We are now eight weeks through the NFL's 2011 season, and it's been a fun eight weeks. We've seen the surprising Lions, 49ers, Bills, and Bengals evolve into contenders. Without Peyton Manning, the Colts have fallen even harder than most of us expected, leaving the once-dominated AFC South up for grabs. The Chiefs, with the aid of a soft schedule and, presumably, a sorcerer, have rebounded from a beyond-awful start to hold the AFC West lead. And the Packers, off to a 7-0 start, lead us to wonder whether anyone is capable of beating them.
There are 116 regular season games in the books, and exactly 140 left to play. While I could easily use a series of "W"s and "L"s to fit my predictions into a single tweet, that wouldn't be much fun. In this StoryStream, then, I intend to preview and predict every single remaining NFL game.
I've ranked all of them, with No. 1 being the most exciting, intriguing, and fun, and with No. 140 being the most boring, unwatchable, and terrible. Throughout the day I'll be adding to the list with the help of a stable of fictional analysts. Below, though, I start with what I believe to be the 20 best remaining games.
Here and there, expert NFL bloggers from around SB Nation will be chipping in with their (more informed) take on a game they think is particularly interesting.
I'm probably wrong about some of these. Suggestions, arguments, and exasperated shrieking are welcome.
The 20 Best Games, Featuring Actual Analysis And Sentiment
1. Green Bay at Detroit (Week 12, Thanksgiving)
From Sean Yuille at Pride of Detroit:
It has been a while since the Lions have played a meaningful game on Thanksgiving. For the last decade, Thanksgiving has usually been nothing more than an opportunity for the Lions to embarrass themselves on national TV en route to another losing season. This year promises to be different with the Green Bay Packers coming to Ford Field on Thanksgiving.
Although a lot could change from now until then, the Lions currently sit in second place behind the Packers in the NFC North, and this game is shaping up to be one with division and playoff implications. The Lions are looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 1999, and they are also looking for their first win on Thanksgiving since 2003, when they beat the Packers by a score of 22-14. There will be plenty of storylines surrounding this game as long as both teams keep winning, and it is by far the most intriguing game remaining on the Lions schedule.
Entering this season, the Lions had spent the last decade being either mediocre or (usually) terrible. They have lost seven consecutive Thanksgiving games. They have won one (1) playoff game since my parents were born.
The success of the 6-2 Lions is the story of the year. I think they’ll probably end up losing their eighth consecutive Thanksgiving game, because the Packers spend most of their time looking like a practically flawless football team. But ever since Detroit emerged as threat, we’ve been staring at this date on our calendars.
When it finally gets here, well... thank God for the open-ended floor patterns of modern architecture that allow us a view of the TV from the dinner table. I don’t know how they did it with those segmented, walled-off dining rooms. Remember Rockwell’s famous "Four Freedoms" paintings?
You're missing a Freedom, y'all.
2. Baltimore at Pittsburgh (Week 9, Sunday night)
Presently, the Ravens are half a game behind the Steelers in the AFC North, and the unexplained presence of the Bengals in the thick of the race gives both teams some cause for worry. When these two last met in Week 1, the Ravens handed the Steelers a 35-7 embarrassment of a loss, but eight of their nine prior meetings were settled by a single score or less.
Both teams have been AFC powers for quite a while now. I don't particularly like either team, and I'm usually prone to rivalry nausea, but any Ravens-Steelers game is a game, for the foreseeable future at least, to be excited about.
3. Carolina at Indianapolis (Week 12)
Pretty sure 80 percent of you just stopped reading after that, but bear with me here: sometimes, exciting, fun-to-watch games don't come within 100 miles of the playoff picture. And sometimes, they aren't even competitive. This is one of those games. The Panthers are a team that a) knows the playoffs aren't happening, and b) has hope for the future -- in other words, the sort of team that cannot wait to murder a horrible, winless team.
The Colts' defense is, by some margin, the weakest in the league. I plan to thoroughly enjoy the spectacle of Cam Newton ripping it apart.
(By the way: for further, outstanding reading on Cam Newton, check out Andrew Sharp's piece from this morning that looks back on the crazy year Newton has had.)
4. Atlanta at New Orleans (Week 16, Monday night)
Here are a couple of fun teams. Between now and Week 16, the Saints go up against quality teams nearly every week. Over the same stretch, the Falcons face the Colts, Vikings, Panthers, and Jaguars.
