From Russell Wilson revisiting Sean Payton to the annual Chiefs-Bills heartbreak, here are NFL's 15 best grudge matches

As the NFL announced its 2024 regular-season schedule Wednesday night, fans tuned in to find out: When will their teams face their biggest rivals? When will the star player who left — or, in some cases, got away — come back home?

From discarded players to discarded coaches, playoff pain to good old regular-season heartbreak, the grudge-match lineup is deep this season. We broke down the top 15 games you won’t want to miss, with a chronological tiered by how deep the grudge hits:

Tier 3: The Sting

Week 1 — Dallas Cowboys at Cleveland Browns, 4:25 p.m. ET, Sept. 8

The Cowboys have a star receiver in CeeDee Lamb. But as they’ve yet to pay their receiver a megacontract, and don’t seem rushed to do so before the season opener, the franchise had salary-cap space to keep Amari Cooper beside Lamb a bit longer. The Cowboys also received plenty of criticism for settling for a fifth-round draft pick in exchange for the salary of a player who has since averaged 1,205 yards and seven touchdowns per year with Cleveland despite the rotating cast of quarterbacks that have replaced Deshaun Watson amid his suspension and injuries the past two seasons. While Watson’s health could compromise Cooper’s rematch with his old team, he’s shown the ability to produce with or without Watson.

Week 1 — Los Angeles Rams at Detroit Lions, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sept. 8

Jared Goff already had his marquee first matchup against the Rams and head coach Sean McVay, who deemed Goff insufficient as his quarterback. After Goff quarterbacked the Lions to a 24-23 wild-card win over the Rams in January, he gets his next revenge round: a chance to remind McVay that not only did he advance to the NFC championship game without him, but also the newly minted $53 million a year quarterback convinced another team he was worth the financial investment. Realistically, both quarterback and coach found a better fit than each other. But McVay's decision to part with Goff after they advanced to a Super Bowl together will still linger in this prime-time matchup.

Week 4 — Denver Broncos at New York Jets, 1 p.m. ET, Sept. 29

This matchup stung deeper last year, when Jets offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was reeling from his less-than-one-year-on-the-job firing. Broncos head coach Sean Payton added insult to injury with training camp comments that his predecessor executed one of the worst coaching jobs in NFL history. The fire is still hot after Hackett struggled to coordinate the 2023 Jets offense without Aaron Rodgers. And in case anyone wondered whether Payton believes he can fix a quarterback whom Hackett can’t, Payton signed the Jets’ struggling first-rounder Zach Wilson to his Denver roster. Buckle up.

Week 5 — Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans, 1 p.m. ET, Oct. 6

The Bills didn't become a more talented team when they traded star receiver Stefon Diggs to Houston in April. They didn't even receive much compensation to offset his contract, as Buffalo got back a 2025 second-round pick for the additional cost of a 2025 fifth and 2024 sixth. This trade was as much a response to personality clash as it was about settling bank accounts. Expect Diggs to remember how Buffalo felt about the player who averaged 1,343 yards and 9.25 touchdowns per year in four Pro Bowl seasons with the franchise. Now, Diggs will team up with Offensive Rookie of the Year C.J. Stroud in hopes of making the Bills regret their trade.

Week 10 — New York Giants at Carolina Panthers (in Germany), 9:30 a.m. ET November 10

Quarterback Bryce Young must have been disappointed enough this offseason when his talent-scarce franchise traded away its most productive player. Pass rusher Brian Burns signed a megadeal with the New York Giants after anchoring the Panthers' defense for the better part of five years. Now, Young will not only face Burns’ pursuit, the 2023 No. 1 overall pick will have to be on alert for Burns in an unfamiliar venue and country at that. Teaming up on a defensive front with Dexter Lawrence and Kayvon Thibodeaux, expect Burns to remind Carolina what it lost.

Tier 2: The Burn

Week 5 — Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears, 1 p.m. ET, Oct. 6

The battle of Caleb Williams and Bryce Young will offer intrigue as a matchup between the most recent first overall draft picks. But this burn runs deeper, as the trade between the Bears and Panthers gave Chicago the gift of a player who’s viewed as a generational talent — months after Young, surrounded by the Carolina dysfunction, completed a 2-14 rookie year in which head coach Frank Reich was fired 11 games into his first season in Charlotte. The Panthers’ grudge should arguably be with the football gods as much as the Bears for the confluence of events that made the pick they traded away so lucrative. But as the Bears welcome Carolina to face Williams and the 2024 No. 9 overall pick in receiver Rome Odunze, the gap between these teams will be readily evident.

Week 7 — Denver Broncos at New Orleans Saints, 8:15 p.m. ET., Oct. 17

Payton was under contract with the Saints. He retired rather than coach them deep into the post-Drew Brees era. And then he decided he wanted to unretire from NFL coaching, but still not coach the franchise he spent 15 years leading. Sure, the Saints received first- and second-round picks in exchange for a third-rounder and Payton’s coaching rights. But his decision not to rejoin the team he’d signed a contract with couldn't have landed well. Add in Payton poaching multiple colleagues from his New Orleans days, and the Saints have reason to show their ex-coach what they can do without him.

