- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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The 2009 season has it all, and quarterbacks are the keys. Tom Brady returns, resuming an annual battle against Peyton Manning of the Colts. Philip Rivers finally gets a chance to play against Eli Manning in a battle of the two pivotal franchise quarterbacks in the 2004 draft. Jay Cutler enters the NFC North, and the Ravens' Joe Flacco will try to grow in his rivalry with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
There'll be plenty of anticipation for these big games.
The Colts have their usual meeting against the Patriots in Week 10, a Sunday night game on Nov. 15. The Eagles-Giants series begins in Week 8, when the Giants go to the Eagles. NFC North fans must wait until Nov. 29 -- Week 13 -- for the start of the Bears-Vikings series. The first Steelers-Ravens game is Nov. 29 in Baltimore on Sunday night.
1. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts (Sun., Nov. 15)
The return of Tom Brady following knee reconstruction makes Colts-Patriots the league's most anticipated game. The Patriots and Colts are the dominant teams of the decade, and each franchise has a Hall of Fame quarterback. In a scheduling quirk, the Colts will be host for the game for the third consecutive year during the regular season. The Colts and Patriots split the last two games. From 2004 to '06, the Patriots hosted the regular-season games, with the Colts winning two of the three.
This series annually has been one of the league's more physical because both franchises stress defense. The hope for the Ravens is their young quarterback, Joe Flacco, who is being groomed to compete against Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers. The Steelers swept last year's series, but the total margin of victory was just seven points. The Steelers won the Monday night game in Pittsburgh last season in overtime.
No season is complete without marquee games from the NFC East, and the Eagles-Giants series takes the main stage because of how Philly ended the Giants' chances to win a second straight Super Bowl. On Dec. 7, the Eagles provided the blitzing game plan to beat a Giants offense that didn't have Plaxico Burress, who shot himself in the thigh in late November. The Eagles blitzed Eli Manning, who didn't have a go-to option without Burress. The Eagles won in Giants Stadium 20-14, and then came back to win the divisional playoff game 23-11. Manning completed only 54 percent of his passes in the final five games, including the playoffs.
4. Chicago at Minnesota (Sun., Nov. 29)
Minnesota at Chicago (Mon., Dec. 28)
The Jay Cutler trade makes this rivalry a headliner because the Bears have their most talented quarterback in five decades. Cutler must see if he can master a Vikings defense that can stuff the run and put plenty of pressure on him (hello, Jared Allen). Before the Cutler trade, the Vikings were favored to repeat as NFC North champs, but Minnesota's decision to stay with Tarvaris Jackson as starting quarterback and let Cutler go to Chicago adds more drama to this battle.
5. San Diego Chargers at New York Giants (Sun., Nov. 8)
In 2005, the Chargers had the pleasure of pounding Eli Manning and the Giants 45-23 in Week 3 in San Diego. Manning said he wouldn't accept being the first pick in the 2004 draft, so general manager A.J. Smith put together a trade to get Philip Rivers. Rivers was a second-year backup for the first meeting. Now, it's Rivers versus Manning on even terms. Manning has been on four Giants playoff teams and won one Super Bowl. Rivers has been to three straight trips to the playoffs and one AFC title game.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
You'll have to wait until November for some of the biggest rivalry games of the 2009 season, John Clayton writes.