The schedule is out, and our popcorn is ready!
The NFL is better, more competitive and more unpredictable than ever before. In a related note: This year's prime-time schedule is off the charts. Whittling that pool of games down to the select list of nine gems that you'll find below was no easy task. So many compelling matchups, so many enticing teams and players. I can't wait to watch the revamped rosters of the Broncos and Chargers, and I'm fired up about Mike Tomlin's defense in Pittsburgh. I'm absolutely fascinated to see what this season holds for Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, Quenton Nelson and Derrick Henry. Yet, none of those teams, units or players made the cut in this piece.
I wish my last named rhymed with 38. But it doesn't. So here's my annual Schein Nine ranking of the most sizzling prime-time games in the coming season, presented in countdown style:
9) Cincinnati Bengals at Cleveland Browns
Week 2: Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NFL Network
Oh heck yeah, this game is making the list! I love Joe Burrow. And I love that this prime-time Battle of Ohio comes early in the season.
Fresh off what I consider the greatest season ever by a college quarterback, Burrow just has "it." The guy posted an insane 60:6 TD-to-INT ratio over 15 games, including a 16:0 figure in the SEC title game and two college playoff bouts. Not to mention, Burrow did it with a certain je ne sais quoi that perfectly fronted an insanely talented LSU team overflowing with swagger. While this Bengals roster is far from perfect, Burrow has some nice weaponry at his disposal, with Joe Mixon in the backfield, as well as A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and fellow rookie Tee Higgins out wide. Given Burrow's advanced processing ability and pocket mobility, don't bet against this offense making some noise in 2020.
Meanwhile, I'm all in on the 2020 Browns. This offseason, with a real head coach/play caller and a healthy Odell Beckham Jr., the hype is real and spectacular. Cleveland's been on point over the past few months of roster reshuffling. Andrew Berry wisely scooped up two top-notch offense tackles (Jack Conklin in free agency, Jedrick Wills in the draft) and a pair of talented tight ends (Austin Hooper in free agency, Harrison Bryant in the draft), giving Baker Mayfield one of the best surrounding casts in the NFL. I think the Browns' offense will explode this year. Cleveland also added some juice to the D-line and secondary, which should significantly boost a defense that finished 2019 at 20th in points allowed and 22nd in total D.
Both of these AFC North teams are moving in the right direction. I love the national stage for this great rivalry, produced by a football-crazed state. Burrow vs. Baker? I'm in!
8) Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 13 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC
Anticipation surrounding the opening of SoFi Stadium -- the gorgeous, state-of-the-art addition to Inglewood that will house the Rams and Chargers -- is understandably peaking. Talking to Rams COO Kevin Demoff on my SiriusXM Radio show a few weeks ago, his excitement poured through the phone connection. Football's been back in Los Angeles for a few years now, but this really feels like the start of something new and wonderful. This will be home. This will be ritzy. This will be L.A. football. Sean McVay's Rams, fresh off a disappointing, playoff-free 9-7 campaign, will be looking to open up SoFi Stadium in style. And to have "America's Team" as the first visitor to this grand new building? Well, that's quite a juicy Hollywood hook.
Plus, this will be Mike McCarthy's first game coaching the Cowboys in what could be a special ride. It'll be CeeDee Lamb's first NFL game! One day before Dallas stole Lamb at No. 17 overall, I talked to the Oklahoma product on SiriusXM Radio, and he stressed how much he loves playing in the spotlight. Well, in his professional debut, he has it! And CeeDee absolutely possesses the big-game savvy to wear Dallas' famed No. 88. I can't wait to see it! Will Dak Prescott be signed to a long-term deal by then?
7) Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys
Week 6: Monday, Oct. 19 at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN
What an exhilarating offensive showcase. Kyler Murray vs. Dak Prescott. Kliff Kingsbury vs. Mike McCarthy. And how about the breathtaking collection of receivers that'll be on display? DeAndre Hopkins, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk vs. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. Plays will be made. Points will be scored. Fun will be had.
A month ago, shortly after the Hopkins heist, I predicted Arizona will be the NFL's Cinderella team in 2020. In addition to all the offensive firepower mentioned above, the Cardinals boast three game-changer types on defense in Chandler Jones, Patrick Peterson and rookie Isaiah Simmons. This is a team on the rise. But it's also a team facing the rare three-game road trip. (New England, New Orleans and Washington are the only other squads saddled with this scheduling plight in 2020.) This Week 6 engagement at Jerry World is the third leg in the Cards' daunting three-week trek, following visits to the Panthers and Jets. Can Kyler and Co. dig deep on Monday night?
6) Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers
Week 9: Thursday, Nov. 5 at 8:20 p.m. ET on Fox/NFL Network/Amazon
A rematch of last year's NFC Championship Game? Yeah, that kind of sells itself. But after the Packers' inexplicable first-round selection of Jordan Love, every Aaron Rodgers game will be magnified. Especially this one, against San Francisco's stellar defense.