I don't really think Atlanta will be able to get their passing attack to where it was in 2010, because if you're going to "figure it out," you probably would have done so over the first half of the season. But they're a good team regardless, and I wouldn't be surprised if this game presents an opportunity to catch (football term) -- or even pass (football term) -- the Saints in the South.
5. Baltimore at Cincinnati (Week 17)
Maybe I'll look back at this list in a month and realize that this game should have been at No. 65, but I can't help but imagine a scenario in which Andy Dalton leads his 9-6 Bengals into the playoffs with a dramatic win.
Consider the Bengals' back story: a team followed up a decade of profound futility with a decade in which they showed plenty of promise year after year, but just couldn't seem to put it together. The face of that decade throws up his arms in defeat, and a rookie quarterback steps in and takes an imagined cellar-dweller into the playoffs.
That story would be Brett Favre levels of annoying. If it happens, I will never ever shut up about it and everyone will hate me. Go Bengals!
6. Chicago at Philadelphia (Week 9, Monday night)
Michael Vick in prime time, y'all! After starting 1-4, the Eagles have a chance to claw back to .500. After this game, three of their next five games are against soft targets. With the rest of the NFC West looking as unimpressive as it does this year, and with the race for the sixth wild card slot wide open, the Eagles have every reason to hope for a playoff spot. This is where it starts.
7. New England at NY Jets (Week 10, Sunday night)
I don't care about the rivalry between these teams. It's reached a saturation point. I do not care about your stupid part of the country. I do not care about how heavy or disheveled or dishonest your coaches are. And I know I've spoken kindly of NBC's Sunday Night Football broadcast, but we should prepare ourselves for a whole avalanche of crap most of us do not care about.
That this game can rank so highly on this list speaks to how interested I am in seeing whether Darrelle Revis can find a way to hack off the arms off his opposing passing game, like he usually does, and like he wasn't really able to do in the Jets' Week 5 loss to the Patriots.
Given the surprising emergence of the Bills in the AFC West and the Bengals in the wild card race, the Jets really need to gain some ground if they don't want to start calculating "what if" scenarios by Week 14.
Winner: Jets, because it will make the AFC East far more interesting.
8. Houston at Tampa Bay (Week 10)
The Texans will not play in a single Sunday Night or Monday Night game this year, and that's kind of a bummer, because while this team has enjoyed the luxury of beating up on an especially weak AFC South, it's a quality team that's entirely deserving of its first postseason spot in franchise history.
If you haven't had the chance to see Arian Foster much this season, a match-up against a fairly weak Tampa Bay defense is a fine excuse. He knows how and when to be patient and let his blockers pave a road for him. Sometimes the Texans will get on such a one-dimensional roll that when the ball sails 15 yards down the middle of the field, even before the camera has finished panning over, you somehow think it's Foster waiting on the other end. And you're right.
Now, if the Bucs win this game, both teams' divisions get a lot more interesting.
9. Buffalo at New England (Week 17)
Don't ruin this for me: every year, the NFL schedule is written by a weathered old man with a quill pen who is sequestered in a belfry in some part of the world where it was always night. He saw this Week 17 slot and he almost used it to draw a design for a "flying machine" that involved wood-framed canvas wings and an "energy crystal." But it was late, and he instead decided to pencil in a Week 17 match-up between a top playoff seed and a team that was 1-6 by Week 3.
Welp! Halfway into the season, the Bills lead the AFC East, they've beaten the Patriots once, and the tail end of their schedule is looking pretty weak. Don't be surprised if this game decides the division.
10. Kansas City at New England (Week 11, Monday night)
Sorry about this, everyone. I'm just such a hopeless Chiefs mark that they were destined to crack the top 10 somehow. If you can bear the endless dwelling on the shared personnel between the Chiefs and Patriots, though, I think you'll like this one.
See, the 2011 Chiefs are sort of a wonder. They're the first team to go from 0-3 to 4-3 in over a decade, and between now and then they play two very winnable games against the Dolphins and Broncos. They'll probably walk into Gillette with a 6-3 record, but the Patriots will be the first Very Good Team they've played in over two months.
The odds are certainly stacked against the Chiefs. But we can look at other surprises in the NFL, such as the Lions and Bills, and see why they're succeeding. If this team starts its season without a couple of major playmakers, gets outscored 89-10 in its first two weeks, loses its best player in Jamaal Charles for the season, and then rumbles to a 7-3 record... well, that sounds like the weirdest team in the NFL.
