With the start of the 2018 NFL season now just 100 days away, here is my list of the Top 10 most anticipated out-of-division games of the season and where they are in terms of ticket demand. As competitive as the NFC was last year, I’ll try my best to spread the love to the AFC as well.
- Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots, November 4 ($870 average per ticket)
We kick off this list with two of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history: Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. As if these teams weren’t enticing enough to watch, Rodgers and Brady will be meeting for just the second time as starters, and third overall (Rodgers played in garbage time in the blowout loss in 2006 and missed the 2010 meeting). For as long as these two have been playing at elite levels, fans across the globe have pictured a day where we could see them on the game’s biggest stage.
While the Packers cut ties with Rodgers’ longtime favorite receiver in Jordy Nelson, Jimmy Graham was added to be a dynamic red zone threat in the middle of the field. For the Patriots, after coming up short in the Super Bowl, they lost key contributors at wide receiver and on the offensive line – most notably, left tackle Nate Solder – but did a good job of filling those needs in the draft and trade market.
This matchup takes place Week 15, but we may get to see a rematch soon after if everything holds up on both sides. However, much of this season rests on how quickly Carson Wentz can return for the Eagles, as they face five playoff teams through October (equivalent to the first eight weeks of the season). The Rams, meanwhile, only face one playoff team in that same span and could lock up a top seed early on if they take care of business. If last year’s matchup – the game in which Wentz tore his ACL – was any indication, these two teams could be forming quite the rivalry.
It was very difficult to rank Nos. 2 and 3 on the list (spoiler alert: the next game also includes the Super Bowl champs), but I give this one the edge A) because the game takes place in December when seeding begins taking shape and on the surface is “more important”, and B) because I believe that LA is the true threat to Philadelphia, not Minnesota or New Orleans.
Yes, last year’s NFC Championship was a blowout of massive proportions. No one saw it coming. Case Keenum had a career year for Minnesota and Nick Foles was just a handful of starts into regular action for the first time since the 2015 season. But the fact remains that the Vikings still have one of the top 3 defenses in the league, Kirk Cousins is an upgrade at quarterback and running back Dalvin Cook was arguably the best rookie back in the league before he tore his ACL last year.
I’m going to cheat here, but there’s one caveat to this pick: if Carson Wentz isn’t playing by this time, I reserve the right to switch my pick to the Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars game at Wembley Stadium in London on October 28. As great as Foles was during Philly’s playoff run, let’s be honest, Wentz is the draw for the Eagles. We saw what happened after Joe Flacco’s Super Bowl run in 2013. There’s a reason Foles hasn’t stuck as an NFL starter. If Wentz was expected to miss this entire season, Philadelphia might not even be picked to win its own division.
Last year, many people thought it would be the Pittsburgh Steelers pushing the Patriots for the AFC crown. Instead, it was the Jaguars that won a shootout in Pittsburgh and then controlled the first half of their meeting with New England. Had it not been for some very conservative play calling in the second half of the AFC Championship Game, we might have seen Jacksonville’s shutdown defense giving Foles fits.
In the offseason, the Jaguars organization showed modest faith in Blake Bortles, giving him a three-year contract for well below what franchise signal callers are getting these days. Expect them to stick with a strong running game and lean on their defense to make plays. This game will be as important as any for the Jags, even in September, as they’ll spend the season fighting off the Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans for the AFC South title.
This particular game makes the top 5 of this list based on the shock factor alone, let alone how good each team is. I’m sure many Saints fans still haven’t recovered from the way their playoffs ended. Considering the offense-defense combinations of these two teams, this game could end 10-3 or 45-42.
Luckily for New Orleans, Mark Ingram’s suspension is only for the first four games of the season. As unbelievable as Alvin Kamara was in space last year, he had Ingram to take most of the tough carries. We’ll see how Kamara responds to that kind of workload during the suspension. It will also be fun to see how quickly Cousins can get on the same page as receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.
Here, we get to see two former Cal quarterbacks face off for the first time. Jared Goff’s career projection took a dramatic turn with coach Sean McVay taking over for Jeff Fisher last year, as the second-year QB took advantage of the offensive creativity and running back Todd Gurley’s MVP-worthy campaign.
While Rodgers surely has at least a handful of years left before he calls it quits, the championship window for this team may not be open much longer. While new GM Brian Gutekunst has already shown a willingness to spend in free agency that his predecessor did not have, the fact remains that Green Bay only goes as far as Rodgers’ arm can take them.
Draftmates from the 2004 class meet for just the sixth time (including playoffs) as Philip Rivers takes on Ben Roethlisberger. While Rivers is 2-3 against Big Ben, his numbers are consistently better when the two share a field. However, Roethlisberger’s supporting cast has always been more dominant, evident by his two Super Bowl rings and three appearances. These two are part of the greatest QB draft class of all-time (including Eli Manning) and will finish their careers among the league’s greats in both passing stats and toughness.
Again, with this being a December game, playoff seeding could very well be on the line here. It’s probably not a stretch to expect the Steelers to win the AFC North, but the Chargers will be fighting from Week 1 to Week 17 for their postseason chances. A team that has consistently underachieved in Rivers’ tenure, can this LA team live up to the expectations?
This is a game that football fans in Texas circle every four years. It’s like when the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros played in different leagues in MLB. These teams both feature young stars at quarterback (Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson) and All-Pros at skill positions (Ezekiel Elliott and DeAndre Hopkins) and front-7 positions (Demarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee, J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney). When fully healthy, either of these teams are capable of making a playoff run.
The Texans get Watson and Watt back from serious leg injuries and will be hoping they’re good as new. Houston also added Tyrann Mathieu to help the league’s worst pass defense. The Cowboys, on the other hand, cut a declining Dez Bryant and saw Jason Witten retire. While the bodies brought in to help the passing game aren’t big names, the Cowboys will return to what they did as a playoff team in 2016: smashmouth football with Elliott, setting up play action passes so Prescott can operate outside the pocket. With young talent all over the defense, this could be Jason Garrett’s most balanced Dallas team.
The Titans were one of the trendier picks to make “the leap” to contender last year but ran into Tom Brady. That came after an impressive come-from-behind win in Kansas City, proving this team may just lack experience in big games. After hiring Mike Vrabel as coach and adding Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler, Tennessee has recent Super Bowl champions on the roster. However, quarterback Marcus Mariota will have to recover from a dismal third season.
The Chargers suffered from continuous defensive and special teams woes, losing multiple games on late-game misses and errors. These two teams could be battling each other for playoff seeding in December, so this game could prove to be very important later in the season.
Classic revenge game. As previously mentioned, Pittsburgh was touted all year as the team that would challenge New England for AFC supremacy, only to fall on its face at home against the Jags in the divisional round. Everyone knew how good Jacksonville’s defense was because they were on display all year, but points weren’t the problem for the Steelers. Giving up 45 points to an offense designed to kill the clock is a rough way to end the season.
Rest assured the Steelers have probably held onto that taste all offseason and likely circled this one on their calendars. They added to the secondary in free agency and the draft as well to lock up the back end and hopefully avoid another showing like that one.