Whether it feels "too soon" or not, we're already discussing what's on the docket for the 2014 campaign -- following Wednesday's release of the full NFL schedule.
Battista: Enticing offseason subplots
With offseason programs kicking into gear, Judy Battista identifies the five most intriguing teams to follow. READ
There's a solid slate of matchups on the horizon, making it difficult to pare the 256 contests down to 14 gems -- but we gave it the old college try below. As you'll see, the defending Super Bowl champions predictably headline the action, but plenty of teams are involved in the Top 14 for '14. We even snuck a Jets game into the mix!
Give it a look and see what whets your football palate. And, as always, feel free to share your take: @HarrisonNFL is the place.
Speaking of Gang Green ...
14) New York Jets at Tennessee Titans, Week 15
This matchup was pretty much a snoozer last year. One week after flashing fine potential in a win over Buffalo, Geno Smith reprised his role as Geno Smith, committing four turnovers and taking five sacks in the Jets' 38-13 loss at Tennessee. Well, this year, Gang Green won't have to lean on its quarterback as much. Whoever's under center for New York -- whether it's Smith or Michael Vick -- will have the luxury of handing off to the only running back in pro football to reach 1,000 rushing yards in each of the past six seasons. Oh, and the fact that this back did it while playing for the Titans only adds to this game's intrigue. Yup, Jets-Titans just got a whole lot sexier, and it's got nothing to do with Rex Ryan's sweater vest. CJ-something-K returns to Nashville.
13) Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens, Week 2 (Thursday)
It's pretty difficult to leave this game out of the mix. Remember last year's Thanksgiving night thriller, when Ben Roethlisberger engineered a 13-play, 79-yard drive to put the Steelers in position to tie it up in the closing moments? Emmanuel Sanders' drop on the ensuing two-point conversion attempt -- which clinched the win for the Ravens -- didn't diminish what has become one of the most competitive series in league history, at least recently. Take a gander at some of the vital numbers from these teams' past 14 showdowns (playoffs included):
Yeah ... and 11 of those 14 games were decided by four points or less. Bottom line: No matchup can be underwritten with a stronger guarantee of quality from Mr. Goodell than this one.
12) San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos, Week 8 (Thursday)
How many of these AFC West tilts have been absolutely worth the entire three-hour run time over the past couple of years? There was the seesaw battle on Monday Night Football in October 2012, when the Broncos clawed their way back from a 24-point halftime deficit to win. Then the Chargers came roaring back in Denver later that year, only to fall short by the score of 30-23. Last year, the two clubs locked up three times, and allthreegames were close affairs. San Diego dropped two of three, but did manage to hand the Broncos their only home loss of the season. Everyone talks about Denver and Kansas City in the AFC West, but who's to say the Chargers can't make a playoff run again in 2014?
11) New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs, Week 4 (Monday)
Speaking of the Chiefs ... how "for real" are they? Andy Reid's club was one-and-done in the postseason this past January, but with Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles and a viable defense still in the fold, Kansas City is seen by many league observers as ready to build on last year's impressive turnaround. This visit from the Patriots looms large. Tom Brady and an oh-by-the-way underrated run game versus an attacking Kansas City defense -- with fans going absolutely nutso at Arrowhead -- sounds like a lot of fun. These two teams also could meet down the road in January, making this a possible postseason preview. Remember, the Chiefs went 11-5 last year -- and that included a narrow overtime loss in the regular-season finale, when Andy Reid started a bunch of guys plucked from Jiffy Lube and Piggly Wiggly. Patriots at Chiefs promises to be one of 2014's best. Let's just hope Bernard Pollard isn't traded back to Kansas City prior to the game.
10) Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles, Week 3
Yes, this will mark DeSean Jackson's first foray into The Linc's other locker room. This edition of Star Player Visits Former Team is especially interesting, due to the strange nature of Jackson's departure from Philly and the fact that Jackson's new team is a division rival. We rarely see that latter wrinkle when players change uniforms in the NFL, although we did a few years ago -- with these very two squads! Remember the Donovan McNabb trade on Easter Sunday in 2010? I don't want to, either, Redskins fans. But I do want to take in this football game. The QB matchup is fascinating: Robert Griffin III is trying to bounce back in 2014, while Nick Foles is aiming to prove 2013 was no fluke. It's also a showdown between the division's past two winners. And look for some high-volume yapping (if not more) when Jackson and Cary Williams lock up. These two have a history.
9) Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys, Week 16
Strike you as an unusual game to select? Well, yeah, isn't that kind of randomness exactly what makes interconference games fun? The AFC South and NFC East only link up once every four years -- about as often as most Americans pay attention to anything happening outside of "Game of Thrones." This particular game is tantalizing because it features two of the best improvisational quarterbacks in football. Tony Romo, fairly or unfairly, has a reputation for making the big mistake, and Andrew Luck has the opposite street cred. Truth is, both rank among the quarterbacking elite when it comes to comeback wins over the past few years. So if this one's tight in the fourth quarter, who will answer the bell? It's a cool uni matchup, to boot.