Winner: Chiefs, because I am dumb.
11. St. Louis at Seattle (Week 14, Monday night)
This is going to be fascinating. How is ESPN going to spin this as worthwhile prime-time programming? If trashing bad football teams and major sports media outlets is your thing -- and I know you, Internet, I know this is your thing -- this game is all you could want.
Winner: [looks at standings, sees that one team is 2-5 and the other is 1-6] SEAHAWKS, DEFINITELY SEAHAWKS.
11. San Francisco at Baltimore (Week 12, Thanksgiving night)
From David Fucillo at Niners Nation:
This was already an interesting game because of the first ever brother vs. brother [Jim Harbaugh vs. John Harbaugh] matchup. The media will hype it to no end as two extremely competitive brothers square off on Thanksgiving.
However, thanks to the 49ers' strong start, this is also looking like a potential battle of conference titans. The Green Bay Packers remain the team to beat in the NFC and the Ravens will get plenty of fight from the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and others. Nonetheless, this could involve two of the best teams in the league in primetime. Hopefully folks don't pass out from the tryptophan, because this could be a fun game to watch.
12. Detroit at New Orleans (Week 13)
I think both these teams are playoff-bound no matter what happens here, but this figures to be a fun shootout. After spending most of the season facing weak passing attacks, the Lions will have to go up against Aaron Rodgers before meeting Drew Brees this week.
13. Cincinnati at Baltimore (Week 11)
I'm pulling for the Bengals to win this one so that the AFC North will make less sense. Sense is the currency of a dull economy.
14. Buffalo at NY Jets (Week 12)
Talk about a difference in national profile. Rex Ryan is a household name. Meanwhile, it just now took me a full three minutes to remember that Chan Gailey is the Bills' coach. Anyway, this game pits a surprising up-and-comer against an established division rival full of crazies, which sure sounds to me like a recipe for fun.
15. Minnesota at Green Bay (Week 10, Monday night)
If you haven't had the chance yet to see the best team in the NFL destroy someone this season, you may as well tune in. Pour a glass of whiskey, mute Tirico, Gruden, and Jaws, and listen to a This American Life podcast. It will be as entertaining as it is educational.
16. Dallas at Washington (Week 11)
Two dysfunctional teams that hate each other. Spencer Hall once told me that football is sometimes at its best when it's played between two incompetent teams. I agree. I anticipate a dentist's dozen turnovers and a game that ends with, like, a free kick return for a touchdown.
17. Tampa Bay at Green Bay (Week 11)
It's a Bay-off, y'all! The Packers are unquestionably the best team in the NFL, but for some reason I get the feeling that this is the game that ends their quest for a perfect season. This is completely unscientific, but I can recall several occasions in which a very, very good team was upset by a team with a non-elite bowling ball of a running back. Like, a real Marion Butts or Ron Dayne sort of dude.
I think LeGarrette Blount, who seems like he'll be back to 100% by this game, is that dude. At certain times, however brief, this season, he's made opposing defensive lines look hopeless. If that defensive line is not your defensive line, this is really fun to watch.
Winner: Buccaneers because I am dumb.
18. Oakland at San Diego (Week 10, Thursday night)
Who knows whether Carson Palmer will be able to pull his offense out of disarray by the time this game rolls around, or whether Philip Rivers can return to old form at some point this season. Let's hope for either both or neither. If Darren McFadden is back to full strength by this point, which he probably will be, I think the Chargers' defense is in for the old what-for.
19. NY Giants at New England (Week 9)
The Giants sure aren't the best 5-2 team that's ever been. I really can't imagine them winning this game, and a loss would mathematically put every other team in the NFC East a week or two away from the division lead.
Damn, it's sort of startling to consider how not-good the East is all of a sudden.
20. Oakland at Kansas City (Week 16)
At this juncture in the season, the Chiefs will be 11-3, having reeled off their 11th consecutive victory, but a Chiefs-Raiders match-up is usually (usually) a promise of a good game. I don't really see the Raiders, Chiefs, or Chargers pulling away with a commanding lead by this point, so this is a big one.
It is not startling at all to consider how not-good the AFC West is.
Stay tuned throughout the day as we update with (less serious) rankings of the rest of the games.