When the 2014 NFL season kicks off on Sept. 4, Seattle will open at home against Green Bay. Fortunately there will be no replacement referees in sight at CenturyLink Field that Thursday night, as the Seahawks begin their journey toward becoming the first team to repeat as world champions since New England in 2003-04.
The road to Super Bowl XLIX will not be easy for Seattle, but the defending champion’s upcoming slate is just one of the things that caught our attention as the NFL released the 2014 schedule.
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1. The Defending Champs’ Tough Path to a Possible Repeat
If Seattle does end up back in the Super Bowl, the Seahawks will have earned that right. Russell Wilson and the reigning world champions open at home against Green Bay and then head south to face San Diego before hosting the Super Bowl rematch with Denver in Week 3. That’s three 2013 playoff teams in the first three games. After the early bye, it’s back-to-back games against the NFC East (at Washington, Dallas) before consecutive road games at NFC West foe St. Louis and defending NFC South champion Carolina.
Once the middle of November rolls around, things really start to ratchet up, as the Seahawks play the Chiefs in Kansas City in Week 11, then host Arizona the following week before making the quick turnaround to play the 49ers in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day. After a small breather, Seattle ends with a finishing stretch of Philadelphia (away), San Francisco (home), Arizona (away) and St. Louis (home). That’s four divisional games among the final six and four matchups with playoff teams (two with the 49ers) in the final month and a half.
2. Denver’s Rocky Road Back to the Super Bowl
The Broncos are clearly “all in” once again this season, adding Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware and T.J. Ward to their defense and replacing the departed Eric Decker with Emmanuel Sanders in hopes of getting Peyton Manning back to the Super Bowl. Denver’s road to Glendale, Ariz., however, is anything but easy and I emphasize “road.” The AFC West meets the NFC West in crossover play this season, which means the Broncos not only get a rematch with Seattle, but also will face San Francisco and Arizona at home and take a trip to St. Louis. All four of these defenses finished among the top 15 in the NFL in yards allowed last season.
The Broncos were unstoppable at home last season, but this team’s mettle will truly be tested on the road. Besides Seattle and St. Louis, Denver’s road slate includes New England, Cincinnati, Kansas City, San Diego and the New York Jets. Of course Oakland is on the schedule too, but otherwise you are looking at the world champions, two other division winners and a total of five playoff teams from last season on Denver’s road itinerary. Is this any way to treat one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game?
3. Andrew’s Luck-y QB Draw
In in two short seasons since being selected No. 1 overall by Indianapolis in the 2012 NFL Draft, Luck has led the Colts to consecutive AFC South division titles and already written his name into the record books. Arguably the cream of the current young quarterback crop, Luck will get more than one opportunity to see how he matches up with some of his more seasoned and accomplished peers this season.
For starters, there’s the season opener in Denver against Peyton Manning and the Broncos and a Week 11 matchup with Tom Brady and Patriots, this one coming in Indianapolis. Luck and the Colts also are slated to face off against three other Super Bowl MVPs. Indianapolis hosts Baltimore (Joe Flacco) in Week 5 and will visit Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger) and the Giants (Eli Manning) in back-to-back weeks, with the latter taking place on “Monday Night Football” to finish off Week 9.
There’s also a Week 16 trip to Big D to play Tony Romo and the Cowboys, and the must-see Week 13 matchup against Robert Griffin III and the Redskins at Lucas Oil Stadium. In fact, additional home dates with fellow 2012 draft class member Nick Foles and Philadelphia (Week 2, Monday night) and ’11 first-rounder Andy Dalton and Cincinnati (Week 7) shouldn’t be overlooked either. After all both Dalton (33) and Foles (27) finished last season with more touchdown passes than Luck (23).
4. Pac-12 Reunion, NFL Style
We already get a little USC vs. Stanford action with the two divisional tilts between Pete Carroll’s Seahawks and Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers, but this season the NFL has upped the ante. The NFC East draws the West in crossover play, which means that Chip Kelly will get to match wits with his former conference peers once again with the Eagles set to visit San Francisco in Week 4 and host Seattle in Week 14. While at Oregon, Kelly got the better of Carroll in their only head-to-head meeting in 2009, while he and Harbaugh split their two matchups. Bragging rights on the collegiate level are certainly important, but they simply don’t compare with success in the NFL. Just ask Carroll, who has the Lombardi Trophy to prove it.
5. Player “Payback” Games?
Thanks to free agency, the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude prevalent through the league and other factors, we can always count on plenty of roster and coaching turnover every season. This turnover, more often than not, also produces some intriguing matchups on the schedule and 2014 is no different.
Some of this season’s marquee matchups feature this element, such as Denver’s Aqib Talb vs. New England, Washington’s DeSean Jackson vs. Philadelphia and the Patriots’ Darrelle Revis vs. New York Jets. In addition, there’s Steve Smith in a Baltimore Ravens uniform matching up against Carolina’s secondary in Week 4, while new Jet Eric Decker and Talib figure to see plenty of each other when the Broncos come to the Big Apple in Week 6.
Speaking of the Jets, running back Chris Johnson will no doubt be looking for plenty of yards when he makes his return to Nashville, Tenn., to face the Titans in Week 15. Knowshon Moreno will do the same when he and the Dolphins face off with the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Week 12. On the defensive side, Michael Johnson will probably not roll out the welcome mat for Andy Dalton and the rest of the Bengals when they come to Tampa Bay in Week 13, while Jared Allen can’t wait for his shots at whomever Minnesota has at quarterback when he leads Chicago’s new-look defense against its NFC North rival in Weeks 11 (home) and 17 (away).
