The 2014 NFL schedule is out! And right off the bat, let me tell you: There certainly are some prime-time dandies to plan your football life around.
Scrolling through 17 weeks of games, storylines pop up all around the evening features. So Andy Dalton wants to be paid like a face of the franchise? Cool, then he can prove he's just that when the Bengals travel to New England for a Sunday nighter in Week 5. If he lays a red egg, he'll have another opportunity to redeem himself in front of the nation come Week 16, when Cincinnati hosts the Broncos on Monday Night Football. I hope Dalton is what he thinks he is, but the point is, the schedule will help us find the real answer.
Really, prove-it games litter the prime-time slate -- starting with the regular-season opener, when a storied franchise will try to reestablish itself as a premier powerhouse by knocking off the premier powerhouse.
So here is the best of Thursday, Sunday and Monday nights. If you have a different take, please send it along: @HarrisonNFL is the place. Let's kick it off from the top:
THE KICKOFF GAME: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks, Thursday, Sept. 4 (NBC). The "Fail Mary" rematch -- this is the kind of prime-time fodder TV execs dream of. But forget about Golden Tate's game-winning offensive pass interference for a second. Instead, remember that Green Bay now has Eddie Lacy, a physical back who can run downhill and challenge the Seahawks' front seven. The Packers did not have this luxury in that fateful Monday nighter two seasons back. Consequently, Seattle pass rushers pinned their ears back and got after Aaron Rodgers early and often, sacking the quarterback eight times in the first half. What also makes this contest special is that it isn't Seahawks-49ers. Divisional games should be played late in the season. Packers at Seahawks is the second-best NFC contest on the books in 2014.
BEST THURSDAY NIGHT GAME: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos, Week 8 (CBS/NFLN). Just to clarify right quick: Yes, the scintillating Kickoff Game (noted above) takes place on a Thursday night, and yes, Seahawks-49ers (noted below) is the night cap on Thanksgiving Thursday. But I'm talking about your normal, run-of-the-mill Thursday evening in this blurb. Now that that's out of the way ... Somehow, under the radar, Chargers at Broncos has become the best division game in pro football, outside of 49ers-Seahawks and Steelers-Ravens. San Diego and Denver have locked up in nothing but close contests and thrillers over the past five meetings. In a rather dull AFC postseason last January, this was the only good game after wild-card weekend (when the Chiefs and Colts gave us an all-timer). Had the Bolts been a bit healthier on defense, the Broncos' season might have come to a depressing conclusion long before Super Bowl Sunday.
BEST SUNDAY NIGHT GAME: San Francisco 49ers at Denver Broncos, Week 7 (NBC). Dude, the Sunday night schedule is so delicious, it might as well be celery sticks and peanut butter. Difficult it is, picking the top Sunday nighter. OK, didn't mean to type like Yoda there, but even he would be glued to his TV in some Dagobah system swamp watching this interconference special. Niners-Broncos represents classic defense vs. new-era offense. And this game, more than any other, will show whether the 2014 49ers are young and deep enough to stop an elite offense. This matchup should also serve as an appropriate test of battle-readiness for sophomore running back Montee Ball, who averaged less than eight carries per game last year.
BEST MONDAY NIGHT GAME: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs, Week 4 (ESPN). Speaking of battle-readiness ... I think a lot of fans are curious about how the Chiefs will fare in 2014. Last season was tough to gauge, given the way it ended. (Kansas City rested players in Week 17 ... only to have several go down to injuries in Indy during that exhaustingly wild wild-card game against the Colts.) The Patriots represent a different test than the division-rival Broncos, as New England runs the ball more effectively. This should be an excellent matchup. I'm calling this game right now: 20-17 ... Chiefs.
