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Games to circle: Every NFC team’s toughest matchup in 2016

From measuring-stick matchups with the defending NFC champion Panthers to late-season games that could pivot division races, a look at every NFC team’s toughest test of the 2016 season.

The NFL schedule was released last month, but now that the 2016 draft is in the rearview mirror, we can finally start focusing on the 256 regular-season games to come this fall. With a tad less than four months remaining until the Panthers and Broncos kick off the season with a Week 1 rematch of their Super Bowl meeting in Santa Clara, here’s our take on the toughest game that looms on every NFC team’s schedule this year. In case you missed it, we also tackled the same topic for all 16 AFC teams on Monday and highlighted the year’s 20 most compelling matchups when the 2016 slate went public in April.

NFC East

Dallas (Week 6 at Green Bay): The NFC East again looks like a four-team race to mediocrity to me, so I can’t go with a division game getting the headline treatment in Dallas this year. But a trip to Green Bay is always noteworthy for Jerry’s guys, given that Lambeau Field has haunted the Cowboys since roughly the Ice Bowl unfolded. Injury-depleted Dallas lost there last year in Week 14, lost there in 2014’s NFC Divisional Round (see Dez Bryant, catch, no-catch), and lost a shootout to the Packers at AT&T Stadium in 2013. Tony Romo’s Cowboys have beaten Aaron Rodgers’s Packers just once, in 2008, and that makes their Week 6 game in Green Bay an opportunity to settle some old scores.

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New York (Week 17 at Washington): Wait for it, Giants fans. And if you’re fortunate, Week 17 at Washington will wind up being the game of the year for Big Blue. It was at FedEx Field in Week 12 last season that things went off track for New York, which entered that game sitting 5–5 after nearly knocking off the powerful Patriots at home the week before. But a 20–14 road loss began a season-ending 1–5 slide, and the Tom Coughlin era swirled down the drain with a fourth consecutive non-playoff season. As the defending division champ, Washington has to be considered the team to beat in the East this year, and the Giants hope to officially dethrone Jay Gruden’s team on New Year’s Day.

Philadelphia (Week 14 vs. Washington): What a weird, back-loaded schedule for the Eagles in 2016. Philly doesn’t play its first division home game until Week 14 and has all three crammed into the season’s final four weeks. The Eagles’ three-game run just before that NFC East home swing—at Seattle, home against Green Bay and at Cincinnati in Weeks 11 through 13—will be extremely challenging, but it’s that Week 14 game against Washington that shapes up as potentially critical. Philadelphia lost twice to Washington last season, and that made the difference between 7-9 and the end of the Chip Kelly era, and 9-7 and a division title. The second loss to Washington came in Week 16 at home, in what turned out to be Kelly’s final game. New coach Doug Pederson has to reverse those results.

Washington (Week 11 vs. Green Bay): It’s hard to remember now, but Washington actually built an 11–0 lead in the second quarter in their wild-card matchup with the Packers in January. Then Washington’s magic carpet ride ended, and Green Bay scored 35 of the game’s final 42 points in the 35-18 rout at FedEx Field. An opportunity to gain quick revenge presents itself in Week 11 on Sunday Night Football, when those same Packers return to Landover for what Washington hopes is a do-over. The showdown should offer us as good a measuring stick as any game this season to determine whether Washington is again playoff-caliber.

NFC North

Chicago (Week 7 at Green Bay): The ancient rivalry with Green Bay seems to fuel the Bears more than any other, and this year’s trip to Lambeau Field gets the Thursday night spotlight treatment. Chicago played the Packers extremely tough last season, losing by eight points at home in Week 1 and then posting a surprising win in Green Bay on Thanksgiving night. That upset improved the Bears to 5–6 and made them seem ready to reel off a late-season run at a playoff berth; instead, they dropped four of their last five games to secure last place in the NFC North. But that win at Green Bay showed the Bears their potential, and this year’s trip comes early enough in the season to portend bigger things with a victory.

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Detroit (Week 9 at Minnesota): The Lions split with the Packers last year and swept the Bears, and they would have been 4–0 in those games if not for that sorcery that Aaron Rodgers calls a Hail Mary. But the NFC North opponent Detroit had no success with was division champ Minnesota, which beat the Lions by 10 points in Minneapolis and nine points at Ford Field. That puts the bull’s-eye squarely on the Lions’ Week 9 trip to Minnesota, their third and final division road game before any NFC North opponents visit Detroit. Maybe going back inside the Vikings’ new dome will make the Lions feel a little bit at home.

Green Bay (Week 14 vs. Seattle): Crazy stuff just seems to happen when the Packers and Seahawks get together, and that’s why Seattle’s Week 14 trip to Lambeau has to take center stage on Green Bay’s schedule. After losing three consecutive games in Seattle, including 2012’s infamous “Fail Mary” stunner, the 2014 season opener and the overtime classic that was the 2014 NFC title game, the Packers notched some payback in Week 2 last season, beating the Seahawks by 10 in Lambeau. But this year’s meeting comes late in the season, when both teams figure to be in the playoff chase and need every game. What bizarro-world finish awaits us in December?

