Awkward reunions, like Deshaun Watson vs. Texans, highlight 2022 NFL season’s best grudge matches

The NFL released its full 2022 regular-season schedule on Thursday night with no shortage of intriguing matchups.

Recent playoff game rematches and star-studded quarterback faceoffs — Patrick Mahomes vs. 45-year-old Tom Brady, anyone? — pack drama into the 18 regular-season weeks. So do some, well, interesting reunions of players, coaches and former teams in this unprecedented era of blockbuster NFL trades. New Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, for example, won’t wait long before the league sends him to play against his former team, the Seahawks.

Whether you’re dialed into draft-day dilemmas, free-agency frenzies, postseason principles or simply the league’s most exciting stars, USA TODAY Sports ranked the top-10 most alluring grudge matches of the 2022 season.

Behold, NFL fans’ road-to-revenge guide:

10. Indianapolis Colts at Las Vegas Raiders

Week 10, Nov. 13 at 4:05 p.m., CBS

Josh McDaniels takes the Raiders head post after 10 seasons as New England Patriots offensive coordinator. But it was the Indianapolis Colts, just four years prior, who thought McDaniels was coming to guide their franchise. Instead, McDaniels withdrew from an agreement to coach Indy, leaving the Colts “surprised and disappointed,” the team said in a statement at the time. McDaniels has faced off against the Colts and head coach Frank Reich — whom they hired from Philadelphia after McDaniels backed out — twice as offensive coordinator since. But hosting the Colts for the first time calling the shots takes on a new level of gravity. The Vegas glitz will be a fitting background for a drama-laden show.

9. Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals

Week 16, Dec. 4 at 4:25 p.m., CBS

The Bengals’ overtime win at Arrowhead Stadium in the AFC championship featured excitement from each team that declared: The rivalry between Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes’ squads is just beginning. The Chiefs’ first half was stellar before their attack steadily unraveled to allow 21 unanswered second-half points followed by a scoring drive off a Mahomes interception in overtime. Will the Bengals’ zero-to-100 squad take the next step to win a Super Bowl in Burrow’s third season as the Chiefs did in Year 3 of Mahomes? Or will Mahomes, with new offensive challenges sans receiver Tyreek Hill, rise to the occasion to show Burrow and Co. he’s not done running the conference yet? Keep an eye during this matchup on Bengals stud kicker Evan McPherson, who was 4-of-4 on field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder, in the Bengals’ conference championship victory at Kansas City.

8. Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Week 9, Nov. 6, 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS

Since Tom Brady bolted to the NFC two years ago, he has yet to defeat the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. The Rams triumphed 34-24 the first time Brady the Bucs faced them. Even more memorably, the Rams knocked the Buccaneers out of last season’s playoffs — despite the Bucs scoring 24 unanswered points in the second half, including on a 55-yard touchdown from the 15-time Pro Bowler, to tie the game in the final minute. The Rams’ championship, and Brady’s brief retirement, followed in short order. Now, Brady will again need to ward off a defense with stars like defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey. Matthew Stafford will need to defend Los Angeles’ attack from the second-half collapse that almost proved fatal in January. Don’t be surprised if this Week 9 matchup is a preview of NFC postseason play.

7. Cleveland Browns at Houston Texans

Week 13, Dec. 4 at 1 p.m., CBS

The Texans awarded Deshaun Watson a four-year, $160 million contract in September 2020 only for Watson to … demand a trade after one season, frustrated with franchise management decisions including player trades and front office hires. Watson sat out the entirety of 2021 while waiting for a trade, legal battles also ongoing as 22 women accused him of impropriety during massage sessions. The franchise managed just four wins last season without its quarterback, and Watson’s frustration festered as trade talks stalled. Will Watson, who led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards his last active season, remind the Texans of the caliber of talent they lost when he arrives back in Houston rocking Browns gear and a $230 million fully-guaranteed deal? Or will the Texans parlay a growing collection of talent they acquired thanks to his trade haul to frustrate Watson yet again? A few teams may have bones to pick with Watson this season, including the Atlanta Falcons in Week 4. Watson’s hometown team thought it had closed the deal to acquire the talented 26-year-old and instead now carries $40 million in dead money after trading former QB Matt Ryan. The Falcons have reason to want to spite Watson, though perhaps not enough talent.

6. Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans

Week 12, Nov. 27, 1 p.m. on CBS

Any playoff loss hurts. But the AFC’s top-seeded Titans suffered acute sting when rookie kicker Evan McPherson kicked a 52-yard field goal as time expired to bounce Tennessee in the divisional round. Count quarterback Ryan Tannehill among the most pained, his three-interception playoff exit sending him to a “dark place” with a “deep scar,” the quarterback told reporters this month. Tannehill said he struggled to sleep before working through the pain via methods including therapy. Tannehill and Co. will have another chance to exorcise demons — with a healthier running back Derrick Henry this time, they hope — when the Bengals return to Nissan Stadium.

5. Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Week 4, Oct. 2 8:20 p.m. SNF on NBC

Any matchup of quarterback GOATs like Mahomes and Brady is must-see TV, as the schedulers duly noted when awarding “Sunday Night Football” billing. Add in the teams’ first faceoff since the Buccaneers’ 31-9 trouncing in Super Bowl 55, and the stakes only rise. Will the Chiefs’ offensive line continue the support that it has given Mahomes since that two-interception, three-sack Super Bowl performance be able to ward off Tampa’s nasty pass rushers? Will Brady’s offense, without Bruce Arians at the helm anymore, be jelling by Week 4 after the 44-year-old (he’ll be a casual 45 before kickoff) emerged from a brief retirement with what he said was the fire to still compete? Losses of Arians on Tampa’s sideline and receiver Tyreek Hill for Kansas City tweak the revenge dynamic perhaps slightly. But the opportunity to watch conference title contenders face off for what could very well be the last time in Brady’s career more than restores any luster lost.

4. Washington Commanders at Philadelphia Eagles

Week 10, Nov. 14 8:15 p.m. MNF on ESPN

Sure, this will technically be Wentz’s second NFC East game against the Eagles, who travel Sept. 25 to play Wentz’s new squad at Washington. But Wentz’s nationally televised first trip back to the Linc — with its rowdy, egg-throwing fan base — is sure to bring drama. Will the Eagles have decided on Wentz successor Jalen Hurt’s long-term potential by then? Will Wentz have settled into the Commanders’ offense and found a better rhythm than his 2021 Colts campaign that ended with an interception-and-fumble performance in a loss to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars? Philadelphia fans aren’t shy when they have something to say, and Wentz’s return to Eagles territory should prove no exception.

3. Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers

Week 10, Nov. 13, 4:25 p.m. on Fox

Some NFL fans might be old enough to remember when Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers won the Super Bowl together following the 2010 season. But relationship between coach and quarterback strained mightily in the years that followed, and Rodgers has shown no shortage of ability to levy a grudge. For the first time since he was fired Dec. 2, 2018, McCarthy will return to Lambeau Field. Will Rodgers be deep into a defense of his MVP campaign by then, or will McCarthy’s third Cowboys year be rounding into top form to play their best football in November and December, as McCarthy often advises? Rodgers has won six of his last seven contests against the Cowboys, though an upstart 2016 Cowboys team with then-rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott won the last matchup at Lambeau Field. Can Dak and Zeke remain unbeaten in Green Bay, McCarthy leveraging 13 years’ worth of inside knowledge to beat Rodgers? Or will Rodgers’ already-MVP game burn even brighter against his former coach?

Mike McCarthy walks away from Packers QB Aaron Rodgers in a 2016 game against Minnesota. McCarthy's Cowboys travel to Green Bay this season.

2. Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks

Week 1, Sept. 12, 8:15 p.m. MNF on ESPN

Your eyes don’t deceive you if you think you see Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson opening his season in Seattle. Even the NFL couldn’t wait to see the nine-time Pro Bowl passer return to face the franchise he won a Super Bowl with — the only franchise, until this very game, that Wilson will have played for during his decade as a pro. Wilson and the Seahawks’ front office spun conflicting narratives about the divorce, and the Seahawks’ public statements that Wilson wanted to leave likely only fuels the quarterback more. Will Wilson thump his maiden team to kick off his campaign to become the league’s next perennial Pro Bowler to win a Super Bowl in Act 2 in Denver? Or will Pete Carroll and Seattle’s seeming rebuild materialize far quicker than a fanbase in search of a quarterback to adore expects? The Week 1 national billing is due.

1. Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs

Week 6, Oct. 16 4:25 p.m. on CBS

The Bills had the Chiefs right where they wanted them with 13 seconds to play in regulation of the AFC divisional game. Josh Allen had just found Gabriel Davis for the receiver’s fourth touchdown of the day, Buffalo taking a three-point lead with 13 seconds to play at Arrowhead Stadium. But somehow, some way, Mahomes moved magic downfield to send the game to overtime. Kansas City won the coin toss, Mahomes found Travis Kelce for a touchdown on the first drive, and a talented Bills team’s season ended abruptly. The confluence of events prompted so much outcry over NFL overtime rules that the league has since changed protocol to allow each team an overtime possession in the postseason and hopefully avoid stars like Allen being subject to the whim of a coin. But regular-season overtime rules remain the same, so Allen and Co. best mount their lead in regulation during Week 6. The matchup of two talented AFC quarterback stalwarts promises entertainment, further intrigue warranted by the Bills’ addition of pass rusher Von Miller to torment quarterbacks like Mahomes, who will also be competing without speedy wideout Tyreek Hill for the first campaign of his career. Perhaps the 2022 rematch won’t reach classic status like Kansas City’s 42-36 win in January, but well-constructed and well-coached rosters nonetheless offer a tantalizing matchup.

Honorable mentions

Eagles receiver A.J. Brown faces the Titans squad that traded him on draft weekend during a Week 13 matchup in Philadelphia. … Saints coach Dennis Allen hosts the Raiders, whom he coached from 2012-14, Week 8 on Oct. 30. … Top 2022 draft pick Travon Walker’s Jaguars travel to the Detroit Lions and No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson in Week 13, Dec. 4. … The 2021 top two draft picks, quarterbacks rather than the 2022 defenders, also face off again: No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence’s Jaguars visit the New York Jets and Zach Wilson on Thursday, Dec. 22 for a Week 16 game broadcast exclusively on Amazon Prime. … Brady’s Bucs may have beat the Saints when it mattered most, in the playoffs en route to their Super Bowl LV victory. But he’s 0-4 in the division against New Orleans, with chances to remedy that blemish Week 2 in New Orleans and Week 13 — on “Monday Night Football” — in Tampa.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

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