff game, right? It came against New England, no less, in the 1994 season that is now 25 years gone. Both of these AFC playoff contenders should be hitting their stride by midseason and maybe we'll get the first and hopefully not last classic quarterback matchup of Brady versus Baker. Mayfield won't be awed to go into Foxboro and throw his best shot at the champs, we know that. Here's hoping both Josh Gordon and Odell Beckham Jr. are healthy and at their play-making best as well.
Packers at Chiefs, Week 8 on Sunday Night Football
Aaron Rodgers hasn't suited up at Arrowhead Stadium since 2011, when Green Bay dropped to 13-1 with a loss to a Chiefs team led for the first time by interim head coach Romeo Crennel. This time we get the Andy Reid-coached Chiefs and league MVP Patrick Mahomes, facing off against a quarterback who owns a couple of MVP awards himself. It'd be great if both Rodgers and Mahomes are at their most improvisational selves for this marquee showdown.
Patriots at Ravens, Week 9 on Sunday Night Football
I can't over-state the look of happiness and relief on John Harbaugh's face when the news of Rob Gronkowski's retirement news broke in late March at the NFL's annual meeting in Phoenix. The Ravens coach must have known right then that his team's chances of winning at home against New England this season had just risen. Baltimore usually played the Patriots very tough in the Joe Flacco era. Let's see how New England fares against the elusive running threat that is second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Patriots at Eagles, Week 11
Your two most recent Super Bowl champions collide once again, for the first time since their memorable Super Bowl showdown in Minneapolis in February 2018. We know what Nick Foles did in carving up the New England defense, but can Carson Wentz get the job done at home and win this heavyweight inter-conference matchup for Philadelphia? Or will the Patriots defense earn its revenge?
Chiefs at Chargers, Week 11 on Monday Night Football from Mexico City
The NFL gives Azteca Stadium another try, and here's hoping the game at least resembles the epic 54-51 shootout won by the Rams against the Chiefs in Week 11 last season — the matchup that was supposed to be played in Mexico City but had to be moved due to poor field conditions. Don't forget the Chargers and Chiefs both went 12-4 last season, with Kansas City winning the AFC West via tiebreaker despite a home loss to Los Angeles in December. Another 100-point game isn't out of the question, unless the Chiefs really did fix their defense this offseason.
Chiefs at Patriots, Week 14
For a change Kansas City and New England meet late in the regular season, when a loss might be damaging to either team's playoff standing. Their classic overtime battle in January's AFC Championship in Kansas City produced one of Tom Brady's most meaningful spotlight moments, and I'm guessing Patrick Mahomes can't wait to take another crack at the Patriots defense. I could watch these two proud and high-profile clubs play every other week and not get tired of the matchup.
Colts at Saints, Week 15 on Monday Night Football
These one time Super Bowl opponents are both entering seasons in which they will make almost everyone's short list to get back to that game. The Drew Brees-Andrew Luck quarterback showdown is a rare treat, and both teams are coached by former passers who have proven their chops for coaching quality offensive football.
Steelers at Jets, Week 16
Revenge games can be over-wrought, over-hyped affairs at times, but Le'Veon Bell against the Steelers for the first time since his ugly divorce from Pittsburgh needs very little build-up (The Bell Bowl?). This wasn't just a case of a team and a long-time veteran experiencing a parting of the ways, the kind that happens every year numerous times over in the NFL. This was a stand-off between a player and a team that got more than a little personal and served to poison the relationship. (And besides, the Steelers and Raiders don't play this season, so Antonio Brown versus Pittsburgh will have to wait).
Chiefs at Bears, Week 16 on Sunday Night Football
This glamor pairing features two playoff qualifiers from a year ago and a compelling contrast of offensive strength versus defensive muscle. When you add in the Matt Nagy factor — the Bears head coach was Kansas City's offensive coordinator as recently as two years ago — and the Patrick Mahomes-Mitchell Trubisky 2017 quarterback draft class ties, it rises to premium viewing. Bonus points for being played in frosty Soldier Field in late December.