Week 12 — Los Angeles Chargers at Baltimore Ravens, 8:15 p.m. ET, Nov. 25

The Chargers and Ravens rivalry isn’t a question of franchise history. It’s a question of family bragging rights between longtime Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and his brother Jim Harbaugh, who begins his first year as Chargers head coach alongside a general manager in Joe Hortiz who spent the prior 25 years in Baltimore. John Harbaugh already prevailed in the family Super Bowl 12 seasons ago when Jim coached the 49ers. The Ravens seem to have a much more capable team this year, too. But can Jim, fresh off a college football national championship title, give his older brother a run for his money?

Week 14 — Atlanta Falcons at Minnesota Vikings, 1 p.m. ET, Dec. 8

The schedule-makers’ decision (or acceptance of the algorithmic result) to place this highly anticipated matchup so late in the season opens it to a myriad of possibilities. By this December meeting, perhaps quarterback Kirk Cousins will have secured the Falcons’ playoff spot and showed the Vikings what they missed by letting him walk. Alternatively, will the Falcons go rogue (again) and enter their Michael Penix Jr. era by December? On Minnesota’s end, too, neither Sam Darnold nor J.J. McCarthy starting at quarterback will be a surprise. The Vikings chose to pivot at quarterback, and Cousins received $100 million guaranteed from the Falcons, so the bad blood should cool somewhat. But Atlanta’s decision to draft a quarterback eighth overall complicated what could have been a clean split. That tension will fill U.S. Bank Stadium on Dec. 8.

Week 17 — Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers, 8:15 p.m. ET, Dec. 30

All’s fair in love, war and postseason comebacks. But the city of Detroit felt a hope it hadn’t seen in a while when the Lions mounted a 24-7 halftime lead against the Niners in the NFC championship game less than four months ago. Then, Kyle Shanahan’s offense scored 27 straight points to triumph by 3 and advance to the Super Bowl. The Lions went home, awaiting an 0-0 slate. Could 2024 Detroit be ready to take the next step in the NFC? This December matchup won’t only be a chance to exorcize demons from the last playoffs — it will also be a chance to set the tone for the coming ones.

Tier 1: The Deep Cut

Week 1 — Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs, 8:20 p.m. ET, Sept. 5

The Ravens and Chiefs kick off the NFL’s 2024 season with a rematch of the AFC championship game — and a rematch between the reigning MVP and the reigning Super Bowl MVP. Any game in which Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes take the field will be must-see TV, but this one means more after the Chiefs pressured the Ravens into a far-less-physical performance than Baltimore hangs its hat on during the 17-10 Kansas City win. The Ravens want a win in September far less than they’ll want it in January, but expect them to look like a team trying to cleanse its palate of a bitter taste. The Ravens' biggest downside: They’ll need to best Mahomes without defensive savant Mike Macdonald, who left for the Seattle Seahawks' head job.

Week 2 — Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos, 4:25 p.m. ET, Sept. 15

Payton and the Broncos didn’t just release Wilson. They willingly took on an $85 million dead cap rather than keep him on the roster. The divorce was ugly, from Wilson alleging the Broncos threatened to remove his injury guarantees from his contract to his benching. Wilson will cost Denver far more than the $1.2 million veteran minimum salary he costs Pittsburgh this year. Between that financial structure, and Payton’s blunt demeanor, don’t be surprised if a subtle jab is thrown in the leadup. Wilson will have plenty of motivation to light up the Broncos.

Week 7 — Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants, 1 p.m. ET, Oct. 20

Running back Saquon Barkley returns to MetLife Stadium with a more talented team than the one that wouldn't pay him. And while Barkley's far from the only free agent who didn't earn the money he wanted, fans reacted emotionally to the second overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft leaving for a divisional rival who was far more willing to compensate him. Barkley was the face of the franchise and voice of the locker room during his Giants tenure. The Giants' initial decision to franchise tag Barkley, and a subsequent offseason reportedly without any firm offer, will fuel Barkley.

Week 8 — Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers, 8:20 p.m. ET, Oct. 27

The 49ers are the Cowboys’ Achilles heel, straight up. They’ve knocked Dallas out of two of the past three playoffs and they embarrassed Dallas on "Sunday Night Football" last year. Even their schematic disciples — Kyle Shanahan’s disciples, like Matt LaFleur and the Packers who ended Dallas’ season last January — leave the Cowboys disconcerted. For Dallas to advance to its first NFC championship game since the 1995 season, much less an elusive Super Bowl, it needs to slay this dragon. Dak Prescott needs to rebound from off games against them in a contract year, and head coach Mike McCarthy needs to coordinate a sounder game plan in his own contract year. There’s a reason this game is back on "Sunday Night Football" for a second straight season.

Week 11 — Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills, 4:25 p.m. ET, Nov. 17

In January, Josh Allen was still sitting at his locker 36 minutes after a missed field goal with 1:47 remaining doomed the Bills to a 27-24 loss in the divisional round. Shock from a third playoff loss in four years to the same franchise has that impact. The Chiefs have become an annual source of despair for Buffalo. Can Josh Allen and Co. topple the Chiefs this year? Allen is 3-1 all-time in the regular season vs. Kansas City, but 0-3 in the postseason. This November match won't be the final say this season — but it will set the tone for what could be another classic postseason showdown.

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