Heading into the season the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens are all near the top of most preseason power rankings.
Though one game won't be enough to give us all the information we need to assess every team, the season openers will give us a hint of what to expect all year.
A few key games will help us determine which preseason contenders are ready to become regular-season juggernauts.
Major Early-Season Test for San Francisco and Green Bay
The Niners are on most everyone's short list of elite teams. The defending NFC champions return a defense that ranked fourth against the run and pass and third overall in 2013. Aside from a slight concern in their secondary, the unit should be just as good this season.
There's also this really young and dynamic quarterback named Colin Kaepernick who has taken the league by storm in a year.
When these two teams last met, he lit into the Green Bay Packers for 444 total yards and four touchdowns. Will the Packers have an answer for him? Don't sleep on the addition of Anquan Boldin to the Niners' offense. He'll make it easier for the Niners to absorb the absence of Michael Crabtree.
Dallas Ready to Make a Statement
The NFC East looks like a toss up, though many are heavy believers in Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. You have to love RG3 and the Skins' running game, but their secondary leaves a lot to be desired. In 2013 they were 30th against the pass.
Team like the Dallas Cowboys and N.Y. Giants have the weapons to exploit this weakness.
The Cowboys are in the best position to make this their year in the division. The switch to the 4-3 defense is key. It will help preserve Jay Ratliff's effectiveness through the season. The wear and tear he was taking in the 3-4 was limiting him.
Facing less double-teams will help him this year. DeMarcus Ware's pass-rushing prowess will shine through as well; he'll also benefit from the new scheme because he won't be depended on to provide the bulk of pressure on the quarterback.
The Cowboys open against the Giants, and while Eli Manning and Co. can certainly sling it downfield, I'm not in love with their running game. David Wilson has to prove he has conquered his fumbling issues and the loss of Andre Brown, per Dan Hanzus of NFL.com, takes the physical presence away in the backfield.
Lastly, the secondary will miss Stevie Brown's big-play ability, per Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com. He saved so many games for the team in 2012, without him the Giants defense will take a tumble. Look for Dallas to grab a big early-season win against a division rival.
How Good are the Defending Super Bowl Champions?
We're going to get this question answered to a degree in Week 1. Traveling to Denver to take on the Broncos and Peyton Manning is a stiff test.
The Baltimore Ravens are now officially Joe Flacco's team; but there are so many new faces on defense, it is hard to determine if the team will improve. Honestly speaking, Ray Lewis' departure is an addition by subtraction—at least on the field.
He's the greatest middle linebacker in history, but he was a shell of himself the last two seasons. Daryl Smith is an upgrade at the position and his ability to lead the defense is key.
If the Ravens are going to be serious again this season, it'll start on that side of the ball.
Trying to contain Manning and Co. is obviously no small task. Without the veteran presence in the secondary from Ed Reed, the Ravens defense won't win the chess match with Manning. The Broncos will defend their turf, but don't count the Ravens out just yet.
They proved last year they can put together a run at the end of the season.
Here is a look at my predicted power rankings after Week 1:
|1||San Francisco 49ers||1-0|
|3||New Orleans Saints||1-0|
|6||New England Patriots||1-0|
|9||Green Bay Packers||0-1|
|16||St. Louis Rams||1-0|
|20||Kansas City Chiefs||1-0|
|21||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1-0|
|30||San Diego Chargers||0-1|
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