Highlighting This Year's Must-Watch NFL Preseason Games

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIAugust 4, 2013

Highlighting This Year's Must-Watch NFL Preseason Games

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    NFL football makes its grand return for the 2013 season Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET, when the Dallas Cowboys play the Miami Dolphins in the NFL’s annual preseason opener, the Hall of Fame Game.

    Sunday night’s contest will be the first of 65 games played this preseason as all 32 NFL teams prepare for the start of the regular season in September. While these games may ultimately be meaningless as far as wins and losses are concerned, they are far from meaningless for players who will be battling for starting spots, playing time and/or roster spots.

    Sunday night’s game could draw the largest audience of the preseason, as it is the only NFL game of the weekend and the first NFL game of any kind since February. Throughout the preseason, however, there will be many nationally televised games worth watching to help pass the time until the regular season begins.

    In the following slides, we take a look at eight of the games most worth watching in the following four weeks of the preseason.

    Only games scheduled to be nationally televised were considered. All times Eastern.

New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles, Aug. 9 (7:30 p.m., NFL Network)

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    When the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles met last preseason, they were the NFL’s only two teams to have not had a coaching change in the 21st century.

    While this game will be the opening of Bill Belichick’s 14th season with the Patriots, it will be the first game in Philadelphia for new coach Chip Kelly, brought in this offseason to replace Andy Reid.

    While the Patriots have been a model of consistency led by Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, there is a lot of uncertainty heading into this game for the Eagles.

    How will Kelly’s offense translate to the NFL? We will get our first look at how the Eagles offense has transformed under Kelly in this game.

    An even bigger question for the Eagles to begin answering in this game: Who will be the team’s starting quarterback this season? That competition should start to take shape in this contest, with Michael Vick, Nick Foles and even rookie Matt Barkley having the chance to prove themselves in live football action.

    There is no quarterback controversy in New England, and it is unlikely that Brady will play any more than one or two series in this contest. The intrigue of this contest will come in how the Patriots use their third-string quarterback, who is none other than Tim Tebow. Tebow is no lock to make the Patriots roster, but he will have a chance to prove his worth on the field when the Patriots open their preseason in Philadelphia.

Buffalo Bills vs. Indianapolis Colts, Aug. 11 (1:30 p.m., NFL Network)

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    One of the most anticipated debuts of the preseason will occur in the final game of the opening weekend of preseason.

    Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, the only signal-caller selected in the first round of this year’s draft, will be competing for a starting job when the Bills play the Indianapolis Colts in a Sunday matinee on Aug. 11.

    Manuel is competing to start with veteran free-agent addition Kevin Kolb and has a chance to take a significant lead in the competition if he performs well in the Bills’ preseason opener. Kolb suffered a knee injury when he slipped on a rubber mat Saturday, and it would come as no surprise if he is held out of the game against the Colts.

    If that is the case, Manuel will take all of the significant repetitions early in this contest, which would make this a great opportunity for NFL fans everywhere to get their first glimpse of him in professional game action.

    The Bills' opponent, of course, features Andrew Luck, whose preseason debut may have been last year’s most anticipated. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft lived up to the hype as a rookie but is now going into his sophomore season with even higher expectations.

    The Colts, coming off being the NFL’s worst team in 2011, defied the odds and made the playoffs last season, even with head coach Chuck Pagano battling cancer. This season, however, they will be expected to be a contender, and they will need Luck to continue to progress to meet that expectation.

    Luck probably will not play a great deal in the preseason opener, but it will be an opportunity to see many of the Colts' new additions line up for the first time. The Colts had a busy offseason, adding key veterans on both sides of the ball including running back Ahmad Bradshaw, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois and strong safety LaRon Landry.

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. New York Jets, Aug. 17 (7:30 p.m., NFL Network)

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    If you like preseason quarterback competitions, this will be the game for you. The Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets both have two-way quarterback competitions going into the preseason, and this game could prove to be a deciding moment in each competition.

    Blaine Gabbert is widely expected to win the Jaguars’ starting quarterback competition, but after two uninspiring seasons to start his career, he still has to compete with Chad Henne in the preseason. The more intriguing competition comes from the New York Jets, where another struggling incumbent, Mark Sanchez, could be set to lose his job to rookie Geno Smith.

