Because the NFL schedule is based entirely on math, we knew the 2018 home and away slates for each team the moment the 2017 season ended. That didn’t stop the NFL Network and ESPN from launching two-hour programs to announce and analyze the release of the full schedule, which amounts to nothing more than the dates and times for each game.
Still! This is actual football news. And though there are still nearly five months left before the 2018 NFL season kicks off, the schedule release makes the upcoming season just the tiniest bit more tangible. Here’s the full schedule—let’s look at the dates you need to circle on your calendar:
September 6: NFL Kickoff — Falcons at Eagles
This is an ideal kickoff game. It’s between two good teams who met in the playoffs, but the NFL isn’t burning a marquee matchup—like the Vikings-Eagles NFC championship game rematch that’s slated for Week 5—on a night when everyone is excited for the return of football regardless of the teams playing. I want to watch a good game on opening night, but the only story line I care about for that game is this: Football is back!
September 9: The Litmus Test Game — 49ers at Vikings
After finishing the season with five straight wins, the 49ers enter 2018 with plenty of hype. Though the team couldn’t pull out a victory before the arrival of Jimmy Garoppolo last year, San Francisco has the seventh-best Super Bowl odds for 2018. Can Garoppolo keep his hot streak alive? We’ll get an immediate answer, as the Niners face off against an accomplished Vikings squad to start the year.
And on the other side of the ball, Kirk Cousins will make his Minnesota debut. Can he push the Vikings to new heights? Whatever happens, this matchup is ripe for all kinds of overreactions.
September 16: Best Non-Primetime Matchup — Patriots at Jaguars
Seriously? The AFC championship game rematch isn’t in prime time? Instead, this week we’ll get Baltimore at Cincinnati (Thursday), Giants at Dallas (Sunday), and Seattle at Chicago (Monday) as our nationally televised games. Patriots-Jaguars will likely still make it onto most of the country’s television sets due to its 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff time, but this feels like a missed opportunity. (Minnesota-Philly is also, inexplicably, not in primetime, but at least the prime time matchups that week—Dallas-Houston, Indianapolis-New England, Washington-New Orleans— inspire some confidence).
September 20: Worst Prime-Time Game: Jets at Browns
Why is Jets-Browns on Thursday Night Football? This might be the worst on-paper matchup of the entire season, and the NFL decided to put it in prime time. Even the one twist that might make this game interesting—the rookie quarterbacks each team will no doubt draft—may be a nonfactor, as this matchup is early enough in the season that it’s likely Tyrod Taylor will be starting for the Browns and either Josh McCown or Teddy Bridgewater will be starting for the Jets. Prepare for lots of camera shots of rookies holding clipboards. Circle this date, but not because of football, but because this is an ideal Thursday to make some dinner reservations.
October 7: Battle for Texas — Cowboys at Texans
The last time these two teams played, Ryan Fitzpatrick was the quarterback in Houston. With Deshaun Watson, this matchup should be much more fun.
October 28: Best International Game — Eagles “at” Jaguars
After years of the NFL exporting some of its worst matchups, the league is finally sending one of its best across the pond. This is easily the most exciting London game ever. It’s the first time the United Kingdom has had a matchup of teams that both made the playoffs the previous season, and these two teams were just a few minutes away from a Super Bowl matchup. Remember to wake up early for this one.
November 1: The Ultimate Tiebreaker — Raiders at 49ers
San Francisco and Oakland have played eight times in their history, and the all-time series between the two cities is currently tied, 4-4. With the Raiders set to move to Las Vegas by 2020, this Thursday Night Football game will likely be the final battle for Bay Area supremacy (at least until the franchise inevitably moves back to Oakland). Considering the Niners and Raiders had to cancel their annual preseason game after 2011 because of fan-on-fan violence, the contest for forever bragging rights could get testy.
November 4: The Hall of Fame Quarterback Matchup — Packers at Patriots
Can you believe that Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have started against each other only once? Rodgers was injured during a 2010 trip to Foxborough, so the lone meeting between these two future Hall of Famers was a 2014 Week 13 matchup in which the Packers outlasted the Patriots, 26-21. NFC and AFC teams only play each other once every four years, so unless these two squads meet in the Super Bowl (or Brady really is still playing at age 45), this will likely be the last time two of the best quarterbacks in league history face off. Brady will have a chance to even up the series, or Rodgers could wrap up the honor of having a career 2-0 record against the GOAT.
November 4: Biggest Mismatch of Individual Units — Chargers at Seahawks
Russell Wilson was under pressure on 41.4 percent of his dropbacks last season per Pro Football Focus, the highest rate for any quarterback who played at least 50 percent of his team’s snaps. Seattle hasn’t really addressed that issue this offseason; the only lineman the team has signed is D.J. Fluker, but he plays primarily at guard and is a better run blocker than pass blocker. Meanwhile, Chargers defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram combined for 23 sacks in 2017. On paper, this looks like the type of mismatch that could escalate quickly. Godspeed, Wilson.
November 15: Most “Thank God Color Rush Is Dead” Game — Packers at Seahawks
Isn’t it nice that the NFL is doing away with the contrived “color rush” theme for Thursday Night Football games? Sure, I’ll miss the Rams’ gold outfit and the Steelers’ slick all-black look, but I certainly won’t shed a tear over the Seahawks’ fluorescent green outfit. Let’s leave those in the dustbin of history.
November 19: Best Monday Night Football Matchup — Chiefs “at” Rams
The Monday Night Football slate has been noticeably mediocre in recent years, and this year won’t buck that trend: Only three of the season’s 17 MNF matchups feature two teams that made the playoffs in 2017. But Kansas City and Los Angeles both did, and they’ll face off in Mexico City for this matchup. If Patrick Mahomes II turns out to be the real deal for the Chiefs, this could be one of the most fun games of the season. Plus, Marcus Peters will have a chance to face off against his old squad.
December 6: Best Thursday Night Football Matchup — Jaguars at Titans
Thursday Night Football is moving to Fox this year, and the NFL has changed the time zone rules that limited TNF scheduling in the past. Now games can include teams from time zones that are more than one zone apart, which is what makes exciting TNF matchups like Vikings-Rams, Seahawks-Packers, and Chargers-Chiefs possible. But I have to go with a classic.
The Titans and Jaguars met on TNF in 2014, 2015, and 2016. It was an awkward tradition between two of the worst teams in the league: Those two squads won an average of 4.2 games in those seasons. After a hiatus in 2017, we’re finally back with a Jags-Titans matchup on a Thursday … except it should be good this year! Both these teams won playoff games in 2017, and both appear to have improved, at least on paper. For once, this can be a Thursday Night matchup to look forward to.
December 24: Best Revenge Game — Broncos at Raiders
There are plenty of games that will give players a chance to square up against their former teams, including Aqib Talib and the Broncos, Malcolm Butler and the Patriots, Sheldon Richardson and the Seahawks, Sammy Watkins and the Rams, Jimmy Graham and the Seahawks, Sam Bradford and the Vikings, Jason Pierre-Paul and the Giants, Teddy Bridgewater and the Vikings, Michael Crabtree and the Raiders, Marcus Peters and the Chiefs, and no doubt many more. But no one has more of a reason to seek vengeance than former Raiders punter Marquette King.
Head coach Jon Gruden surprisingly cut King, one of the better punters in the league, at the beginning of April, and King signed with Oakland’s division rival a week later.
“I never got a chance to talk to [Gruden],” King told Denver media on April 8. “... I think there is somewhat of a revenge factor in there.”
I can’t wait to see what dance King comes up with after he punts the Raiders into oblivion in this Monday Night Football matchup.