Commentary

NFC North gets prime-time push in '11

Originally Published: April 19, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Normally, television networks scramble like crazy to secure as many NFC East divisional games as possible.

But the rise of the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears and the drop of the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins last season changed things in 2011. The NFC North has as many Sunday prime-time games as the NFC East, which is rare. Each has four.

Last season, the NFC East had five prime-time divisional games. No other division did better than three. In television circles, NFC East divisional games are considered ratings gold.

The Steelers-Ravens matchup remains one of the best rivalries in the league, and should have even bigger impact this season because there is such a talent gap between those teams and the Browns and the Bengals in the AFC North. The Steelers visit the Ravens for their Sept. 11 opener.

There are other intriguing 2011 matchups, of course. New 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh meets his brother, John, when the 49ers visit the Ravens on Thanksgiving Day. It will be interesting to see how Broncos fans react to Jay Cutler when the Bears visit the Broncos on Dec. 11 for the QB's first regular-season game in Denver since being traded to Chicago two years ago.

The "Monday Night Football" schedule includes nine divisional games, every team that made the 2010 playoffs, a cherished NFC East matchup between Washington and Dallas on Sept. 26, two appearances by the Patriots and one by the New York Jets.

If owners and players reach a collective bargaining agreement and a full season is played, here are the best matchups:

Top regular-season matchups

1. Chicago Bears-Green Bay Packers (Sept. 25, Dec. 25)

The NFL's oldest rivalry grew more intense last season with a regular-season split and an NFC Championship Game victory by the Packers over the Bears at Soldier Field. Aaron Rodgers established himself as an NFL icon during the 2010 playoffs, while Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who couldn't finish the championship game because of a controversial knee injury, remains a talented enigma in the Windy City.

2. New York Jets-New England Patriots (Oct. 9, Nov. 13)

Thanks to the bold bravado of Rex Ryan and the aggressive play of the Jets' defense, the Jets-Patriots rivalry has emerged as one of the best in football. The Patriots have lost their past three playoff games. Maybe Ryan will remind them of that before each of these games.

3. Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (Dec. 4)

This annual classic lost a bit of its luster when the Colts and Patriots each lost their first playoff game last season, but it's still one of the marquee games of the season. The Patriots won last year's thriller in Foxborough 31-28. This game is later in the season than usual.

4. Dallas Cowboys at New York Jets (Sept. 11)

This is an important day in American history, coming 10 years after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. The brotherly matchup between Jets coach Rex Ryan and Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is a sidebar to a game between high-profile teams in a very emotional setting for NBC.

5. Philadelphia Eagles at Atlanta Falcons (Sept. 18)

Will old Michael Vick Falcons jerseys outnumber Matt Ryan jerseys? If Vick is OK physically for this game -- remember, he likes to run a lot -- it will be his first game at the Georgia Dome since 2006. Ryan is trying to position himself for his first playoff victory.

Top five 'Monday Night Football' games

1. Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints (Dec. 26)

ESPN saved the best for last, getting a great matchup between Drew Brees of the Saints and Matt Ryan. Each team won by three on the opponent's home field last season.

2. Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Eagles (Nov. 7)

Michael Vick versus Jay Cutler. The Eagles' offense was ranked No. 2 in 2010. The Bears' defense was ranked No. 9. Nice matchup.

3. New York Giants at New Orleans Saints (Nov. 28)

Any time a Manning gets a chance to return to his hometown of New Orleans, it's a ratings draw. Eli Manning's battle against Drew Brees has the chance to be high-scoring, and Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will definitely dial up plenty of blitzes.

4. New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins (Sept. 12)

Any start to a season with Tom Brady at the helm has to be a good one. Brady opened the season last year with ESPN's highest-rated opening game, and the great twist to this one is that it's on the road, which will be an extra challenge for the Patriots.

5. Indianapolis Colts at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Oct. 3)

Peyton Manning gets to face one of the league's next potential elite quarterbacks, Josh Freeman, at Raymond James Stadium.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer