Heck, the last three Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks were the then-unknown Kurt Warner, the still-maligned Trent Dilfer and the God-really-owed-Boston-one Tom Brady. Five months from now, it shouldn't surprise us when Cincinnati's Gus Frerotte hoists the Lombardi Trophy.
Predicting which games will have meaning late in the season is a little like trying to guess which CEO took your retirement money. It could be any of 'em. But we're gonna give it a shot and present to you the can't-miss NFL games of 2002. Adjust your moving dates and weddings accordingly...
SAN FRANCISCO at N.Y. GIANTS, Week 1
Thursday, Sept. 5 — Few teams' expectations have dropped from 2001 (NFC East favorites) to 2002 (hey, nice rookie tight end!) as dramatically as the Giants', so this ain't exactly Ali-Frazier. But it's the first game of the season and the only one of the evening. Every true NFL fan must tune in.
PITTSBURGH at NEW ENGLAND, Week 1
Monday, Sept. 9 — John Madden makes his regular-season debut in ABC's Monday Night Football booth for a rematch of the 2002 AFC title game. This time the scene has shifted to Gillette Field, the new home of the Super Bowl champion Patriots. (Did I just write "Super Bowl champion New England Patriots?") If it's possible to have a statement game in the opening week, this is it. The Steelers are widely regarded as the class of the conference this season, and the Pats want to prove that 2001 was no fluke.
ST. LOUIS at TAMPA BAY, Week 3
Monday, Sept. 23 — New Bucs coach Jon Gruden gets his first shot at what may be Tampa Bay's most hated rival — and the Rams aren't even in the same division. Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk on one side; Warren Sapp and John Lynch on the other. Is that Hank Williams, Jr. we hear in the background? Throw in one of the most raucous home crowds in the NFL, and you've got ABC's version of must-see TV.
ST. LOUIS at SAN FRANCISCO, Week 5
Sunday, Oct. 6 — These division rivals combined for a 26-6 regular-season record last year but didn't cash in when it counted. The Rams were upset in the Super Bowl, of course, and the Niners were sent packing by Green Bay in the wild-card round of the playoffs. No shame there, but this year they're back to 49ers' standards: no title, no successful season.
GREEN BAY at CHICAGO, Week 5
Monday, Oct. 7 — There may not be a more perfect NFL setting than this one: a playoff-caliber Bears team hosting the hated and equally talented Packers. The only blemish is that the game will be played at the University of Illinois in Champaign while Soldier Field gets a makeover. It'll be the first game either club plays against a team that had a winning record in 2001.
SEATTLE at DALLAS, Week 8
Sunday, Oct. 27 — Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith enters the 2002 season 539 rushing yards short of Walter Payton's career record of 16,726. If he averages 73 rushing yards per game, as he did in 2001, this will be the game in which he sets the new mark. And what better team to do it against than the Seahawks? You know, besides the other 31.
MIAMI at N.Y. JETS, Week 10
Sunday, Nov. 10 — A Monday night-caliber game 24 hours early should make for a spirited evening at the Meadowlands. There are no gimmies in the AFC East this season, and there are never any gimmies for the Dolphins when they line up against the Jets, a team that has beaten them eight straight times.
NEW ENGLAND at OAKLAND, Week 12
Sunday, Nov. 17 — By the time this game rolls around, every Raiders fan on Earth — and other planets, judging from the looks of 'em — will have seen Tom Brady's non-fumble approximately 381,234 times. If Oakland loses this one, too, the whole city goes on suicide watch.
INDIANAPOLIS at TENNESSEE, Week 14
Sunday, Dec. 8 — Both clubs were the favorites in their divisions last season, then made like dogs and played dead. Now they're in the same four-team AFC South with Jacksonville and expansion Houston. Someone's gotta win the damn thing.
EVERYTHING, Week 17
Saturday, Dec. 28 through Monday, Dec. 30 — Regular-season finales are so hard to predict because, if playoff seeds are already set, even the great matchups play out like preseason games. It becomes a game of Please Don't Injure My Superstar. But there are some great games scheduled — San Francisco at St. Louis, Miami at New England and Green Bay at New York Jets — but, as mentioned above, anything can happen in the NFL. Cincinnati at Buffalo or Altanta at Cleveland may have something on the line, too.