8) New England Patriots at Green Bay Packers, Week 13
Harrison: Ranking NFL dynasties
Elliot Harrison attempts to order the greatest dynasties to have graced the NFL stage -- and the results might surprise you. READ
Another dandy interconference tilt takes place at the stadium that has hosted more games than any other house in pro football. It's a rare day when these clubs meet. Last time we saw this matchup was at Foxborough in 2010, when the Patriots unleashed a gamebreaker in Dan Connolly, and Matt Flynn (filling in for an injured Aaron Rodgers) couldn't get a play in from the sideline to save his life. But hey, that's football. This time around, hopefully we'll be treated to what is perhaps the best QB mano a mano in the NFL: Brady vs. Rodgers. Oh, and with reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy coming straight downhill at the Patriots, we'll see if Bill Belichick has whipped a suspect run defense into shape.
7) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears, Week 12
New Bucs coach Lovie Smith's return to Chicago is definitely worth circling on the calendar, given that he was fired by the Bears after a 10-6 season in 2012 -- and the small fact that he is the only head coach not named Mike Ditka to have taken the franchise to the Super Bowl. Considering many people feel the Buccaneers will be much improved in 2014, this game could have a major impact on the NFC playoff picture. Both teams head into this season with ground concerns: While Tampa Bay's hoping to repair the run game with a healthy Doug Martin, Chicago's looking to stop the run game with a healthier front seven. The deciding factor in this matchup just might be veteran quarterback Josh McCown, who -- like Lovie -- enjoyed success in Chicago before landing with the Bucs.
6) Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, Week 4
Remember Week 17 last season? Who could forget that stuff (like, the stuff of legend)? Aaron Rodgers, finally healthy, evading pressure on fourth-and-8 before uncorking a deep ball over another mediocre Bears safety ... and into the waiting arms of Randall Cobb with less than a minute to go. What a way to win the NFC North for the Packers. Marc Trestman's Bears, however, have retooled in an attempt to close a gap that appears to be thisnarrow. Will the acquisitions of Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston be enough? On the other side, what will former Bears standout Julius Peppers give Green Bay? Honestly, though, this matchup doesn't even need juicy subplots. After all, we are talking about the 95-year-old league's 94-year-old rivalry.
5) Kansas City Chiefs at San Francisco 49ers, Week 5
Ah, more return-of-the-former-employee fodder -- and this is some damn good fodder! Alex Smith will set out to show the 49ers what they've been missing when his Chiefs journey to the new ballpark in Santa Clara. While the jury is still out as to whether Colin Kaepernick gives the Niners a better shot at winning it all, it's pretty clear that Smith has made Kansas City a better football team. From a symmetry perspective, it's worth pointing out that, 20 years ago, the 49ers faced the Chiefs in one of the most ballyhooed regular-season showdowns in my sports memory: Steve Young vs. Joe Montana.
4) Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks, Week 1 (Thursday)
Hopefully this game doesn't fail me; I pulled a Golden Tate and shoved several other tantalizing 2014 matchups out of the way for this baby. Packers at Seahawks instantly calls to mind one of the most famous sports endings in recent memory, and certainly the most controversial. Besides all that, though, Green Bay should be a serious contender, the type of team that can really push the defending Super Bowl champions in the season opener. Packers-Seahawks has the potential to pack some serious cachet -- stuff that goes way beyond the myriad "Fail Mary" vignettes we'll be bombarded with leading up to the game. Will Aaron Rodgers have enough time in the pocket to bombard the Legion of Boom? He took eight sacks in that infamous 2012 contest.
3) Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, Week 9
Some quarterback enthusiasts might argue this game should be higher. But when you consider there are 256 regular-season contests, ranking third ain't bad. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady last hooked up in the AFC Championship Game -- a one-sided Broncos win that lacked much intrigue beyond halftime. This certainly was not the case in the previous installment of Manning v. Brady, just two months prior. The Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead by halftime, leaving the inhabitants of Gillette Stadium in a daze. But -- of course -- the Patriots came storming back after the break and forced overtime, where New England eventually prevailed, thanks to a botched return attempt that resulted in a live ball finding its way to the hip of Denver's Tony Carter. Will Manning-Brady XVI be determined by yet more quirkiness? That remains to be seen. (In case you were wondering, Brady is up 10-5 in the classic series.)
2) Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks, Week 3
This matchup's attractiveness should go without saying. Are the Seahawks really 35 points better than the Broncos, or was that "game" a mind-blowing aberration? Something tells me this edition will play out in an awfully different manner. For one thing, Denver's defense will have a whole new feel, with DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward in the fold. With the game taking place in CenturyLink, the Seahawks will get the advantage of their ear-shattering home crowd, while we all get the advantage of not having to hear "Omaha" 8,000 times.
1) Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, Week 13 (Thursday)
How could this not be the sexiest game of 2014? The Niners will have a shiny new stadium, and the Seahawks will have shiny new Super Bowl rings -- having beaten San Francisco to reach the big game in the first place. That was a phenomenal NFC Championship Game, but it was played in Seattle. The last couple49ers-Seahawks regular-season tilts in The Emerald City have been absolute duds. That hasn't been the case when the Seahawks travel south. In 2012, the 'Hawks lost by a touchdown in a game stained by a bunch of Seattle drops. Last year, the 49ers won by two in a hard-fought December game at the 'Stick. The new stadium marks a subtle new beginning in what is the NFL's best rivalry -- and frankly, best matchup. If we're lucky again, we'll get another triple-billing of this hostile showdown in 2014-15.