    Both of these teams are trying to bounce back from recent struggles, and their ability to find capable starting quarterbacks this preseason will play a massive role in whether they are able to improve. Expect the competing quarterbacks to split the majority of the snaps in this game, and each and every throw they make will be evaluated by the coaches making the decision on whom to start.

    These teams also need improved play from their defenses, which will be trying to make the competing quarterbacks look bad.

    Both teams have made significant changes this offseason in an effort to improve their respective defenses. Those changes started at the top: The Jacksonville Jaguars have a new defensive-oriented head coach in Gus Bradley and a new defensive coordinator, Bob Babich, while Dennis Thurman is the New York Jets’ new defensive coordinator.

    There will also be a lot of new, young defensive talent on display in this game. Jaguars strong safety Johnathan Cyprien and cornerback Dwayne Gratz will be rookies to watch for Jacksonville, while the New York Jets made big additions to their defense in first-round picks defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson and cornerback Dee Milliner.

Carolina Panthers vs. Baltimore Ravens, Aug. 22 (8 p.m., ESPN)

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    The defending Super Bowl champions will be on national TV in Week 3 of the preseason, and it could be an important game of preparation for the Baltimore Ravens.

    Week 3 is typically the week in which the starters get their most snaps of any preseason game, and the Ravens are a team replacing some crucial players while trying to overcome the Super Bowl hangover.

    Defending Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco, who signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract this offseason, will be expected to play in this game.

    Some key players from last year’s Super Bowl run, however, will not be on the field for the Ravens at all this season. Those players include wide receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to the San Francisco 49ers), tight end Dennis Pitta (injured), inside linebackers Ray Lewis (retired) and Dannell Ellerbe (signed with the Miami Dolphins) and safety Ed Reed (signed with the Houston Texans).

    This game will be an opportunity to see if the replacements stepping into those roles can keep the Ravens in contention to win another Super Bowl. Tight end Ed Dickson, wide receiver Deonte Thompson, inside linebacker Arthur Brown and safeties Matt Elam and Michael Huff will be among the players in the spotlight this season.

    The team on the other side, the Carolina Panthers, is also well worth tuning in to watch. The Panthers have to take a step forward this season to legitimately contend in a strong NFC South division, and that will all start with the team’s preparation in the preseason.

    Specifically, the Panthers will be expecting third-year quarterback Cam Newton to take a leap forward and prove that he is in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. Another player well worth watching is Panthers first-round pick Star Lotulelei, who has the talent to immediately be one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles.

Seattle Seahawks vs. Green Bay Packers, Aug. 23 (8 p.m., CBS)

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    The Green Bay Packers will be seeking vengeance in this rematch of last season’s infamous Week 3 regular-season loss on Monday Night Football to the Seattle Seahawks.

    In the NFL’s final game of the three-week replacement-official stint last season, the Packers lost on a blown call that gave the Seahawks a game-winning touchdown.

    In all seriousness, the Packers probably won’t be too concerned about getting vengeance in a preseason game. This will, however, be an opportunity to see two of the NFC’s best teams square off in a Week 3 preseason game.

    Both of these teams are expected to be Super Bowl contenders this season. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers doesn’t need much work in exhibition play to get ready for the regular season, but he should see some time in this game. The same should be the case for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who is entering his second year after a breakout rookie season.

    For the Packers, much of the attention in this contest should go to the team’s rookie running backs, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, who will be competing with one another and the team’s veteran backs for carries.

    Injured wide receiver Percy Harvin will not be on the field for the Seahawks, and Sidney Rice may not be back this preseason either after receiving knee treatment in Switzerland. There will be some very intriguing new Seahawks to watch this preseason, however. Rookie running back Christine Michael, defensive end Cliff Avril and veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield are among the additions to keep an eye on.

    This may not necessarily be a meaningful rematch of last year’s infamous Seahawks win, but it could be a preview of a playoff matchup to come between two teams expected to contend in the NFC.

St. Louis Rams vs. Denver Broncos, Aug. 24 (8 p.m., CBS)

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    If you like watching slot receivers, then this is the game for you.

    The St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos both added very talented slot receivers this offseason, and this Week 3 preseason matchup will provide a great glimpse at how those players fit into their new offenses.

    The Broncos made a great passing offense even greater with the addition of Wes Welker, who may have established himself as the NFL’s all-time best slot receiver in his prolific six-year run with the New England Patriots.

