Levi's Stadium is almost ready.
The San Francisco 49ers will welcome the world to Levi’s Stadium in 2014, after 43 years of residence in Candlestick Park. The new stadium looks to be one of the finest in the league and a major upgrade over the aging ‘Stick.
What’s less clear is which team the 49ers will face in the regular-season opener. The NFL has released the list of teams the 49ers will play next season, but the actual schedule itself won’t be released until April.
That leaves us plenty of time to speculate as to just which franchise will get the call for that opener. The NFL has a number of different ways to go with this one, with multiple juicy games against playoff teams sitting on the schedule.
This list attempts to rank the eight home games in order of their likelihood to be scheduled for that game. It takes into account rivalries, quality of matchup, storylines and general interest in the respective teams.
We know one of these teams will get the call for the regular-season opener—and only the NFL knows for sure who that will be. With no further ado, however, here are the eight most likely opponents for the home opener.
The Chargers and 49ers always meet in the preseason.
The San Diego Chargers are definitely one of the meatier opponents on the home schedule. It may have taken a remarkable run at the end of last season, but the Chargers did squeak into the playoffs. Once there, they pulled off the upset over Cincinnati and held eventual AFC Champions Denver to a reasonable score.
They also boast plenty of star power, with the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year in Philip Rivers and the Rookie of the Year in Keenan Allen. And while San Diego isn’t exactly as big a rival to the Bay Area as Los Angeles is, there's still a bit of a Northern California vs. Southern California thing in this matchup.
The Chargers are, however, a bit of a rung down from the cream of the playoff crop, having only squeaked in with an overtime win in Week 17. There’s also a possible logistical problem here with regards to the preseason.
The 49ers and Chargers like to play one another in the final preseason game of the season, due to their relative proximity—it limits travel time on what is usually a short week for a meaningless game. They have met in the preseason for 27 consecutive seasons, with a 28th matchup likely for this year.
Would either team really want back-to-back matchups in Week 4 of the preseason and Week 1 of the regular season? It seems somewhat unlikely—and the NFL is likely to listen to those particular complaints.
They could always pass up the yearly preseason game, but the logistics make this one less likely.
A hard image for 49ers fans to see.
The two matchups against the Seattle Seahawks are two of the most highly anticipated games on the 2014 schedule. A hot divisional rivalry, a rematch of the NFC Championship Game, a game that will likely go a long way to determining the winner of the NFC West—what’s not to like in this game?
There’s one reason why this game is listed next to last, however—the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII. That means they get the opportunity to open the season at home, in prime time, against one of the other elite teams in the league.
That could well be the 49ers, which would essentially rule Seattle out of the home opener—there’s no way the league would schedule both games that early in the season. Even if Seattle opens against someone like Denver, however, they probably won’t be available for the 49ers opener.
It would make sense for the 49ers home opener to be in prime time in Week 1—the NFL will want to show off its latest technological achievement to a national audience. Most recently, MetLife Stadium opened on Monday Night Football in 2010—while that isn’t a guarantee they will do the same thing with Levi’s Stadium, it’s a fair precedence.
We’ll likely have to wait a little longer before Seattle and San Francisco renew their rivalry, at least in San Francisco.
Always tough to cover, Larry Fitzgerald.
The Arizona Cardinals are one of the hot up-and-coming teams in the NFL.
Having just missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins, they’re bringing back the best rush defense in football. They just restructured Larry Fitzgerald’s contract, giving them some salary-cap flexibility to make adjustments and additions to the squad.
In addition, both of the games against the 49ers last season were tough, physical, entertaining affairs, with the Week 17 matchup being particularly exciting. An Arizona-San Francisco Week 1 matchup would be a fun one to watch.
All that being said, potential is one thing—and Arizona’s not quite on the radar to the same extent as some other teams. A recent poll conducted by Harris Interactive listed the Cardinals as the 16th-most popular NFL team—right in the middle of the pack. The NFL might opt for a higher level of star power in a game showing off the new stadium.
Carson Palmer and the crew from the desert seem to be an unlikely choice for a big, prime-time matchup.
No real recent history between the Bears and 49ers.
The Chicago Bears definitely have the following the Cardinals don’t—that same Harris poll listed the Bears as the sixth most popular team in the league.
Other than that, however, there’s nothing particularly special that stands out in a matchup against Chicago. They were only 8-8 last season, and they didn’t play the 49ers in 2013. There’s a lack of recent history featuring the two teams and no real animosity between the clubs.