6. Fired Head Coaches Looking for Revenge?
Players aren’t the only ones who get a shot at payback, at least when it comes to matchups. Such as when new head Buccaneer Lovie Smith (and quarterback Josh McCown) return to the Windy City to play the Bears in Week 12, while his defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, will try and shut down the team that fired him this offseason when Minnesota comes to Tampa Bay in Week 8.
Another former NFC North head coach, Jim Schwartz, not only gets a crack at his former employer (Lions), but the entire division, as his new team, the Bills, draws all four in crossover play. The headliner, of course, is when Buffalo’s defensive coordinator returns to the Motor City to try and shut down Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Bush and company in Week 5.
And let’s not forget about new Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak who will be back at NRG (former Reliant) Stadium in Week 16 when Baltimore meets up with Houston.
7. Rookie Head Coaches’ Indoctrination
Seven different NFL teams hired a new head coach this offseason with four guys getting their first opportunity to be the top dog. Houston turned to Penn State’s Bill O’Brien to turn the Texans around, while Minnesota and Washington raided Marvin Lewis’ staff in Cincinnati by hiring defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, respectively. Former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine filled the last vacancy when he was hired by Cleveland in late January.
In looking at their opening month schedules, the NFL didn’t do the two former defensive bosses any favors. Pettine’s Browns open things at Pittsburgh, followed by consecutive home games against New Orleans and Baltimore. Although the bye in Week 4 is the earliest possible, it couldn’t come at a better time for a team that’s pretty much starting over.
Zimmer and the Vikings don’t get the same respite, as they open up on the road in St. Louis before coming back to their temporary home (TCF Bank Stadium) to host New England. After that it’s down to the Big Easy to play the Saints and then back north to face Atlanta. That’s three of the NFL’s most potent offenses (when fully healthy) matching up with the 31st-ranked defense last season.
Interestingly enough, either O’Brien or Gruden will get to enjoy their first career victory right out of the gates, as Houston hosts Washington in Week 1. Victory also could be possible for both the following week with the Texans traveling to Oakland while the Redskins welcome Jacksonville to FedEx Field. After that things get a little tougher with Houston in the Big Apple to face the Giants and Washington hooking up with the Eagles in Philadelphia.
Gruden’s first month as Skins’ head coach will end with a home date against the Giants while O’Brien and the Texans host the Bills. On paper, it looks like it will be a smoother and more enjoyable indoctrination for O’Brien and/or Gruden rather than Pettine and/or Zimmer, but we won’t really know until we see them and their teams on the field.
8. Bear-ing Down on the Road
Chicago enjoyed a fair amount of success in head coach Marc Trestman’s debut season. The Bears went 8-8, finishing a half game behind NFC North champion Green Bay and already boasts one of the more explosive offenses in the league. A defensive overhaul has taken place during the offseason, but even with likely improvement on that side of the ball, the results may not be evident in the win-loss column thanks in large part to scheduling.
The NFC North gets the NFC South and AFC East in crossover play this season. So not only does Chicago have to play Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta, New England and the rest of those two divisions, its road games from this group are against the Panthers, Falcons and Patriots, as well as the Jets. What’s more, the Bears’ away swing game takes them out west to San Francisco for a Week 2 primetime matchup against the 49ers. The rest of the road slate is made up of divisional foes Green Bay, Detroit and Minnesota.
All told that’s three division winners and a fourth playoff team from last season, another game against a team just a season removed from playing for a spot in the Super Bowl and two other NFC North clashes. Any analysts who were bearish on Chicago’s chances this season better hope Trestman’s team doesn’t hibernate when it hits the road.
9. NFC Hosts Thanksgiving Day Feast
Even though it has a distinct NFC flavor, there’s little doubt in my mind that fans will devour the three course meal the NFL is serving up this Thanksgiving. The Turkey Day menu features not one, not two, but three tasty divisional matchups starting with Chicago in Detroit. The other traditional Thanksgiving Day host, Dallas, goes next when the Cowboys welcome the Eagles to AT&T Stadium. And just like last year’s Pittsburgh-Baltimore pairing, Commissioner Roger Goodell has saved the best for last with Seattle in San Francisco, as this heated NFC West rivalry takes center stage in primetime and serves as the perfect ending for a terrific Thanksgiving Day tripleheader.
10. Primetime Pairings
When it comes to the NFL’s broadcast schedule, there are two prime pieces of real estate – a spot on NBC’s Sunday night slate and an appearance on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” The market may have just gotten a little more crowded, however, as 2014 marks the beginning of the new Thursday night partnership with CBS and the NFL Network. From Weeks 2 to 8, CBS will air one Thursday night matchup with NFL Network simulcasting on their channel. From there, NFL Network will pick things up through Week 16, during which CBS also will broadcast two games that Saturday (Dec. 20).
So with even more NFL games on tap during primetime on Thursday, Sunday, Monday and one Saturday in December, which teams get the spotlight more? To the surprise of no one, Peyton Manning’s Broncos are scheduled for six such appearances, with half of those coming on NBC. Right behind them are Chicago, Indianapolis, New England, New Orleans, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh who each have five primetime dates.
Seattle, the defending Super Bowl champions, is currently slated for just four appearances, although the Seahawks also get the privilege of opening the regular season on NBC on Thursday, Sept. 4. This means their opponent, the Packers, actually have a total of six primetime dates.
Every team has at least one primetime appearance scheduled, which means even Jacksonville, Oakland, Buffalo and Minnesota will get their chance in the spotlight. How many will exactly tune in when these teams do appear on national TV is an entirely different question. At least there are plenty of other games to look forward to, right?