The mid-April months always serve to reintroduce the NFL back into the national lexicon. By introducing the preseason schedule first and then the regular-season schedule a bit later, it gives fans a bit-by-bit taste of what's to come. All of this buildup leads to the NFL draft, which will begin with the first round in prime time on April 25.
Of course, the NFL never fully leaves the national consciousness. Its popularity is so vast that even the most minuscule roster move moves the needle in this country. Yet after the initial free-agency winds die down, there is a bit of a lull period and the NBA and MLB take over for a short period.
With Thursday's schedule release, fans now know when their favorite teams will play in prime time and how to catch each week's matchup. Even outside the team-by-team fandom, there are also plenty of games between Super Bowl contenders that should captivate on a weekly basis.
With that in mind, let's take a look at all the best and most notable matchups on the 2013 NFL schedule.
For a complete look at the 2013 NFL schedule, go to NFL.com.
Week 1: Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos
When: Thursday, Sept. 5, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Elvis Dumervil won't have to wait long to make his anticipated return to Denver, as the NFL announced (h/t Jason La Canfora) that the Ravens and Broncos will open the 2013 season on Thursday Night Football. Dumervil infamously left Denver for Baltimore after a fax machine snafu caused a missed deadline
More salient to the NFL's point of view is that this matchup marks a rematch of one of the league's best games of last season. Behind 35-28 with less than a minute remaining, Ravens quarterback and eventual Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco uncorked a 70-yard bomb to Jacoby Jones to tie the game up at 35. The two sides then battled through a double-overtime slog, as Justin Tucker booted through a 47-yard field goal to give Baltimore a win.
That throw to Jones and, specifically, Broncos safety Rahim Moore's poor play on the ball, are viewed as major catalysts to Baltimore's Super Bowl run. To say there are storylines galore both on and off the field is an understatement.
Both sides have undergone notable transformations during the offseason. Peyton Manning got one up on rival Tom Brady, as the Broncos signed wide receiver Wes Welker this offseason. They also took aggressive yet low-risk moves with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and others. Broncos executives know the Manning window is short for a Super Bowl run and are doing their best to take full advantage.
That said, Denver's changes pale in comparison to Baltimore's. Longtime defensive fixtures Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone, the former retiring and the latter leaving for Houston in free agency. Also gone is top wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was traded to the 49ers after being unable to restructure his contract. And to add insult to injury, the Ravens lost linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, two key free agents.
As you may have noticed, this game will not be taking place at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, breaking the recent tradition of Super Bowl winners opening the regular season at home. Major League Baseball had a scheduled Baltimore Orioles game for Sept. 5, which the Orioles refused to move. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Ravens are the first Super Bowl winner since the 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to not open their season at home:
While Baltimore would rather be celebrating its triumph at home, getting to do so against a massive rival won't exactly hurt.
Week 2: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
When: Sunday, Sept. 15, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: CenturyLink Field in Seattle
If you believe in the Vegas oddsmakers, the NFC West boasts the two best teams in the entire conference. The 49ers are currently listed as the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy at 6/1, with the Seahawks coming in at the fourth-best odds at 9/1, according to Bovada.
Upon hearing the matchups, Pro Football Focus' Nathan Jahnke already had his proverbial calendar circled:
Based on how the offseason has gone for both teams, it's not hard to see why the oddsmakers have so much faith or why Jahnke is so excited. San Francisco, fresh off nearly pulling off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history against Baltimore last season, has reloaded its roster.
Anquan Boldin was brought in from Baltimore to give Colin Kaepernick a second elite receiver to go alongside Michael Crabtree. And though they lost top safety Dashon Goldson, signee Craig Dahl should do a more than adequate job replacing him at a much lower cost. Finding high-upside, low-cost veterans was a staple of general manager Trent Baalke's offseason, as the 49ers also added cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and kicker Phil Dawson.
With 13 picks in April's draft—more than any other team—Baalke isn't even close to being done reloading the talent cupboard.
Meanwhile, Seahawks decision-maker John Schneider doesn't have nearly as many draft picks in his arsenal, but he has already used one to grab a superstar offensive weapon. Seattle's biggest move this offseason came by trading its first-round pick (No. 25 overall) for wide receiver and special teams savant Percy Harvin. The move should give Russell Wilson the top receiver he lacked during the 2012 season, so long as the oft-injured Harvin can stay on the field.
Seattle also made some major headway at shoring up a few defensive weaknesses. Adding defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to an already top-tier defensive line rotation should work out seamlessly, especially with Chris Clemons being a health question mark. They continued those moves by signing cornerback Antoine Winfield.
In other words, these teams are loaded. Both of their matchups will be appointment television for fans across the nation, with the 49ers' trip to Seattle being only more noteworthy for one reason: CenturyLink Field.
Seattle went undefeated at home last season, boasting a dominant scoring margin and defeating a bevy of top-tier teams. The 12th Man is very real at CenturyLink Field and throws an interesting wrinkle into what should already be a great matchup.
Week 9: Washington Redskins at Minnesota Vikings
When: Thursday, Nov. 7, at 8:25 p.m. ET
Where: Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis
Watch: NFL Network
Though the Thursday Night Football schedule tends to get a little drier as the regular season progresses, NFL Network has a doozy right in the middle of the season. Boasting two of the most ascendant stars in the entire league, Week 9's clash between the Vikings and Redskins should be a must-watch for no other reason than fantasy implications.
