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NFL Game Pass viewing guide: 20 must-watch games to cue up

Whether you're staving off anxiety, alleviating boredom or simply scratching a long-running itch to catch up on classic football games, you can now tap a valuable resource to fill the sports entertainment void in a time of cooped-up crisis. Starting this week, the NFL is offering complimentary access to NFL Game Pass until May 31 to fans within the U.S., and until July 31 to fans outside North America.

While it's worth exploring NFL Originals (Hard Knocks, Mic'd Up, A Football Life), many newcomers will want to dive right into the voluminous game archives. The league's press release touts tentpole moments such as Tom Brady's string of Super Bowls, Peyton Manning's single-season touchdown record with the Broncos and Odell Beckham's one-handed catch in 2014. Once you exhaust those obvious high-water marks, you'll be faced with a dizzying panoply of game options dating back to 2009. I'm here to help provide direction and sort through the chaos with 20 personal favorites, from obscure midseason melodrama to bygone postseason heroics.

Once you've sorted your own hierarchy from the list of matchups below, you will have your choice among the full broadcast, the 40-minute condensed version and the Coaches Film showing all 22 players on the field. Keep in mind: Just as it's a sin in the southern United States to kill a mockingbird, it's a crime against the football gods to condense Tony Romo's insightful commentary.

For those of you harboring a nascent interest in scouting, please feel free to follow NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah's friendly guidelines:

Perhaps the greatest pure passing exhibition I've ever seen. Like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig dazzling the railroad-stop yokels with an array of towering moonshots, or a pair of backyard Goliaths picking on the neighborhood kids, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck descended from a higher plane to toy with the overmatched competition for a few hours. If not for a pair of lost fumbles and a trio of dropped passes, Big Ben would have sailed past Norm Van Brocklin's storied 554 yard-marker en route to the first 600-yard performance in history. Locked in? Roethlisberger was darn near flawless, misfiring on just two of 49 pass attempts, according to my film study.

The Steelers entered the NFL in 1933 as the Pittsburgh Pirates, wearing the original bumblebee throwbacks sported by Mike Tomlin's outfit on this memorable afternoon. Not until 1935 did a Pirates QB pass for more yards in a season than Roethlisberger managed (522) in the best outing of his career.

A staunch beer guzzler in my Cincinnati and Tybee Island days, I fell for California's wine country thanks to a genial tour guide with the rare gift of dispensing knowledge for hours at a time without coming across as a know-it-all. It's a tightrope act, one that Tony Romo pulls off each week as the effervescent choose-your-own-adventure guide, placing us inside the quarterback's helmet to master situational football with the outcome hanging in the balance. Choose Option A, and the high safety is on a yo-yo, torn between the deep ball and the soft underbelly. Choose Option B, and you force the defense out of its coverage. Choose Option C, and you might run three plays in eight seconds. Choose Option D, and you waste a precious timeout. Choose Option E and find out how Romo casually seduces the viewer into believing -- along with him -- that this play right here (and each one hereafter) is vitally important for its potential to alter games, seasons and lives.

That contagious enthusiasm finally penetrated play-by-play partner Jim Nantz's professional armor when tight end Jared Cook out-jumped three Chiefs defenders at the pylon to covert an improbable third down and set up a wild comeback scenario. "And it is caught! What a catch! Incredible! Cook comes down with it with 16 seconds to go!" Nantz raved as the camera panned to Raiders owner Mark Davis celebrating in his Mandelbaum-gray sweatsuit. To which Romo retorted, "Now you wanna get excited! Listen to your voice get hyped on that one! Here it is! That was amazing! Can you believe he caught that, Jim?!"

Had Cook's catch been ruled a touchdown, the Raiders would have escaped with the type of thrilling comeback upset we witness several times each year. Instead, the drama continued to crescendo, with replay wiping away that and another potential game-winning touchdown, nearly fashioning Cook's hero cape into goat horns. Defensive penalties led to a pair of untimed downs for Derek Carr, who eventually ended it with a 2-yard TD pass to Michael Crabtree.

Shortly thereafter, I began the midweekly ritual of carving out two uninterrupted hours for Romo, Nantz, a bottle of red wine and NFL Game Pass.

Riding a 15-game regular-season winning streak while taking aim at Tom Brady's 2007 passing hallmarks, the Sheriff arrived in Texas for an early October shootout with the dreaded Cowboys. Romo and Peyton Manning took center stage at the helm of pick-your-poison aerial attacks, each deploying an array of playmakers (Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, Terrance Williams, Knowshon Moreno, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker) in the proverbial best shape of their lives. Knotted at 41 after 50 minutes, the weathered field generals squared off in the fading afternoon sun, each daring the other to blink first. Romo never threw for more yards (506) or spun out of more collapsing pockets, yet there he was, unable to control his twitching eye in the face of Manning's relentless, quick-strike onslaught.