Remember, the 49ers manhandled the Packers last season -- not once, but twice! In Week 12, the final tally was 37-8. On Championship Sunday, it was 37-20 -- but it could have been much worse, as San Francisco entered the fourth quarter with a 34-7 lead. You know Rodgers wants revenge against his childhood team. And you don't want to face Aaron Rodgers when he's angry.
5) San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 20 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC
I love NFL history, and this game oozes it. In the regular season and playoffs, these two teams have faced off 36 times, with Dallas holding a slight 18-17-1 edge. Furthermore, this particular Week 15 matchup could -- check that: should -- feature major playoff implications, as I expect these two teams to win their respective divisions.
These were two of the most prolific offenses in the NFL last season -- Dallas ranked first in total yards, while San Francisco scored the second-most points -- and each added an enticing playmaker in last month's first round. CeeDee Lamb, as mentioned above, was highway robbery for the Cowboys at No. 17. Eight picks later, the 49ers scooped up Brandon Aiyuk, who brings even more catch-and-run ability to Kyle Shanahan's already-explosive offense.
The storied franchises, the classic uniforms, the loaded rosters -- it's all here in this Sunday night beaut.
4) New Orleans Saints at Las Vegas Raiders
Week 2: Monday, Sept. 21 at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN
Vegas, baby! Vegas!!! Yes, on the second Monday of the regular season, the NFL officially kicks off in Las Vegas. I can't wait for the sights and sounds, the glitz and glamour. And you know Drew Brees and Sean Payton will want to spoil Jon Gruden's housewarming party.
And then there's the Derek Carr angle. Is he really Gruden's guy long term? After opening up the season on the road (at Carolina), Carr will be squarely in the spotlight in this prime-time bout. Will the 29-year-old be able to keep up with his 41-year-old signal-calling counterpart? After this game, the Raiders visit New England, host Buffalo and travel to Kansas City. What will Carr's status be when Las Vegas hits the bye in Week 6. If Carr struggles, how quickly will Gruden start imagining Marcus Mariota as this year's Ryan Tannehill?
3) Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills
Week 6: Thursday, Oct. 15 at 8:20 p.m. ET on Fox/NFL Network/Amazon
Patty Mahomes against Sean McDermott's defense in front of the amazing and passionate fans in lovely Western New York? Buckle up, buttercup! The scene in Buffalo is going to be wild, with the defending champs coming to town with the sun down and the juices flowing for Bills Mafia. I'm so excited I might jump through a table! This could be a playoff preview, too. I anticipate the Chiefs will win their fifth straight AFC West title. And yes, I expect the Bills to take the AFC East for the first time since 1995.
Any time Mahomes is on in prime time -- with the electric Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce by his side -- the viewing offers sizzle. Can't wait to see him go against a Bills defense that ranked second in points allowed and third in total D last season. But don't discount the undercard of Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Buffalo's revamped passing attack against Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, Chris Jones and the rest of K.C.'s underrated championship defense.
2) New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 8 at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC
Immediately after Tom Brady signed with the Buccaneers, I had to know when he would be facing off against Drew Brees' Saints. Two 40-something future first-ballot Hall of Famers leading two power-loaded divisional rivals with legit title aspirations. This is why you love sports.
And while these two teams are set to duke it out on the opening Sunday afternoon of the season, this Week 9 date in Tampa is the one that gets prime-time treatment. Hoo-boy, I can't wait for Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth to get on this call. Currently ranked first and second in all-time touchdown passes, Brady (547 TDs) and Brees (541) have actually only locked horns five times, with Brees holding a 3-2 edge. (Two of those wins came when Brees was a Charger.) The last time they did battle, back in Week 2 of the 2017 season, Brady got a 36-20 win while the two field generals combined for 803 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions through the air.
1) Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens
Week 3: Monday, Sept. 28 at 8:15 p.m. ET on ESPN
This is the one! Seriously, did you expect anything different? The 2018 MVP vs. the 2019 MVP. Two majestic young quarterbacks and brilliant faces of the NFL (and American sports) in Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. Brilliant throws? Mesmerizing runs? Insane fantasy numbers? Making the impossible possible? I'm here for it -- all of it.
With this matchup occurring early in the season, we have a better chance of seeing both of these juggernauts operating at full strength. I know quarterbacks typically like to say they don't actually compete against each other -- but rather, the opposing defense. Still, you can't help but think Pat and Lamar will be looking to one-up each other in this sparkling QB showcase. And don't discount the complete nature of these two teams under two incredible head coaches in Andy Reid and John Harbaugh.
AFC Championship Game preview? I hope so. And I think so. It's the AFC title game I wanted last season.