There’s plenty of talent on Chicago, with Alshon Jeffrey and Brandon Marshall being one of the top receiver duos in the league. It’s just not necessarily a game that’s going to draw a lot of extra eyeballs to it.
With the 49ers coming off of a great season, the NFL will want to highlight them right from the start. A matchup with Chicago in Week 1 might not be the ideal way to do that.
Washington's poor 2013 bumps them down some.
If the Washington Redskins are the opening match for the 49ers, the headline is easy enough to picture. Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, two of the quarterbacks of the future, dueling it out in the stadium of the future. This is what the NFL will look like in the future—tune in and find out!
There’s the little problem of Washington’s disaster of a season last year, though, as they stumbled to a 3-13 record. There’s also no guarantee that RGIII will ever return to the form that allowed him to light up the league in his rookie year, meaning putting him front and center in Week 1 might be a bit of a risky move.
The Washington-San Francisco matchup in 2013 wasn’t competitive, either, with San Francisco rolling to a dominant 21-point victory. Add in the fact that Washington will be breaking in a first-time NFL head coach in Jay Gruden, and it would seem to be a rather tough assignment to open against a team like San Francisco.
RGIII might bring the name value to a matchup, but it’s one that could very well be delayed for later in the season.
Could we see San Francisco's oldest rival start things off in Santa Clara?
The St. Louis Rams are San Francisco’s oldest rival. With 129 meetings between them, no team has played the 49ers more times.
Although some of the heat of the rivalry has died down since the Rams move from Los Angeles after the 1994 season, these two teams are still the last remnants of the old NFC West, bringing back memories of matchups gone by.
Picking the Rams as the opener would give the team a chance to link Levi’s Stadium to the 49ers’ history. This is a rivalry that lit up Kezar Stadium in the 1950s and 1960s, continued thorough the Candlestick Park era and now opens up Levi’s Stadium.
There’s something to be said for such a historical overview.
On the other hand, the Rams haven’t had quite as much luck recently. They might have an argument for having been the best 7-9 team last season, but that’s still a losing record, and they’re stuck at the bottom of a tough NFC West. They’re still in a quarterback quandary, trying to figure out Sam Bradford’s true ceiling.
All in all, this is a team still trying to find itself.
Neither of the two matchups in 2013 were particularly thrilling either, reducing the Rams odds of finding themselves named the season-opening opponents.
Nick Foles had an amazing half-season.
The Philadelphia Eagles, led by new head coach Chip Kelly, have to be happy with their season last year.
A 10-6 season and a divisional crown is a huge step up from their 4-12 record the year before. Furthermore, they could be even better next season, getting a full year of starts from Nick Foles, who lit up the league over the last half of the season.
You have the first matchup between Chip Kelly and Jim Harbaugh, former Pac-12 rivals going against one another in the NFL. You’d also have the 49ers stingy defense trying to keep up with Kelly’s hurry-up offense. There would be quite a few storylines to hammer away at in the weeks leading up to a Week 1 game.
Furthermore, the Eagles need to be on the road during Week 2, at the very least—they share a parking lot with the Philadelphia Phillies, who have a home game that weekend. Unless they get the Monday night game that week, the Eagles can’t use Lincoln Financial Field that weekend.
That leaves a possibility—the 49ers could open the season in Week 1 in Seattle, and then come back to open the home stadium the next week against Philadelphia. It would give the NFL two marquee matchups right off the bat—and San Francisco a really rough opening slate.
The Kansas City Chiefs have more to offer a matchup with San Francisco than almost everybody else. It’s not just their ferocious defense that led them to a wild-card matchup. It’s not just one of the most exciting running backs in football in Jamaal Charles. It’s not just the new life breathed into them by new coach Andy Reid.
A Chiefs-49ers matchup will see the return of an old player to San Francisco, a player the 49ers traded away when it became clear he wasn’t going to win a starting job last season. A first-round draft pick who was supposed to revitalize his position for years to come.
I am, of course, talking about A.J. Jenkins
Alright, so maybe the return of Alex Smith would find itself slightly higher in the list of storylines before this game. While we saw the teams play in preseason in 2013, this would be Smith’s first return to San Francisco since the offseason trade saw him help revitalize the Chiefs this season.
The quality of the matchup is among the highest available. The storylines, with Smith returning to face the team that discarded him, is top notch. If I had to make the schedule, the 49ers and Chiefs would open the Sunday Night Football slate with a matchup in Week 1, right off the bat.