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Ranking the top prime-time NFL games of 2016

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AFC East competition catching up to Patriots? (2:33)

Herm Edwards breaks down New England's schedule and explains why he sees the Patriots losing several close matchups in the AFC. (2:33)

Things broke right for the NFL in putting together the 2016 schedule.

Because there is a four-year rotation of divisions for interconference games, Super Bowl teams usually don't get the chance to meet each other the season after they play. But the AFC West plays the NFC South this year. No-brainer. The NFL opens the season with Carolina at Denver on the first Thursday night of the season. It's the first time since 1970 that the previous year's Super Bowl teams will meet to open the season.

Other breaks include new rivalries. While the rivalries between Pittsburgh-Baltimore and Green Bay-Chicago have cooled until the Ravens and Bears improve, some new rivalries are emerging. The Cincinnati-Pittsburgh rivalry is getting hot, in part because of the AFC wild-card game in January. The NFC West battles between Arizona and Seattle have improved, while the San Francisco-Seattle wars have dropped since Jim Harbaugh left and the 49ers went into rebuilding mode. Mike Zimmer has coached up a Vikings team that is closing the gap on the Packers.

The league usually puts its best matchups on the nights of Thursday, Sunday or Monday, so here are the top 10 prime-time games this fall.

1. Carolina Panthers at Denver Broncos

Week 1: Thursday, Sept. 8 on NBC

This is a fantastic matchup to begin the season. Despite the free-agency losses of defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Danny Trevathan, the Broncos' defense is loaded. It would love the chance to try to stop quarterback Cam Newton again. Newton took the Super Bowl loss hard and cut short his postgame news conference after hearing Broncos defenders talking about him. Newton will have extra motivation.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals

Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 18 on NBC

Linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who is suspended for the first three games of 2016, won't be able to play in the first matchup between these teams in Week 2. He won't be bullied by the Steelers in this budding rivalry. This December game is one of the most anticipated of the season, and it will likely have an impact on the playoff race.

3. Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks

Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 4 on NBC

The Cam Newton-Russell Wilson quarterback matchup might never draw the anticipation of the showdowns between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, but it's the next best thing going. The Panthers and Seahawks should be stellar again in 2016, and Newton and Wilson are both entering their prime. Their playoff meetings will only grow interest in these regular-season games.

4. Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings

Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 18 on NBC

It's only fitting that the Vikings will open their stadium with a game against their fiercest rivals. The Vikings stunned the league in 2015 by winning the NFC North. Mike Zimmer would love to christen this new stadium with a victory over the Packers.

5. Houston Texans at Denver Broncos

Week 7: Monday, Oct. 24 on ESPN

The boldest decision of the offseason was John Elway being unwilling to pay more than $16 million per year for quarterback Brock Osweiler. Osweiler gets a chance to prove whether he's worth the money in his first game back in Denver. Plus, this will be a test to see how well Elway did replacing Osweiler and the retired Peyton Manning. Will it be Mark Sanchez, a draft pick or someone else?

6. Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals

Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 23 on NBC

Thanks to general manager Steve Keim and coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals have built a team good enough to battle the Seahawks annually for the NFC West crown. Arizona has made one big offseason move this year -- trading for pass-rusher Chandler Jones -- while Seattle's biggest moves have been losses: running back Marshawn Lynch has retired, and offensive tackle Russell Okung signed with Denver. The Seahawks couldn't catch the Cardinals for the division title last year, and the Cards want to take the first shot at staying ahead of them this year.

7. Seattle Seahawks at New England Patriots

Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 13 on NBC

There are so many stories in this game. It's a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX, a game in which the Seahawks were one yard away from winning. In the last regular-season meeting between these teams, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman shouted "You mad, bro?'' at Brady. These matchups are usually classics, plus both teams will be Super Bowl contenders again.

8. Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints

Week 3: Monday, Sept. 26 on ESPN

What makes this NFC South rivalry more interesting is it comes on the 10-year anniversary of the Saints' return to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. There will be plenty of looks at how New Orleans rebuilt the city after the hurricane. Plus, these games are usually close and decided in the final minutes, and both teams had down seasons in 2015.

9. New England Patriots at Arizona Cardinals

Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 11 on NBC

You can't go wrong with a Tom Brady-Carson Palmer matchup, but it's possible Brady could be suspended for the first four games if the NFL wins its appeal in the Deflategate case. If that happens, seeing how the Patriots fare with Jimmy Garoppolo behind center might be interesting, but the better draw is if the game has Brady. New England will unveil a few new offensive weapons, plus Chandler Jones gets to show his former team what it is missing.

10. Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs

Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 25 on NBC

This could be the game that determines the winner of the AFC West. Andy Reid has built the Chiefs into a playoff contender. The Broncos are in transition at quarterback, but their defense will be stout. This game on Christmas night is a gift to football fans.