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The 25 most compelling games of the NFL's 2018 regular season

There are the usual 256 games on the just-released 2018 NFL regular-season schedule. In chronological order, here are the 25 most compelling matchups, from the vantage point of late April, even before the draft unfolds:

1. Falcons at Eagles, Week 1

In their first ever game as defending Super Bowl champions, the bold-minded Eagles will hang their banner and face off against the visiting Falcons, the team they squeaked past 15-10 at home in the NFC Divisional round to start off last season’s playoff run. If the recovering Carson Wentz isn’t ready to play in the opener after his early-December knee injury, we already know Nick Foles can beat Atlanta in Philly.

2. Vikings at 49ers, Week 1

49ers general manager John Lynch last month admitted San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan was “in mourning’’ some days after trading for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo last Oct. 30, realizing it meant the end of his dream of signing Washington free-agent quarterback Kirk Cousins this offseason. So now Cousins and Garoppolo will face off immediately and Jimmy G. gets to put his 7-0 record as an NFL starter on the line against the new face of a powerful, Super Bowl-or-bust Vikings team.

3. Texans at Patriots, Week 1

It was in Week 3 of last season that Houston and quarterback Deshaun Watson stormed into Gillette Stadium and darn near pulled off the upset, 36-33, with the Texans’ revelation of a rookie throwing for more than 300 yards and knocking the defending champs back on their heels. Here’s hoping Watson is in peak form after his torn ACL and ready to follow up on his 2017 breakout game.

4. Jaguars at Giants, Week 1

Tommy “Two Rings’’ Coughlin heads back to the Meadowlands with his suddenly formidable Jaguars, to take on a Giants team that starts a new era of its own with head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Dave Gettleman. Um, weren’t the Giants supposed to be trading benched quarterback Eli Manning to Jacksonville about 20 minutes ago? As always, things change ever-so-quickly in the NFL.

5. Bills at Ravens, Week 1

This is quirky, but remember all those Bills fans who funded Andy Dalton’s favorite charity after the Bengals beat the Ravens in Week 17 last season to knock Baltimore out of the playoffs and Buffalo into the AFC postseason for the first time since the 1999 season? Well the Ravens get their shot at revenge against the Bills Mafia, by trying to make sure Buffalo starts its season 0-1 and embarrassed.

6. Rams at Raiders, Week 1, Monday night

Okay, Jonny Gruden, show us whatcha still got. Sure you’ll have to stay up late in the East to catch the resumption of Gruden’s NFL coaching career in Oakland, but after his 16-year hiatus from the Silver and Black, you know it’s going to be time well spent one way or another. That Oakland is pitted against the star-laden Rams and one of his former coaching proteges in Sean McVay makes this pairing even more delicious. Gruden back on Monday Night Football? From the Black Hole? What a no-brainer.

7. Patriots at Jaguars, Week 2

We get an AFC title game rematch very early in the proceedings, with New England visiting Jacksonville in a game that should have the Jaguars in a revenge-minded mood. Doug Marrone’s team gave the Patriots all they wanted in the first half last January in Foxboro, and now let’s see if they can handle their new-found success and playoff-contender status.

8. Patriots at Lions, Week 3, Sunday night

Yeah, Matt Patricia versus his coaching mentor, Bill Belichick on Sunday Night Football works for us as a pre-game story line. But then, we’ll get plenty of that sort of thing this season, with Belichick squaring off against Houston’s Bill O’Brien and Tennessee’s Mike Vrabel as well. Will the Beard beat the Hoodie in his first try?

9. Vikings at Rams, Week 4, Thursday night

These two NFC division winners from last season both went all-in to realize their Super Bowl dreams this season. Let’s see what well-compensated Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins can do with a stout Rams defense that added Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to the secondary, and Ndamukong Suh to its dominant defensive line. 

10. Vikings at Eagles, Week 5

In an NFC Championship game rematch, Minnesota will try to shake off the humiliation of that 38-7 loss in Philadelphia, which probably shouldn’t have much bearing on this game since two different quarterbacks (Kirk Cousins and Carson Wentz) will likely be under center. Defensively the Eagles and Vikings are both among the league’s elite, and Cousins returns to the NFC East turf he knows so well.

11. Cowboys at Texans, Week 5, Sunday night

It’s Dak versus Deshaun in a battle of young franchise quarterbacks deep in the heart of Texas on a Sunday night. Heck, even Al Michaels will probably be wearing boots.

12. Rams at 49ers, Week 7, Sunday night

These two traditional NFC West rivals have rebuilt themselves and are vying to see which franchise can rule the division for the foreseeable future. With Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo sharing initials at quarterback, and good friends and former colleagues Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan representing the fresh-faced headset crowd on the sideline, there’s a lot to like about Rams-49ers again.