Minnesota (Week 3 at Carolina): The Vikings opening their new stadium against the archrival Packers on Sunday Night Football in Week 2 would make for the easy choice, but the bigger test actually is on tap the following week. At least when it comes to discerning where the Vikings will stack up this season in the NFC hierarchy. Minnesota travels to Carolina in Week 3, and you know what they say: If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. Adrian Peterson says just watch and see, the Vikings can win it all this year. We’ll be watching to see how Minnesota fares against the defending NFC champs in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium.

NFC South

Atlanta (Week 4 vs. Carolina): Nothing summed up the Falcons’ Jekyll and Hyde-like 2015 season better than their 38–0 loss at Carolina in Week 14, followed by that improbable 20–13 upset win at home against the unbeaten Panthers in Week 16, which denied Ron Rivera’s team a shot at perfection. Carolina looked overconfident and sloppy that day in the Georgia Dome, and the Panthers will have that game on their mind when they return to Atlanta in Week 4. If the Falcons intend to compete this season in the NFC South and not merely do the .500 dance again, this is an obvious early checkpoint of how seriously they should be taken.

Carolina (Week 1 at Denver): This one is cut and dried. Carolina’s Sept. 8 Thursday night opener at Denver gives us a rare Super Bowl rematch to start the season (the first since the Vikings and Chiefs squared off back in 1970), and features a proud and productive Panthers team that got exposed and embarrassed by that suffocating, record-setting Broncos defense. The sting no doubt will linger all off-season for Cam Newton & Co., and getting some big-stage payback in Denver would at least start the new season off in fine redemptive fashion for Carolina.

Games to circle: Each AFC team’s toughest 2016 matchup

New Orleans (Week 8 vs. Seattle): After three consecutive frustrating trips to Seattle, the Saints finally get the Seahawks to venture into their home dome in New Orleans. And the bonus is, it’s without their tormentor, Marshawn Lynch. The Seahawks represent a raw nerve for Sean Payton and the Saints, having knocked them out of the playoffs first in the 2010 season and again in 2013. The visit from Seattle comes in the middle of a brutal six-game stretch for New Orleans that includes two games against Carolina, a trip to Kansas City and a home game against defending Super Bowl champ Denver. But putting the Seahawks hex to rest is job one for Payton and the Saints.

Tampa Bay (Week 5 at Carolina): When I sat with new Bucs coach Dirk Koetter at the NFC coaches media breakfast at the league’s annual meeting in March, he couldn’t have been clearer about the team Tampa Bay wants to emulate. The Panthers are the model, Koetter said, from keeping most of their own free agents at home to developing a franchise quarterback taken with the No. 1 pick, to fielding a tough, physical style defense and running game. With three straight NFC South titles to their credit, the Panthers are the team the Bucs have to climb past, and that makes Tampa Bay’s Week 5 game in Charlotte on Monday Night Football easily the biggest challenge on the schedule.

NFC West

Arizona (Week 8 at Carolina): Apologies for going so Carolina heavy, but how can I avoid adding Arizona’s return to the scene of the crime to this list? The visiting Cardinals were destroyed 49–15 by the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game, and now Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer must go back and face the same defense that forced him to commit six turnovers in that nightmarish performance. Arizona has plenty of big games this season, opening at home against New England, playing Seattle twice and traveling to Minnesota. But nothing compares and is underlined more in Cardinal red than the Week 8 trip to Charlotte.

Los Angeles (Week 13 at New England): To a degree, everything will have that honeymoon feel to it this season in Los Angeles, where the Rams have returned after a 21-year trial separation in St. Louis. But there will be challenges. Jeff Fisher’s club is about to log some serious mileage with a foray to London on tap at midseason, but it’s difficult to imagine a tougher road trip than what looms in Week 13: a cross-country slog to New England in a Super Bowl XXXVI rematch of sorts. The Pats upset the Rams to earn their first ring in that game, but it’ll be L.A. playing the underdog this time. And all that warm weather the Rams will be used to by then won’t be part of the backdrop in Foxborough.

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San Francisco (Week 10 at Arizona): It all went horribly wrong in San Francisco last year, but the real tone-setter for the comically ill-fated Jim Tomsula era was that 47–7 loss on the road at the hands of the Cardinals in Week 3, which defined where the 49ers fit into the NFC West pecking order. Now that the Chip Kelly program has been installed in San Francisco, will the 49ers be able to close the gap between themselves and the Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams? The big test comes in Week 10, when San Francisco returns to University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals thrive. Kelly’s Eagles lost there in each of the past two seasons, so is there real reason to hope the story will be different for the struggling 49ers?

Seattle (Week 10 at New England): Prepare yourself, Seahawks and Seahawks fans. All those bad memories from Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona are about to get dredged up again in the days leading up to this trip. A yard away from victory in the final minute, with back-to-back rings on the line, the Seahawks threw the ball, and Malcolm Butler happened. For so many reasons, this will be Seattle’s steepest mountain to climb in 2016. And as a very nice little second subplot, this will be Pete Carroll’s first game coaching in Foxborough since he led the 1999 Patriots, just before Bill Belichick replaced him and built a dynasty.