    The Rams also added a dynamic playmaker to their offense by trading up to the No. 8 overall pick in this year’s draft to select West Virginia’s Tavon Austin, an explosive athlete who is expected to be an immediate X-factor out of the slot for the Rams.

    This game will be a great opportunity to see how the passing connections of Peyton Manning and Welker and that of Rams quarterback Sam Bradford and Austin are each meshing in preparation for the regular season.

    Another area to watch in this game will be running back, where each team has a rookie competing with second-year backs for carries. Broncos second-round pick Montee Ball is trying to unseat Ronnie Hillman to be the feature back in Denver, while Rams fifth-round pick Zac Stacy forms a running-back rotation in St. Louis with sophomore backs Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead.

    The Broncos have a far better chance of winning their division than the Rams do in the stacked NFC West, but both teams have high hopes for the 2013 season. Their starters should get put to the test, even if only for a quarter, in this game.

New Orleans Saints vs. Houston Texans, Aug. 25 (4 p.m., FOX)

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    The New Orleans Saints struggled to a disappointing 7-9 season last year, but a turnaround is expected in 2013 with the return of head coach Sean Payton, who the NFL suspended for the entire 2012 season as punishment for the Saints’ bounty system.

    In New Orleans' only preseason game scheduled to be nationally televised, Payton’s team will have a chance to show that it is ready to be a playoff contender once again as it takes on the Houston Texans, one of the AFC’s top playoff contenders.

    This first quarter should be a fun one to watch should Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, two of the NFL's elite players, both play in the first few series. Brees is one of the NFL’s most prolific passers and always gives the Saints to chance a win, while Watt is the reigning AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

    Perhaps more important to both teams’ progression, however, will be the Houston Texans offense and the New Orleans Saints defense.

    After struggling down the stretch last season, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub is attempting to reestablish himself as a Super Bowl-contending quarterback. He could receive a boost as early as the preseason from rookie wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, a first-round pick who gives the Texans a legitimate second option opposite Andre Johnson.

    The Saints, meanwhile, have switched to a 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Saints have added some key new talent, including cornerback Keenan Lewis and rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro, but they need to bounce back from a season in which they ranked 32nd in total yards allowed and 31st in points allowed.

    The Texans and Saints both have the potential to be playoff contenders, but they must improve upon their flaws to make a Super Bowl run. That process begins in the preseason and will take the national stage in Week 3.

Minnesota Vikings vs. San Francisco 49ers, Aug. 25 (8 p.m., NBC)

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    There are many reasons to be excited about this Sunday night game that concludes Week 3 of the preseason.

    The San Francisco 49ers are defending NFC champions and arguably the NFL’s best team, but their star-studded defense will be tested in this contest by Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, the reigning NFL MVP.

    The 49ers came up one win short of a championship last season, but they are expected to be right back in the hunt this season. Leading the way will be quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for whom preseason snaps could be important as he prepares for his first full season under center in San Francisco.

    The Vikings, meanwhile, will be attempting to make another run at the playoffs with Peterson leading the way. They will also be hoping to see development from third-year quarterback Christian Ponder this preseason, and he will be put to the test by defensive end Justin Smith, pass-rushing outside linebacker Aldon Smith, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman and the rest of the 49ers’ talented defense.

    Both of these teams have some key new additions to watch as well.

    The 49ers have bolstered their secondary this offseason by signing former All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and drafting free safety Eric Reid with their first-round pick. They also added another big playmaker to their offense in wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

    The Vikings offense added two big playmakers of their own in veteran wideout Greg Jennings and rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. This game will also showcase two defensive rookies for Minnesota, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, both of whom have huge potential.

    There will be a number of key players not playing in this game, however. The 49ers are already down wide receiver Michael Crabtree and cornerback Chris Culliver, who will sidelined by injuries for at least most of the regular season. Inside linebacker Patrick Willis is also out for the preseason with a slight hand fracture.

    Peterson is also unlikely to play more than one or two series, even though it is a Week 3 contest. He's less than two years removed from a torn ACL, and the Vikings shouldn’t be taking unnecessary chances with their superstar running back before the regular season begins.

    Nonetheless, the talent on both of these NFC playoff teams from last season makes this a contest well worth watching. It could well be a first glimpse of the season of a league MVP or a Super Bowl champion.


    Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.