TURKEY NIGHT SPECTACULAR: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, Week 13 (NBC). The schedule makers prove they're no turkeys with this inspired choice. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) How can you not be a-tingle over a Thanksgiving dessert of 'Hawks-Niners (in San Francisco's new home, no less)? I mean, we're annually forced to watch two of the most inconsistent teams in pro football (Detroit and Dallas) on this day, so we deserve this. Last year, the NFL proved it could place one of its best divisional products on this holiday night, giving us a hard-fought Steelers-Ravens battle that went down to the wire. Seahawks-49ers is the best matchup in the NFL -- divisional or otherwise. Let's just hope Jim Harbaugh doesn't try to trip up Percy Harvin on a long kick return -- not that a head coach would ever attempt something like that ...
SCHEDULING ODDITY: While we're on the subject of Thanksgiving ... Two of the other teams scheduled for Turkey Day (the Bears and Cowboys) are due to face off in Chicago on the following Thursday (Dec. 4). Yup -- back-to-back Thursday nighters for both teams. Better make sure those fantasy lineups are set now, future Matt Forte/Dez Bryant owners.
SNEAKY-GOOD NIGHT GAMES:
» San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals, Week 1, Monday Night Football (ESPN). Like I said, "sneaky-good," as in, contests that might be overlooked. This has to qualify, as rarely would anyone think of Chargers-Cardinals as can't-miss action. Yet, it should tell us how Philip Rivers will fare without former Bolts offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and whether the Cardinals will regress from last year's 10-win campaign. This is the nightcap in the season-opening Monday Night doubleheader (after Giants-Lions).
» Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins, Week 5, Monday Night Football (ESPN). Sure, this might not be a game that league observers immediately circle on the schedule. Yet, when you think about the weapons the Redskins added in DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts -- and the fact that this is the very matchup that kick-started the demise of the Mike Shanahan era (Knee-gate) -- you know it's going to be a fun three hours on Monday night. Can't wait to see what Robert Griffin III can do this season.
NEVER FAILS: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens, Week 2, Thursday Night Football (CBS/NFLN) AND Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 9, Sunday Night Football (NBC). The first head-to-head in what has been the NFL's most consistent rivalry since 2008 is the first Thursday Night Football game (not counting the Kickoff Game, of course). It also will be the national-television debut of Steve Smith in an unfamiliar Ravens uniform. The second meeting's also ticketed for national TV, at Heinz Field in early November -- when we should know a little more about both teams and where they stand in the AFC North. You know both games will be solid -- rock solid. Did you know 11 of the past 14 meetings between these divisional foes have been settled by four points or less?
BEST OF THE REST:
» Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos, Week 1, Sunday Night Football (NBC): Luck-Manning II.
» Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers, Week 2, Sunday Night Football (NBC): Niners open up their new digs with an awesome uni matchup.
» New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys, Week 4, Sunday Night Football (NBC): Always a fun matchup. Can Dallas' D stop Brees?
» San Francisco 49ers at St. Louis Rams, Week 6, Monday Night Football (ESPN): Rams tough at home -- smells like a defensive slugfest.
» Green Bay Packers at New Orleans Saints, Week 8, Sunday Night Football (NBC): The two best QBs in the NFC go at it -- plus, a Byrd sighting!
» Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys, Week 8, Monday Night Football (ESPN): Still a classic. Who will threaten the Eagles in the NFC East?
» New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers, Week 9, Thursday Night Football (NFLN): Kuechly goes for 30 tackles this time.
» Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers, Week 10, Sunday Night Football (NBC): Peppers pours salt in the wound?
» New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers, Week 14, Sunday Night Football (NBC): The Troy Brown Invitational. Something tells me Rivers steps up.
» New Orleans Saints at Chicago Bears, Week 15, Monday Night Football (ESPN): Late-season road test for New Orleans, late-season defensive test for Chicago.
THE RETURN OF NFL SATURDAY: There are two Saturday games on the docket for Dec. 20: Chargers at 49ers and Eagles at Redskins. The NFL has yet to determine which will be played in the prime-time slot, but my vote goes to SD@SF. What do you guys think?
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.