The release of the 2014 NFL schedule means we're that much closer to watching football played on the field again. Yes, we have just over four months to go before the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers kick things off with a rematch of 2012's infamous "Fail Mary" game -- which is plenty of time to pick out the juiciest contests on the docket.
As you peruse the slate of must-watch matchups to come, which game sparks the most interest?
I will be happy to reserve my seat in the press box for Denver at New England, for what will feel like the 50th time we watch a Peyton Manning-Tom Brady throwdown. Almost every one of the games they've played against each other has felt special and sometimes revelatory, but given the offseason machinations of the two teams -- "You take my cornerback? OK, I'll go sign a BETTER cornerback!" -- the intriguing matchups will go well beyond the "Hall of Fame quarterback" category. The game is likely to have a significant say in who gets the top seed in the AFC playoffs and perhaps who represents the AFC in the Super Bowl. The matchups between San Francisco and Seattle might be more heated, but for sheer star power, this contest won't be topped.
It's easy to forget now, but the Broncos were favored in Super Bowl XLVIII. And then we witnessed one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time get destroyed like he was directing the Jaguars during an early-season road game in Seattle. (Chad Henne was actually more competitive last September; he only lost by the score of 45-17.) This Broncos offense was one of the greatest in NFL history -- and it had one of the most high-profile meltdowns.
A victory by the Broncos in Seattle wouldn't erase the Super Bowl disappointment, but it could show this 2014 squad has more toughness. After an era of instability atop the NFL standings, we're getting back to the days of having consistent heavyweights every season. It starts with these two teams.
Looking at the 2014 matchups, it's not overly difficult to pick the best game on the docket. Seahawks-49ers has become the NFL's version of Game of Thrones, and with the freshest entry in the series being one of the better NFC Championship Games in recent memory, the premier rivalry in pro football has to be No. 1.
Of the two times these teams will face off in the regular season, I like the matchup in San Francisco better, as the 49ers will be playing in new digs. Not to mention, the meetings in the Bay Area the past couple of seasons have been far superior to the occasions when these two clubs have linked up at CenturyLink. Either way, both the Seahawks and 49ers have several attractive games on their 2014 slate. For a look at those as well as the superior contests on the league schedule, take a gander at our top 14 games of the 2014 season.
*A slice of football-nerd heaven.* The strategic give-and-take between Seattle's physical defense and Philly's high-octane offense will be more than worthy of marquee billing.
No team in the league prepares as well as the Seahawks, as was proven by Seattle's complete domination of Peyton Manning and the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. I can't wait to see what coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn draw up against a Chip Kelly-led offense that is sure to be packed with new wrinkles.
This one looms as a future All-22 classic, with major playoff implications in the NFC.
I'll take Denver at New England. I'm anxious to see how the Patriots deploy recently added cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. And will Denver's free-agency pickups -- Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and Emmanuel Sanders, specifically -- pay off? This is the game I am most interested in watching.
Last year, I was ahead of the curve. I wrote a "Schein Nine" in Week 2 explaining why San Francisco and Seattle had the best current rivalry in the NFL -- and it proved to be correct. There's no matchup more exciting to watch than Niners-Seahawks in front of those amazing, full-throated fans in Seattle; it's the two most talented teams in the NFL in front of the best home-crowd advantage. And it's the only rivalry fueled by pure hatred. The coaches hate each other, the players loathe each other and the fans can't stand each other. This has become THE game to watch on the NFL slate.
When the Seahawks surprisingly routed the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, it didn't take long for conventional wisdom to posit that Seattle would emerge victorious every time if the two teams squared off in 10 different games. As stark as the Seahawks' advantage was in terms of both man power and game planning, that theory gives short shrift to luck and momentum.
There's nothing better than divisional rivalry games. Like every other football fan, I'll be tuning in at least twice this season (and maybe a third time in late January) to watch Richard Sherman's Seahawks take on Michael Crabtree's Niners. Bears versus Packers also looks especially juicy in 2014, thanks to significant defensive upgrades by both teams. And regardless of the specific storylines in a given season, Ravens versus Steelers is a perennial gem (times two).
To say I'm excited about watching any and all of those signature games is the same as saying I'm excited about the upcoming football season. Maybe, though, 2014 will add a new signature home-and-home series to the lineup: Andrew Luck's Colts versus Johnny Manziel's Texans. Houston could conceivably take a QB with the first overall pick in the draft, and who better -- from an entertainment standpoint, anyway -- to use that pick on than the human lightning rod from College Station? (That's a rhetorical question.)
Then again, watching Jadeveon Clowney -- another possibility to be picked first overall -- and Texans defensive star J.J. Watt chase Luck around wouldn't be too bad, either. Hmm. Maybe one of Indy's other AFC South rivals -- the Jaguars or Titans -- can take Johnny Football. In that case, we'll owe the football gods a debt of thanks for the cake we'll all be eating AND having.