Though the release of the schedule we all care about is still a couple of weeks away, the NFL decided Thursday to give fans a little taste of what they can expect in the 2013 season.
The 2013 preseason, that is. Though the complete dates for every game are yet to be announced, the NFL released its preseason schedule for every team on Thursday.
By now, the jig has long been up on the preseason "mattering." Fans have long bemoaned the four-to-five-game slate as little than a yawn-worthy money grab, the tea cups you ride with your little sister before your parents will allow you to hop aboard the roller coaster.
Some will try to talk you into the preseason results mattering over the next couple months. Don't let them. The games are critical for players hoping to hang on as the 52nd and 53rd men in Week 1—that's about it. Superstars remain superstars even with bad preseasons, and the Super Bowl picture will stay the same, barring injury.
That being said, football is football. By August, the national appetite for NFL action will be insatiable—especially for top teams with intriguing storylines. Even though the second half of games will be inhabited by future members of the Springfield WolfPack of the American Professional Football League, those first few drives will be our first good look at NFL teams in 2013.
Which are the most intriguing games of this preseason? Here is a look at a few that stand out above the rest.
You can take a complete look at the 2013 NFL preseason schedule at the league's official website.
Hall of Fame Game: Dallas Cowboys vs. Miami Dolphins
Every year the NFL's most marquee preseason game is its first. The yearly congregation of the world's greatest football players happens in Canton every season, and with it comes a ton of pageantry. Fans are frothing at the mouth for football—any type of football—and the Hall of Fame Game provides that.
Of course, the game also coincides with the newest members to be inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This year's crop includes Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp and Bill Parcells among the present-day nominees and Curley Culp and Dave Robinson as senior candidates. They will be enshrined in a ceremony on August 3, a day prior to the preseason's official kickoff.
As for the two teams matching up in the Hall of Fame Game, they're usually secondary. The weekend is about honoring the past, with just a little present thrown in for good measure.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys and Dolphins both have plenty of intrigue heading into their matchup. Tony Romo will be under center for the first time since signing his massive (and controversial) six-year, $108 million extension, while Mike Wallace will look to start making good on his whopping new deal.
Dolphins fans will be curious to see whether Ryan Tannehill has taken the leap to "franchise quarterback." The former Texas A&M star showed signs of promise throughout his rookie season, but expectations will be raised with Wallace in tow.
With storylines from the past and present on display in Canton, the Hall of Fame Game should again be the most-watched preseason game of the year.
Week 1: Denver Broncos vs. San Francisco 49ers
Starters won't be seeing much action during the preseason's first week—they historically go no longer than a quarter before being pulled—but many will view this opening-game clash as a potential Super Bowl matchup.
Denver heads into the second year of its Peyton Manning experiment looking to build on last season's triumphs. The Broncos went 13-3 for the season, as Manning proved there is still plenty left in his 37-year-old tank. Losing Elvis Dumervil following a strange contract snafu will hurt, but Denver also boasts one of the league's most talented defenses.
After turning in a conference-best performance last regular season, all eyes will be on Denver to see what it can do for a second act.
Meanwhile, the 49ers spent their offseason reloading in the nuclear arms race known as the NFC West.
They acquired Anquan Boldin from the Ravens for a sixth-round pick, giving Colin Kaepernick, entering his first full season as starter, two top-shelf weapons at receiver. And—ever the opportunist—San Francisco also took low-risk chances on reclamation projects with superstar potential in defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
An NFL season is a long, arduous road. But these two sides are the Lamborghinis leading the pack. Though the game won't be on national television, catching up on even the first quarter on NFL Network will be a necessity.
Week 3: Carolina Panthers vs. Baltimore Ravens
Though they will play two games prior to Week 3, the Super Bowl champion Ravens won't play before a national audience until their Thursday night tilt against Carolina. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
This just won't be the same Ravens team we saw hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February—not even close. Gone are Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger. In their place is, well, not all that much.
The Ravens brought in Michael Huff and Elvis Dumervil as their big offseason additions, but there's a reason—especially with Huff—that their previous teams didn't think they were worth ponying up a boatload of money.
Baltimore did, however, keep its Super Bowl-winning quarterback from hitting free agency. Joe Flacco signed a six-year, $120 million contract this offseason, making him the highest-paid player in NFL history. The Ravens backed up the Brinks truck for Flacco, and now it will be on him to keep up his playoff-level performance for an entire season. Week 3 is historically the time where starters get the most playing time, so this contest could be a barometer of where Flacco is at.
The Panthers aren't without their own questions at quarterback. While Cam Newton is not playing under the pressure of a fat new contract, the spotlight will be large on the former No. 1 pick in his third NFL season. Newton was miserable during the first half of 2012 before reclaiming star status down the stretch in NFL "garbage time."
Inconsistency is understandable in your second NFL season. This year, the Panthers will be expecting superstardom. The preseason won't ultimately matter—ask anyone who watched Newton in 2011—but it will be a good indication of his confidence against elite talent.
With Ron Rivera also firmly on the hot seat, the entire Panthers organization will be hoping Newton makes good on his top-five talent in 2013.