The best matchups the NFL has to offer in the first half of the 2013 season
Falcons at Saints
The Superdome will be rocking with the return of coach Sean Payton, who missed the 2012 season while serving a league suspension for his role in Bountygate. The game—a Thursday night matchup that kicks off the 2013 season—is also a grudge match between teams that have combined to win the last four NFC South titles.
Drew Brees led the league with 5,177 yards through the air—but the Saints were 31st in passing defense (4,681 yards).
49ers at Seahawks
This NFC West showdown is so big it overshadows Manning versus Manning and the Steelers' trip to Cincinnati. Each team has a standout young QB (San Fran's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson), a punishing running game and a physical, stingy defense. Oh, and the two coaches don't particularly care for each other. Definitely must-see.
Chiefs at Eagles
Despite nine winning seasons, five NFC title game appearances and one trip to the Super Bowl, Andy Reid was fired after 14 years with the Eagles. Now he returns to Philadelphia for the first time. On the other sideline is first-year coach Chip Kelly, an offensive innovator at Oregon who is trying to show that his up-tempo strategies will work on the NFL level.
Patriots at Falcons
If the NFL had a third-place game, this would have been last year's matchup. These two teams, each of which finished one win shy of reaching the Super Bowl, will be in the hunt again. If you enjoy offense—well, no beer runs or bathroom breaks here. These clubs rank No. 1 (Pats) and No. 4 (Falcons) in scoring over the past three seasons.
IN 2012 NEW ENGLAND WAS 11--1 AGAINST THE AFC, JUST 1--3 AGAINST THE NFC.
Texans at 49ers
You could view this as a dark-horse Super Bowl preview, particularly with the AFC's being so wide open. Houston will want to stake its claim during this prime-time matchup against the defending NFC champs. Texans end J.J. Watt might be the game's best defensive player, and Kaepernick is among the top young dual-threat QBs.
Redskins at Cowboys
Robert Griffin III, Tony Romo, Dez Bryant—plus Jerry's World and all the drama and angst that comes with that. What more could you want? Dallas swept the series two years ago, but had the favor returned last season, when Washington won the winner-take-all finale to claim its first NFC East title since 1999.
DALLAS LEADS THE ALLTIME SERIES 62-42-2
Broncos at Colts
For the first time since being released by the Colts after the 2011 season, Peyton Manning returns to the House That He Built: Lucas Oil Stadium. A different type of return could be just as important. Broncos linebacker Von Miller will be eligible to play following a six-game league suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Miller set a team record with 18 ½ sacks last season.
Packers at Vikings
Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson obliterated the Green Bay defense last season, rushing for 210 and 199 yards against the unit in a five-game span. (In fact, he has run for at least 175 yards in three of his past four against the Packers.) Even if he has another big game, Green Bay's explosive offense will keep things close.
PETER READ MILLER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BREES)
ROB TRINGALI/SPORTSCHROME/GETTY IMAGES (MILLER)