- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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Let's hope you're ready for some football because that's what today is all about. The NFL just released its 2009 regular-season schedule, and the slew of "Monday Night Football" games once again offers the most compelling collection of contests. You've got the likely return of Tom Brady to the New England Patriots in Week 1. You've got Chicago's new quarterback, Jay Cutler, facing the Minnesota Vikings in the Monday night season finale. And you've got another 15 games in between that should satisfy even the most demanding viewers around.
So let's not waste time pondering what teams face the toughest schedules. It's also worth skipping all the talk about those heavily hyped matchups we await every year, such as the Patriots and Colts knocking heads once again. Instead, let's go right to what has been the most anticipated regular-season night for nearly four decades. Let's talk about what Mondays will give us this fall.
Week 1 (Sept. 14), Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots (Game 1) -- This game will be all about Brady. He suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of last year's opener, and he will have had an entire offseason to prepare for his return. Sure, Brady probably will be a little rusty and anxious. But the Bills still will have a hard time preventing him from earning a victory in this contest.
San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders (Game 2) -- Raiders fans might as well prepare for another season-opening butt whipping on Monday night. Last year, Denver smashed Oakland by 27 points. Two years earlier, the Chargers drilled the Raiders 27-0. Now, some Oakland die-hards might claim this is a different year, but to them we say this: The Chargers have won 11 straight games against the Raiders. You can bet the number goes to 12 in Week 1.
Week 2 (Sept. 21), Indianapolis Colts at Miami Dolphins -- This will be Miami's first opportunity to show the world that last season's amazing turnaround wasn't just a one-year wonder deal. Since they didn't get to play a single game on national television, we never had the chance to see how much they improved from week to week. This time around, we'll have an ideal early view of how far they've come since 2008. With road games against Atlanta and San Diego sandwiching this contest, the Dolphins had better make the most of this opportunity.
Week 3 (Sept. 28), Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys -- The Cowboys won't lack for attention in the early weeks of next season. They play their first game in their new stadium in a Week 2 Sunday night matchup against the Giants, then face the Panthers a week later on Monday night. Some optimists might see Dallas taking both those games. I see the Cowboys beating the Giants -- while riding the emotion of playing in Jerry Jones' supersize palace -- but falling to the Panthers a week later.
Week 4 (Oct. 5), Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings -- This one is key because these teams -- along with Chicago -- have some of the easiest schedules in football. Minnesota gets to warm up with Cleveland, Detroit and San Francisco before this contest. Green Bay, on the other hand, faces Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis before meeting the Vikings. So we'll take the Vikes, just because they won't be as overworked.
Week 5 (Oct. 12), New York Jets at Miami Dolphins -- This game would've been a lot more fun had Brett Favre stuck around for another season. Because he's gone, it's safe to assume that Miami holds the upper hand. The Jets have the kind of quarterback problems that won't be solved this early in the year (if at any time this season). And the Dolphins still have a quarterback (Chad Pennington) who certainly would love sticking it to his old team once again.
Week 6 (Oct. 19), Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers -- This game would've had more spice if it had been another chance for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to continue his budding rivalry with former Broncos quarterback Cutler. But now Cutler plays in Chicago and Kyle Orton probably will be under center in Denver for this one. In other words, we'll only find out one thing in this contest -- how weak the Broncos' offense looks after the franchise traded a Pro Bowl quarterback.
Week 7 (Oct. 26), Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins -- The Eagles get only one shot on Monday night this year, so they had better make it count. It also doesn't hurt that they'll be facing a Redskins team that beat them twice last season. If that isn't incentive enough for the Philadelphia to play big, there's also the fact that this will be its first NFC East game of the year. If the Eagles want to make a run at the division title, they had better find a way to handle a Washington team that has been handling them.
Week 8 (Nov. 2), Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints -- Like the Dolphins, the Falcons got accustomed to playing without a national television audience in 2008. Now, they get to face the Saints in the middle of a particularly brutal stretch that includes contests against Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Carolina and the New York Giants. The Falcons proved last season that they were much better than advertised. In this game, we'll see how they handle the pressure of the national spotlight at a key point in their schedule.
Week 9 (Nov. 9), Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos -- If new Denver coach Josh McDaniels is going to learn a hard lesson in his first Monday night game, he's going to learn an even tougher one in his second. The Steelers love feasting on offenses that can't make them pay dearly for their constant blitzing. It says here that Denver became one of those offenses when it traded Cutler to Chicago. Steelers Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, should have a big night in this likely rout.
Week 10 (Nov. 16), Baltimore Ravens at Cleveland Browns -- The Ravens' defense might have lost a few familiar faces (linebacker Bart Scott and cornerback Chris McAlister, most notably), but it still has enough weapons to handle the Browns. In fact, it really doesn't matter whether Cleveland goes with Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson as its starter in this contest. The Ravens know they'll need this win badly. After facing Cleveland, they have home games against the Colts and the Steelers on the horizon.
Week 11 (Nov. 23), Tennessee Titans at Houston Texans -- This game is one the Texans have to win. That's because it comes in a stretch when they can make a critical playoff push. They meet Indianapolis before and after this game, and a trip to Jacksonville awaits Dec. 6. If Houston wants to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, a win over Tennessee would serve notice to the rest of the league.
Week 12 (Nov. 30), New England Patriots at New Orleans Saints -- Can you say shootout? We all know Brady will be eager to face a Saints defense that has been underwhelming in the Sean Payton era. We also know Drew Brees nearly broke Dan Marino's record for passing yards in a season last year. So mark it on the calendar: This game will be as entertaining as any on the schedule.
Week 13 (Dec. 7), Baltimore Ravens at Green Bay Packers -- It's a good thing the Packers will have 10 days to prepare for the Ravens; they haven't defeated Baltimore in eight years. The good news for Green Bay is that Baltimore might be beaten down after home games against Indianapolis and Pittsburgh. The bad news is that Ravens coach John Harbaugh is pretty good at keeping his team focused late in the season (Baltimore won five of its last six games in 2008).
Week 14 (Dec. 14), Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers -- These two teams played one of the more compelling Monday night games last season, when the 49ers blew a chance to score on the goal line as time ran out in a 29-24 loss. Don't expect San Francisco to get that close this time around. The Cardinals will have more confidence after reaching the Super Bowl, and the 49ers might be playing for 2010 at this late stage. Remember, Arizona swept San Francisco last year for a reason.
Week 15 (Dec. 21), New York Giants at Washington Redskins -- This game is huge for both teams, but the Giants are the ones in the more interesting position. New York will be meeting Washington after NFC East games against Dallas and Philadelphia. The Giants also will face the Panthers in a Week 16 matchup after playing the Redskins. So, if the Men in Blue are going to make a run at another playoff spot, this is when they'll have to be at their best.
Week 16 (Dec. 28), Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears -- The Vikings didn't lock up the 2008 NFC North title until the final week last season. The Bears also weren't eliminated from playoff contention until that point. So don't be surprised if this game has postseason implications, as well. With Cutler in Chicago and the Vikings still boasting a strong defense and some running back named Peterson, this contest could be for the division crown.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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