13. Eagles at Jaguars, Week 8, in London, 9:30 AM ET

What a rarity we’ll be seeing if we get up early enough, the potential of two winning, playoff-bound teams squaring off across the pond. What will the NFL think of next? Alas, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. But you have to admit, Philadelphia and Jacksonville aren’t your standard fare when it comes to the London series.

14. Saints at Vikings, Week 8, Sunday night

I guarantee no one is going to turn this one off and head for bed if the Vikings are down to their last desperation heave in the final seconds. Kind of cruel for Saints fans, to see their team have to head back to the scene of the crime so soon. But let’s be honest, the “Minneapolis Miracle’’ in January’s NFC Divisional round was  the most memorable thing any of us saw last season.

15. Packers at Patriots, Week 9, Sunday night

True story, Aaron Rodgers has never played in Foxboro. If this one is anything like that instant classic New England and Green Bay played in Lambeau Field in 2014, it’ll be one of the games of the year. And maybe, just maybe, a Super Bowl preview.

16. Patriots at Titans, Week 10

It’s not just Vrabel versus Belichick for the first time. It’s Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis taking the field against their old team and their former coach. And a rematch from last season’s AFC Divisional round playoffs. I’m guessing Butler’s going to want to play in this one. Maybe every snap. Both sides of the ball. Plus special teams.

17. Packers at Seahawks, Week 11, Thursday night

Strange stuff just seems to routinely happen when Green Bay visits Seattle. The Fail Mary ending on a Monday night in 2012. The epic comeback in overtime by the Seahawks in the NFC title game of 2014. Tune in and see what zaniness will transpire this time when Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers trade big plays.

18. Steelers at Jaguars, Week 11, Sunday night

Jacksonville won twice in Pittsburgh last season, the second time knocking off the sleep-walking and discombobulated Steelers in the AFC Divisional playoffs. That alone makes this one a statement game for Pittsburgh, if Mike Tomlin’s club is to be a real player among the AFC’s elite in 2018.

19. Chiefs at Rams, Week 11, in Mexico City, Monday night

You know Marcus Peters wants to have a big game against his old team, the Chiefs. Perhaps the same for Sammy Watkins against the Rams. But it shapes up as an entertaining matchup of offenses with quick-strike capability, and the Jared Goff-Patrick Mahomes sub-plot at quarterback adds some sizzle factor.

20. Falcons at Saints, Week 12, Thanksgiving night

Both teams made the NFL’s final eight out of the NFC South last season, losing on the road in the NFC Divisional round. Long-time rivals Atlanta and New Orleans have historically given us some great theater in their respective domes. This should be the best game of the Thanksgiving triple-header with two teams and fan bases that don’t always get along so well.

21. Packers at Vikings, Week 12, Sunday night

Blood rivals Green Bay and Minnesota will also meet in Week 2 in Lambeau, but this late-season matchup should be much more meaningful in terms of the NFC North race. Aaron Rodgers bested Kirk Cousins in an impressive road playoff win for the Packers at Washington in the 2015 season, and let’s see if they can give us a new chapter of the always-intense Green Bay versus Minnesota saga.

22. 49ers at Seahawks, Week 13, Sunday night

Richard Sherman’s homecoming to Seattle should be fun. Here’s guessing he’ll keep everything low-key and quiet and try to slip into town without drawing any attention to his return. Or, you know, hire a skywriting plane to spell out his plans for revenge above CenturyLink Field just before kickoff. It could go either way. (Yes, I know it’s a night game. Just go with it).

23. Patriots at Steelers, Week 15

Well I’ve got chills. New England in Pittsburgh in Week 15 for the second year in a row, perhaps with the AFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage riding on the outcome once again? Kind of eery, right? Relax, Jesse James. They changed the catch rule. You’ll be good this time. Just don’t get too tricky. 

24. Eagles at Rams, Week 15, Sunday night

Could you blame Carson Wentz if he decided to not try running with the ball against the Rams, especially near the goal line? This is a marquee-level rematch of the fateful game last December in which Wentz blew out his knee at the Los Angeles Coliseum, thus paving the way for the Sainthood of Nick Foles. At least eventually. Here’s hoping both Philly and the L.A. will still be Super Bowl contenders when this matchup unfolds.

25. Texans at Eagles, Week 16

Franchise quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz meet for the first time in a battle to decide who’s the new face of the league. Not really. But it should be a really good game if both teams are in the midst of playoff drives.

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