Division matchups provide high drama
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, concerned about playoff teams resting starters at the end of the regular season, decided to move more divisional games toward the end of the season.
That means 28 divisional games -- 13 more than a year ago -- will be played in the final three weeks of the season. There are 96 divisional games in the eight-division format, so by moving so many of those matchups to the final three weeks, Goodell is gambling that divisional races will be close enough at the end of the season to keep fans excited and network ratings high.
Three divisional clashes highlight the top five matchups of the 2010 season:
Philadelphia at Washington (Monday, Nov. 15)
What did you expect? The biggest move of the offseason -- the Eagles' trade of Donovan McNabb to the Redskins -- created the biggest game of the regular season. Much like Brett Favre versus the Packers, this matchup should have playoff ramifications, particularly if McNabb's play elevates the Redskins' offense five or six points a game. Surprisingly, McNabb now may have serious home-field advantage in FedEx Field. He was 7-3 in starts there with the Eagles and now will have the home crowd behind him. What will be fascinating to watch is how Eagles fans handle his return to Philadelphia. Will they boo or cheer? What they won't like is McNabb beating Kevin Kolb in an Eagles home game.
Green Bay at Minnesota (Sunday, Nov. 21)
Figuring Favre is coming back to the Vikings -- and most people expect him to resurface in Minnesota after they break camp in Mankato, Minn. -- the Favre-Packers games should continue to grab monster ratings. Last season, Favre tore out the Packers' hearts with a 30-23 home victory and upset Packers fans with a 38-26 victory in Lambeau. Since then, though, Aaron Rodgers has matured enough as a quarterback to get the Packers into the playoffs. Can the student beat the mentor? We'll see.
Finally, Tom Brady will have his Patriots fans behind him in a game against Peyton Manning. The last four meetings between the Patriots and Colts have been played in Indianapolis. The Colts have won three of those games (though the 2008 meeting was missing Brady because of his knee injury). The Brady-Manning matchup is always one of the highlights of the year. Brady still holds the edge over Manning 7-4, including a 2-1 record against him during the playoffs. Manning has won four of the past five against Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
4. Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints (Thursday, Sept. 9)
The NFL traditionally loves to schedule a key rematch from the playoffs. You can't get any better than the Saints and Vikings opening the season following their overtime thriller in the NFC Championship Game. The Saints won that one 31-28 and went on to beat the Colts in the Super Bowl. Everyone figures Favre will be back for the Vikings, and this should be a great showdown against Drew Brees. One interesting aspect of this game will be whether Saints defensive end Will Smith and Vikings defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams will be in uniform. The three players have avoided four-game suspensions because the StarCaps case has been tied up in court since 2008. The other aspect of this game is how Favre can get in game shape in four weeks before the start of the season.
Miami at New York Jets (Sunday, Dec. 12)
This rivalry is only getting better. Now that Eric Mangini is no longer competing against the Patriots' Bill Belichick in the division, the Dolphins-Jets rivalry might be the best in the AFC East. Jets coach Rex Ryan was fined $50,000 for making an obscene gesture to Dolphins fans during Super Bowl week. Ryan signed Jets fan-hater Jason Taylor from the Dolphins to rush opposing quarterbacks. Ryan isn't afraid to bait Dolphins players with confident words before games. A weapons race has started at receiver. The Jets grabbed Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes since the middle of last season. To keep up, the Dolphins traded for Brandon Marshall. All this drama is happening with both teams trying to catch up to the Patriots.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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