Eddie Vedder wasn't singing about the NFL schedule when he screamed "RELEASE ME!" in the throes of one of Pearl Jam's best songs, "Release," on the back end of the album Ten. Yet, if you want 11 good songs in one shot, that's the album -- er, CD -- to scurry over to iTunes and buy (and there's a secret track at the back).
Earlier this week, I took a shot at making an NFL version of a killer album, trying to pick the best tracks from the 2013 league schedule. I did it without the benefit of the actual schedule; I only had the teams and their opponents, not the weekly slate of games or the prime-time package (both of which were released Thursday). But after seeing the complete docket -- particularly, the dates -- your shameless neighborhood writer asked for a secret bonus track. Release me from the chains of an opponents-only league pamphlet.
Thus, below you'll find our original 13 for '13, the top games of the upcoming season. Before you get down there, though, let us nominate this year's Kickoff Game, Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos, as a worthy addition for these reasons: A) It's a rematch of last season's postseason shocker, in the same stadium no less; B) we get an early look at the Super Bowl champs, and how competitive they'll be devoid of some marquee players; and C) it's the freaking Kickoff Game!.
Now, let's get to a sweet football playlist ...
13) Green Bay Packers at Cincinnati Bengals, Week 3
At some point, Cincinnati has to prove it can beat the best teams. The Bengals tend to take care of business against the teams they're supposed to beat ... and that's about it. Over the past three seasons, they're 3-9 versus the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. They've also faltered against the Houston Texans, another quality team, over the past two campaigns. That has to change if Marvin Lewis' group is to take the next step. Last season didn't turn around for the Bengals until they beat the visiting New York Giants in Week 10; that victory propelled them to win six of their next seven games and secure a playoff berth.
The Packers will present a stiff challenge and litmus test for a Bengals team that some analysts feel can be a player in the AFC. Cincy can get after the quarterback (51 sacks last year), which is important in this showdown; the Packers have trouble protecting Aaron Rodgers, who sometimes holds the ball in the pocket for too long. Maybe a fan will come take the ball out of Rodgers' hand ... nah, that would never happen to a Packers quarterback in Cincinnati.
12) New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins, Week 15
Wouldn't it be, oh I don't know, neat if New England had some competition in the AFC East? The Dolphins spent some green securing the talents of Mike Wallace, Lance Louis, Brent Grimes, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler in free agency. Miami also re-upped key contributors like Brian Hartline and Randy Starks. The nucleus is definitely there.
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Of course, they lost some quality football players, too, namely Jake Long and Reggie Bush. Long has played at an elite level before, while Reggie Bush produced 1,278 yards from scrimmage last season. But the former All-Pro left tackle had health issues, and Bush didn't fit into the plans with Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas on board. The bottom line is: The new-look Fins should be fine.
11) Dallas Cowboys at Chicago Bears, Week 14 (MNF)
Talk to Bears fans about their team's offseason coaching turnover and you'll hear some say they understand or applaud the changes. Then you'll discover a large contingent of those who didn't like having defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli -- now coaching the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line -- depart in the aftermath of a 10-6 campaign that saw the Bears fall just short of a playoff berth. They feel the Bears' Tampa 2 defensive scheme was what kept them in games in the first place.
The man who ran the original Tampa scheme -- Marinelli's mentor, Monte Kiffin -- is now the defensive coordinator in Dallas. When he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kiffin spearheaded the ridiculously effective defense that dominated much of the late 1990s and carried the Bucs to a Lombardi Trophy in 2002. Kiffin's predecessor in Dallas, Rob Ryan, bragged that he would "be unemployed for like five minutes" after getting fired by the Cowboys. That's lovely, but Ryan's defenses have finished -- on average -- around 20th in league rankings over his career. Basically, don't be shocked if Kiffin's unit has a better showing than Ryan's versions did.
Like Chicago, Dallas missed the playoffs by one game in 2012, making this NFC matchup potentially important with regard to 2013 postseason seeding.
10) Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers, Week 16
Though they don't hook up often, these franchises are two of the most successful in NFL history. Green Bay was the dynasty of the 1960s, while the Steelers dominated the '70s. Between the two of them, they've also been to 13 Super Bowls -- including Super Bowl XLV, when Aaron Rodgers tore up Pittsburgh's defense en route to a Packers victory. This will be the first meeting between the two teams since that title matchup, which came down to the final drive -- and the thinking here is that this season's contest will follow the same pattern.
These cornerstone organizations have much in common. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers held the same post in Pittsburgh in the early '90s, and he and current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau both still run a zone-blitz 3-4 scheme. But the similarities don't end there. Each offense is led by a quarterback who is effective when the play breaks down -- throwing on the move is a strength of Rodgers' game, while Ben Roethlisberger is fantastic out of the pocket. Each ground attack is a "by committee" approach. Each team also lost its best wide receiver in free agency. However, even without Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings taking part, this figures to be three hours well spent.
From the "Oh, by the way" department: Brett Favre's first career start came against the Steelers at Lambeau Field some 21 years ago.
9) Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens, Week 3
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The Texans will arrive at M&T Bank Stadium with one of the best players to ever have laced 'em up in that building: Ed Reed. The All-Pro safety's departure was part of a series of moves -- Baltimore also lost Ray Lewis, Anquan Boldin, Cary Williams and Paul Kruger -- that might have seemed to signify the Ravens' decline as AFC contenders. But did they? A solid nucleus remains in Baltimore in the persons of Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and the newly acquired Elvis Dumervil. Still, losing Reed's leadership, instincts and ability to direct pre-snap traffic in the secondary is going to impact the team on several levels.