The situation will undoubtedly be figured out by midseason, but much of the excitement around these matchups revolves around the health of Robert Griffin III. The Redskins quarterback tore his ACL during last season's playoffs and remains a concern. Griffin remains optimistic about being available for Week 1, but jury is still out on whether that's a good idea.
In fact, count NFL Network's Jeff Darlington among those who think Griffin shouldn't rush things back. Upon seeing the Redskins schedule, Darlington said he thinks Washington could play .500 ball without its superstar quarterback:
Griffin's is a comeback story that Vikings running back Adrian Peterson knows all too well. Peterson tore his ACL and MCL at the end of the 2011 season, putting his 2012 campaign very much into question. Initially expected to take it slow early in the season, Peterson was in the starting lineup Week 1 for Minnesota—and the rest is history.
In one of the more remarkable athletic feats in recent memory, Peterson had an all-time great season out of the backfield. He rushed for 2,097 yards and 12 touchdowns, coming just short of breaking Eric Dickerson's all-time record.
It's a model that may not be repeatable for Griffin, but by Week 9, we should be able to see these two beloved players in action. There are plenty of other storylines salient in this contest, just none as great as the comparison between these two young men.
Week 12: Denver Broncos at New England Patriots
When: Sunday, Nov. 24, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
It's hard to believe, but we're getting to the point where fans should be cherishing every matchup between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady like precious silver. Brady turns 36 in August, Manning already hit the big three-seven in March, and their time in the NFL is rapidly drawing to a close—especially at an elite level.
Of course, neither side showed any signs of slowing in 2012. Brady again navigated the Patriots through what's become a standard-affair season: a 12-4 regular-season record, an offense that scored 76 points more than any other team, and a berth in the AFC Championship Game. Brady threw for 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns against eight interceptions, his second straight season averaging over 300 yards per game.
Manning returned from a season-long absence due to a neck injury with a new franchise and proved he's still Peyton Manning. After some initial struggles driving the ball downfield, Manning recovered for an MVP-worthy season down the stretch. The Broncos' signal-caller threw for 4,659 yards and 37 yards against 11 interceptions, winning the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award and finishing second on the MVP ballot.
Despite their respective successes, Manning's and Brady's seasons ended in a similar way: looking on in horror as Joe Flacco and the Ravens triumphed over their teams.
NFL Network's Gregg Rosenthal cited the Brady-Manning subplot among many facing the Broncos' schedule in 2013:
But the biggest storyline of this matchup won't be at the quarterback position; it'll be about the return of Wes Welker, Brady's top target for the past six seasons and Manning's new toy for 2013. Welker signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Broncos this offseason, leaving New England after having more than 110 catches in five of his six seasons with his partner Brady throwing him the ball.
Though the money was greater in Denver, the opportunities won't be as prevalent. Manning already has developed relationships with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, two young studs who ascended last season. Instead of being the top target, Welker will be one of a trio of top-flight receivers for Manning, who will spread the ball around accordingly.
However, look for that to change against New England. Manning and the Broncos will know what that game means for Welker, and they will look to get him the ball early and often. The game is months away, but mark Welker down as a must-start in fantasy for Week 12.
Week 14: Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers
When: Sunday, Dec. 8, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc.
Looking back at their 2012 seasons, the 49ers and Falcons both had to ponder one question: What if the 49ers had never made the switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick?
Both teams saw their seasons end at the hands of Kaepernick, the ascendant young signal-caller who led San Francisco to a Super Bowl berth. If it wasn't for the 49ers, it's very possible these two teams could have wound up facing off in the NFC Championship Game—a fact probably not lost to either side.
Though both sides head into the 2013 season with plenty of hype—the Packers are at 12/1 odds and the Falcons are 15/1 to win the Super Bowl, respectively, per Bovada—they do have a host of questions heading into the season.
Most notably, the lack of major acquisitions for either side has to be worrisome—especially with the movement throughout the rest of the conference.
Atlanta's first major move of the offseason was releasing a host of players who were key contributors last season. Michael Turner, John Abraham and Dunta Robinson are all gone, replaced by guys who have their own host of questions.
Steven Jackson will replace Turner at running back, which will likely be a timeshare between him and Jacquizz Rodgers. Though Turner looked ancient throughout last season, Jackson turns 30 in July—the dreaded Age of Doom for running backs. Jackson was fine in St. Louis last season, but it's possible at this age he represents a lateral move for Atlanta.
The Abraham move, at least from a skills point, was more curious. He was a net minus against the run, but still recorded 10 sacks and was the only Atlanta player in double figures. Replacing Abraham will be Osi Umenyiora, who arguably performed worse in 2012. Umenyiora had only six sacks and looked noticeably slower off the ball, as the whole Giants defense struggled to recapture its Super Bowl-winning glory.
As for Green Bay, radio silence was its answer to the offseason. Needing a tackle to protect Aaron Rodgers, a running back and some extra defensive pieces, the Packers either missed out on just about every possible target or simply weren't interested. Jackson signed with Atlanta, and the entire offensive tackle market—which was robust—signed elsewhere.
Their offseason, like Atlanta's, was more notable for the departures than acquisitions. Wide receiver Greg Jennings and defensive back Charles Woodson are both gone, the former signing with the rival Vikings and the latter still lingering on the free-agent market.
We'll have a good handle on who these teams are by Week 14, especially Green Bay. As noted by Bleacher Report's Zach Kruse, this matchup is the first in a difficult December slog for the Packers:
This matchup definitely looks great on paper. Something just tells me fans will either be seeing a battle between two Super Bowl contenders or two sides that wished they had done more to improve during the spring.