It’s impossible to distill 18 weeks’ worth of NFL action into 11 must-see games without slighting someone, and with so many competitive matchups and compelling storylines, there’s plenty of room for debate as to what qualifies as “must-see.” But the games below are sure to have fans talking come fall and should make for some of the best football of the season, so you better go ahead and add them to your order just in case.
Thursday, Sept. 9, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
Dak Prescott returns to the field for the Cowboys after a major 2020 leg injury as the NFL opens its 2021 campaign in primetime on a Thursday night. On the other sideline? The ageless Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champs. All eyes will be on Raymond James Stadium as we kick off a season that ought to look and sound a little more like what players and fans are used to, and with good reason. With a QB matchup this exciting, what’s not to like?
Sunday, Sept. 12, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
While Brady gets a year to collect his thoughts (and win a ring) before his first matchup against his former team — more on that later — Sam Darnold will have to run into his ex in Week 1 as the Jets visit Charlotte, and you know Darnold will be looking to send a message. Head coach Robert Saleh also makes his debut for Gang Green armed with Darnold’s replacement, BYU quarterback Zach Wilson, the team’s top draft pick in April. It’s the type of game folks will be talking about around the water cooler (or in the #NFL Slack channel) on Monday, so you might as well follow along.
Sunday, Sept. 19, 8:20 p.m., NBC
Compelling quarterback matchups are going to be a common theme when it comes to the most highly anticipated games on the schedule, and there won’t be a more exciting duel of signal-callers this season than the one between Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, the 2018 and 2019 NFL MVPs, respectively. Jackson hasn’t always had his best stuff against the Chiefs — his 2020 contest was one to forget — but there’s always the potential for fireworks with the former Louisville star, the only quarterback in NFL history with at least 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. Add Mahomes into the mix, and we could be ripe for an instant classic.
Sunday, Oct. 3, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New England Patriots
After avoiding his former team and head coach Bill Belichick during the 2020 campaign in Tampa, Tom Brady makes his return to Foxborough in another primetime affair on NBC, this one on the first Sunday night in October. The reception doesn’t figure to be especially chilly for Brady after he left on seemingly amicable terms following his two-decade run of dominance in New England. Either way, Round 1 of Brady versus Belichick should be circled on the calendar for anyone who loves a standing ovation and a great storyline and the reunion of a Hall of Fame duo.
Sunday, Oct. 10, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs
The Bills made a somewhat surprising run to the AFC Championship Game last season, so Buffalo and its fans enter 2021 with higher expectations than Western New York has seen in some time. This particular Sunday night matchup with the team that ended their 2020 run ought to be a pretty good litmus test for quarterback Josh Allen & Co., and represents one of several early season challenges for Mahomes and the Chiefs, who also play host to the Browns and visit the Ravens in Weeks 1 and 2, respectively.
Sunday, Oct. 17, 9:30 a.m. ET, CBS
Miami Dolphins at* Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars will make their league-leading eighth trip overseas for the second of two International Series games on the 2021 docket, each at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, England. (The other, between the Jets and Falcons, takes place the previous week.) This time, Jacksonville brings along new head coach Urban Meyer — and maybe Tim Tebow? — with another Sunshine State representative lining up across the pitch. Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins will make for an interesting matchup opposite Trevor Lawrence and Jacksonville in a mid-season meeting of recent CFP Championship-winning quarterbacks. So go ahead and plan for an early night on Oct. 16, then set your alarm, put on some coffee and turn on the game.
Sunday, Oct. 24, 4:05 p.m. ET, FOX
Detroit Lions at Los Angeles Rams
Matthew Stafford’s return to the Motor City will have to wait until next year, but it’ll still be strange seeing the longtime Lions quarterback starting opposite his former team as the Rams welcome Detroit to SoFi Stadium in Week 7. Like Brady with New England, it’s unlikely to be a reunion that bubbles over in any negative way on the field, but it’s still tough to play against your old buddies, and it’ll be interesting to see how Stafford adjusts to the view from LA.
Sunday, Oct. 24, 8:20 p.m., NBC
Indianapolis Colts at San Francisco 49ers
NFL history tells us that "the week after the bye" often makes for a good time to have a rookie quarterback step in for a struggling incumbent and make his NFL debut. That's not to say that Jimmy Garoppolo and the Niners won't be fine and that Trey Lance, the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft, won't enjoy the luxury of a full season of development under the wing of a capable veteran. This is the primetime Sunday game for a reason, and if San Francisco finds itself under .500 at the break and Lance is developing as expected, there's a decent chance that's when the former North Dakota State QB makes his first appearance on the biggest stage of his young career.
Sunday, Nov. 7, 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX
Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs
Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers make a trip to Arrowhead in a potential Super Bowl preview against the Chiefs, led by Mahomes. Any time two of the game’s best square off, it’s a must-see affair — see also: Chiefs-Ravens, Week 2 — and this one will be no different, provided all the key pieces are still in place. This game also finds itself on the menu thanks to the league’s addition of a 17th game (and an 18th week) to the offerings, so you can thank an expanded schedule for this fun mid-season tilt.
Sunday, Dec. 26, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Jets
Plenty of attention will be paid to that Jets’ Week 1 matchup we covered, and rightfully so, but I’m just as curious to see how the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in this year’s draft stack up when they go head to head the day after Christmas on the Jets’ home turf. By Week 16, top selection Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and No. 2 pick Zach Wilson of BYU will have had some time to settle in with their respective teams, and it figures to be a great measuring stick for the two top names off the board this season. Fans will also have a similar opportunity in Week 4, when Lawrence and the Jags face 2019 No. 1 pick Joe Burrow and the Bengals in Cincinnati.
Sunday, Jan. 9, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens
You really can’t go wrong with any matchup of AFC North rivals, particularly as Joe Burrow continues to find his footing in Cincinnati, and while a pair of second-half Ravens-Browns contests — consecutive games for the Browns, split by a Week 13 bye — will certainly be explosive, a Steelers-Ravens matchup on the final Sunday of the regular season could have massive implications in the division standings, with all eyes on Baltimore to see how things shake out.