What's cool about this game -- besides Reed's return in a new uni -- is the fact that these have been two of the AFC's stronger clubs over the past couple of years. The outcome of this one should really mean something in the bigger picture.
8) Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers, Week 14
If Wes Welker's move to Denver was the most surprising development of free agency, Mike Wallace ending up in Miami was the sexiest. Wallace was the closest thing we had to a crown jewel this offseason; with no real quarterbacks of note changing locales on the open market, many fans were anxious to see what would happen with the speedy wideout. Frankly, there wasn't much drama, as Wallace joined Miami -- a team with which he had long been linked -- seemingly seconds into the free agency period. On the field, Wallace figures to provide second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill with a guy who can get down the field, like, now -- the anti-Fasano, if you will.
7) San Francisco 49ers at Washington Redskins, Week 12 (MNF)
Several elements make this contest one to earmark. The Niners and Redskins each won their divisions in 2012 with spectacular quarterback play from Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, respectively. The franchises also share much postseason history and -- if you're into such things -- represent a classic clash of 1980s-esque unis. Most importantly, however: Who isn't curious to learn whether Kaepernick and RG3 -- as well as the offenses and formations they run, like the "The Pistol" -- are flashes in the pan or the real deal?
The RG3 portion of that question, of course, depends on how the second-year quarterback comes back from his knee injury. Ultimately, I'd guess that both players have the skill set to dominate the NFC over the next decade, à la Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Brett Favre in the '90s. The difference here is the style with which Kaepernick and RG3 play -- and if they can stay healthy long term. This will be one of the toughest games on San Francisco's schedule and a steep challenge for Washington. The only thing keeping this potentially outstanding game from being ranked higher is RG3's still-uncertain status.
6) New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks, Week 13 (MNF)
How much does coach Sean Payton bring to the table for a New Orleans football team that struggled without him in 2012? Can his presence, game-management acumen and aggressive play calling compensate for a defense that allowed an NFC-high 28.4 points per game last season? Will Payton's return result in an extra three to four wins, as has often been suggested? And on Monday night in Week 13, how will his Saints perform in one of the toughest place to play in the league? The crowd noise in Seattle demands that an offense be in sync. Yes, the Saints will have Payton roaming the sidelines, but they'll also be without offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod, who left via free agency, meaning the pressure on Drew Brees will be quite high.
5) Denver Broncos at New York Giants, Week 2
Hmm, let's see ... Why would this game be interesting? Well, this might be our last opportunity to see big bro take on half-pipe, as Peyton and Eli Manning tee it up for (presumably) the final time in a regular-season matchup. That is, unless the elder Manning continues playing until the AFC West takes on the NFC East again four years from now. Or Eli somehow doesn't re-up in New York. Or Denver isn't Peyton's last stop. None of those scenarios are realistic, so this likely will be the last time in NFL history two brothers of this ilk face each other -- at least at the quarterback position, anyway.
4) Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers, Week 16 (MNF)
The inclusion of this one should be cut and dry. It's the NFC Championship Game, part deux -- except this time, it'll be at The 'Stick.
Expectations are high for a Falcons team that has won 36 games over the past three years, tied with the Packers for most in the NFC. So when does Atlanta take the next step? According to Falcons fans, those who doubt are all "haters." Most of the players, however, get it; they know that for the 2013 Falcons, it's Super Bowl or bust, which is why tight end Tony Gonzalez is coming back.
3) Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, Week 14
Let's be frank -- both of the Seahawks-Niners games should make for quality TV, though the second matchup likely will have more on the line. And it's at Candlestick, so you can simply add it to the 50 other huge contests that have happened there over the years; it's a living football museum at this point. The thought here is that the 49ers are the best team in the NFL. Well, last time they locked horns with the Seahawks, the Niners got their butts handed to them in a Sunday night debacle that brought Colin Kaepernick down to Earth while legitimizing Seattle as a Super Bowl contender.
We know it will be physical. We know it will have playoff implications. We know Kam Chancellor is going to light somebody up. And we know the Niners know it's the most important game on their schedule. Seattle, which added receiver Percy Harvin and defensive end Cliff Avril this offseason, represents the biggest threat to San Francisco -- not only in the NFC West, but in the entire conference.
2) Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, Week 12 (SNF)
Of course this game -- which promises to bring former Patriot Wes Welker back to New England -- will have a helluva lot riding on it, at least if 2013 plays out like 2012. You don't need me to tell you that these organizations represent the class of the AFC.
That aside, considering how few head-to-head matchups Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are likely to have left in their Hall of Fame careers, this one becomes exponentially more relevant. We tend to take Manning-Brady for granted. It's too bad, too, because there probably hasn't been a better quarterback rivalry in NFL history. Elway-Marino didn't happen enough. Young-Aikman was epic, but was it equal to Manning-Brady? Either way, this is Bradshaw-Staubach in terms of historical relevance. There's also something electric about Manning and Brady trying to outduel each other this late in their careers.
1) Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts, Week 7 (SNF)
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I kid because I care. Peyton Manning, of course, is the Broncos player who had some great moments at Lucas Oil Stadium -- though most of his best Colts highlights (like winning the 2006 AFC Championship Game after facing a 21-3 deficit in the first half) actually came at the Hoosier Dome. However, regardless of the stadium, Manning will always be linked to the city of Indianapolis.
The "cool factor" of this AFC battle goes way up when you factor in Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's incredible play in the clutch (despite his youth). Tell me you can't see Luck exploiting the Broncos' secondary on a last-gasp drive, spoiling what is sure to be a celebration of Manning's Hall of Fame career.