The final score suggests another shootout, yet wily defensive bosses Vic Fangio and Gregg Williams were winning the battle of wits versus innovative offensive counterparts Sean Payton and Greg Roman/Jim Harbaugh -- until all hell broke loose, with four lead changes in the final four minutes. Setting a franchise record for pass attempts (63) versus a seemingly impenetrable 49ers front seven featuring Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, Saints QB Drew Brees finally broke through with long scoring plays to scatback extraordinaire Darren Sproles and rim-rattling power forward Jimmy Graham, each matchup nightmares in his own unique style. Not to be outdone, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis picked this exact moment in time to make good on the vast, unrealized potential that had long haunted the 2005 NFL Draft's No. 1 overall pick and the athletic marvel who set the combine standard for tight-end testing as a 2006 draft headliner. By the time the fireworks cleared, Davis broke down crying out of sheer wonderment at his brilliant physical feats, while current 49ers GM John Lynch -- broadcasting the instant classic for FOX -- exclaimed, "That's the most amazing finish to a game I've seen in a long time."

When respected colleagues like Gregg Rosenthal downplay stars of yesteryear and insist no quarterback has ever played the position at a higher level than Patrick Mahomes, I dial up old tapes of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers -- among others. Watching this frightening 2011 performance in real time, from a seaside Georgia beach shack deep in Falcons country, called to mind Hunter S. Thompson's depiction of the Hell's Angels as a gang of Genghis Khans on iron horses, taking no prisoners. Rodgers went four wide with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and James Jones on the sleek Georgia Dome carpet, fast-breaking through Atlanta's overmatched defense like Magic Johnson flanked by the quartet of James Worthy, Byron Scott, A.C. Green and high-flying Orlando Woolridge in a Showtime blur.

On the heels of a scoreless first quarter, Green Bay reached pay dirt on six straight possessions, entering the final frame with 42 points and outscoring Atlanta 35-0 across a furious 18 minutes and 37 second of game action. "I think what it comes down to is this," FOX announcer Troy Aikman stated with the utmost confidence, "I think the Green Bay Packers are just a much better team than the Atlanta Falcons are." A hard-luck sixth seed after losing a half-dozen games by a total of 20 points during the regular season, the Packers outclassed the NFC's top seed in a reverse mismatch scenario unseen in the modern NFL.

You know it as the Jesse James controversy that ultimately led to an inspired referendum of the heinous catch rule. I know it as the apotheosis of quarterback-tight end connections.

The Cardinals were forced to dig deep into the Larry Fitzgerald playoff heroics reservoir to withstand Aaron Rodgers' double Hail Mary to Jeff Janis.

Marshawn Lynch kicked off the Pete Carroll era in style, lifting the 7-9 Seahawks to upset victory with a 67-yard rumble forever memorialized as the Beast Quake, which helped shift the NFC's balance of power for the next half-decade.

Monday Night Football from the future, launching thousands of hot takes about the fiery meteor coming for endangered linebackers and running backs. Guilty as charged.

Thursday Night Football from the future. Kirk Cousins at his pinpoint best was just good enough to fall short of Jared Goff's precision prowess.

Notorious for the Nickell Robey-Coleman postseason pass interference non-call that sent the Saints home and the Rams on to the Super Bowl, this clash of NFC superpowers was played at its highest level two months prior, in a midseason showcase of gridiron innovation that would have blown the mind of Knute Rockne.

Dallas' dynamic rookie duo steals the show. Ezekiel Elliott caps off a 209-yard, three-touchdown personal highlight reel with a "Good night, Irene" 32-yard touchdown jaunt through the middle of Pittsburgh's defense.

Do yourself a favor and listen to the full broadcast of this scoring bonanza. Soak in Kevin Burkhardt's smooth play-by-play and the extra flavor provided by Charles Davis' comprehensive college knowledge combined with updated scouting reports and NFL trends.

Wait, is Kyle Shanahan turning Matt Ryan into a legitimate MVP candidate?

Wait, is Derek Carr going to take the MVP baton from Cam Newton?

Le'Veon Bell and Ryan Shazier emerge as snow leopards in Buffalo's gossamer, snow-globe wonderland.

Deshaun Watson's breakout game is overshadowed by Tom Brady's last-second touchdown to Brandin Cooks.

The Broncos had no choice but to abduct Kareem Jackson after he spent 60 minutes playing Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse, the hardest-hitting performance by a cornerback since the original Antoine Winfield rattled cages in Minnesota.

Keenan Allen puts on a wide receiver clinic as Philip Rivers throws for 503 in a losing effort.

Marcus Mariota, before the fall.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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