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    Five big NFL games to watch: Kickoff curveball, Rodgers’ debut and dueling quarterbacks

    Welcome back to NFL relevance, Detroit. It’s been a while.

    With the Eagles, Bengals and Bills as the presumed top three possibilities to visit defending champion Kansas City for the NFL’s annual Thursday night season kickoff game on Sept. 7, the NFL threw us a curveball by showing tremendous faith in the …

    Detroit Lions!

    The Lions haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 5, 1992. They haven’t won their division since 1993. And, of course, they’ve never before been asked to partake in one of these NFL Kickoff Game extravaganzas since the league began doing them in 2002.

    Yeah, but this Lions team also is an exciting, high-scoring bunch that closed last season on an 8-2 run and narrowly missed the playoffs. Then they became offseason media darlings and a trendy favorite to unseat the Vikings atop the NFC North.

    Here’s a look at that game and four others as another increasingly ballyhooed NFL schedule release date has come and gone:

    1. Detroit at Kansas City

    Week 1, Thursday, Sept. 7 (7:20 p.m., Ch. 11)

    Are the Chiefs good enough to become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-04 Patriots? Are the Lions legit? The Chiefs lost tackles Orlando Brown Jr. and Andrew Wylie and receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman. But they have Patrick Mahomes, the 27-year-old face of the league and a guy with two MVPs and two Super Bowl titles in six seasons. The Lions beefed up their 32nd-ranked defense with veteran DBs Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley, but did they whiff on a chance to do more for their woeful defense by trading out of the sixth overall draft pick and reaching for a running back at No. 12? For 33 consecutive seasons, the NFL has had at least four teams make the playoffs that didn’t the year before. The Lions lead the way among teams looking to stretch that streak to 34 seasons.

    2. Buffalo at N.Y. Jets

    Week 1: Monday, Sept. 11 (7:15 p.m., ESPN)

    The seven AFC teams that made the playoffs a year ago are led by star quarterbacks in their 20s. Aaron Rodgers, the four-time league MVP, former Packer and soon-to-be-40-year-old, joins that youthful fray by thrusting the longtime lifeless Jets onto the prime-time stage early in a Week 1 AFC East bout with Josh Allen and a Bills team that’s won three consecutive division titles only to suffer playoff disappointment each time. Other 20-somethings on Rodgers’ slate besides two bouts with Allen are Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Deshaun Watson, rookie C.J. Stroud and Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa twice, including the league’s first Black Friday meeting at the Jets the day after Thanksgiving. The Jets went all-in on Rodgers, hoping he is the missing piece for a young, talented team that was 7-10 last year while missing the playoffs for a league-high 12th consecutive season. They’re certainly relevant again. But will they be good enough for five prime-time games?

    3. Cincinnati at Jacksonville

    Week 13: Monday, Dec. 4 (7:15 p.m., ESPN)

    Can 23-year-old Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in 2021, raise his play to match the likes of 26-year-old Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020? They have met one time, with Burrow outplaying the then-rookie Lawrence en route to reaching the Super Bowl in his second season. Lawrence, however, has risen alongside the resurrection of a Jaguars franchise that went from back-to-back league-worst records and the Urban Meyer debacle to making the playoffs in Doug Pederson’s first year as head coach last season. They also won a playoff game with Lawrence throwing four touchdown passes to erase a 27-0 first-half deficit against the Chargers. Is Lawrence ready to plant himself alongside the AFC’s great QBs? He also faces Mahomes at home and Allen in the greatest “road” advantage ever. The Jaguars will play in London in Weeks 4-5. They’ll face Allen and the “host” Bills in Week 5.

    4. San Francisco at Philadelphia

    Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 3 (3:25 p.m., Ch. 9)

    The 49ers are hoping to have a healthy quarterback when the rematch of last year’s NFC Championship Game arrives. That wasn’t the case in their 31-7 beatdown at Philly four months ago. Unlike last year at this time, Jalen Hurts is a bona fide and commensurately-compensated franchise quarterback coming off the Eagles’ league-best 14-3 season. The 49ers, meanwhile, are still figuring things out at quarterback with 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance, 2022 seventh-round pick Brock Purdy and young journeyman Sam Darnold, a washout everywhere else he’s been. Coach Kyle Shanahan has called all three “franchise-caliber” QBs. The 49ers poached part of Philly’s league-leading pass rush, adding inside rusher extraordinaire Javon Hargrave to the NFL’s top-ranked defense in yards and points allowed. Philly countered by trading into the top 10 to select Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter, a boom-or-bust prospect if ever there was one, and then taking Georgia edge rusher Nolan Smith 30th overall.

    5. N.Y. Giants at Dallas

    Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 12 (3:25 p.m., Ch. 9)

    Remember when the NFC East went 23-40-1 with its “winner” finishing 7-9 in 2020? The same division went 43-23-2 with three playoff teams last year. The Cowboys won 12 games and lost the division by two. The Giants earned Brian Daboll NFL Coach of the Year by returning to the playoffs for the first time in six years. These teams also meet in Week 1 in the season’s first Sunday night game. That, too, will be must-watch TV as the Cowboys, who last year ranked in the top five in scoring offense and defense, go for their fifth consecutive victory in the series. Where will these teams and this division be nine weeks later? Will Micah Parsons and the Cowboys’ vaunted pass rush — No. 2 behind the Eagles a year ago — still dominate? Will Giants QB Daniel Jones live up to his big new contract? Will Mike McCarthy taking over play-calling in Dallas help Dak Prescott put last year’s gosh-awful playoff performance at San Francisco — not to mention his 2-4 career playoff record — behind him?

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