2014 NFL Schedule: Highlighting the 25 Biggest Games of the Year

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterApril 24, 2014

2014 NFL Schedule: Highlighting the 25 Biggest Games of the Year

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    Releasing the NFL's regular-season schedule used to be an administrative footnote, bare-bones information released at the NFL's convenience to whatever media outlets cared to share it.

    In today's NFL, though, everything is a production—and making the schedule public is no exception.

    With a prime-time release show on NFL Network adding Selection Sunday-like drama to the affair, players, coaches, media and fans all found out the full slate of dates and times for matchups long since predetermined.

    With the expanded Thursday Night Football slate, enhanced flex scheduling, the usual Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football slates and three Thanksgiving games, there'll be plenty of opportunity for all the teams to get a slice of prime-time pie in 2014.

    Now, with the whole enchilada up at NFL.com, everyone wants to know: What are the best matchups, the best storylines, the hottest rivalries, the biggest grudge matches and the hugest prime-time fixtures to watch out for?

    Basically, what are the 25 biggest games of the 2014 NFL season? Read on to find out.

25. Washington at Houston Texans, Week 1

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    Remember Robert Griffin III?

    His spectacular rookie season, apparently coach-aggravated playoff injury and ensuing sophomore slump were some of the biggest storylines of 2012 and 2013.

    Now, he's going into his critical third season with a new head coach, new offense and new weapons like receivers DeSean Jackson and Andre Roberts.

    He opens his season against the Houston Texans, a team that entered 2013 looking to get to the Super Bowl but ended the season with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. Whether that pick is Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles or somebody else, the NFL world will be watching to see how the league's hottest new player stacks up against its former hottest new player.

24. Chicago Bears at Minnesota Vikings, Week 17

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    Part of an unusually large, talented crop of inter-divisional player movement this offseason, superstar defensive end Jared Allen left the Minnesota Vikings for the rival Chicago Bears.

    In Week 17, Allen and the Bears will travel to Minnesota, playing in the dead of winter in outdoor TCF Bank Stadium.

    If the NFC North continues to be as bad as it has been lately (replete with wild unpredictably and razor-thin margins from wire to wire), it's entirely possible that Allen and the Bears will clinch a playoff berth by eliminating the Vikings from contention in front of their frozen fans.

    You have to think that'd put a smile on Allen's face.

23. Buffalo Bills at Detroit Lions, Week 5

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    Few have more strongly advocated for the Detroit Lions to keep their traditional Thanksgiving Day game than Jim Schwartz. Back in 2009, via Paula Pasche of The Oakland Press, Schwartz proclaimed the Lions had "put a barbed-wire fence" around their annual marquee game.

    Less than a year after being booed out of Ford Field, in Week 5 Schwartz will have to cross that barbed wire as the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills.

    Both teams have some difference-makers on defense and explosive players on offense. Both teams are also fighting to get ahead of the pack in relatively even divisions. This game could have playoff implications on both halves of the NFL's playoff bracket.

22. Carolina Panthers at Baltimore Ravens, Week 4

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    Steve Smith has been synonymous with the Carolina Panthers since at least 2003, when the electrifying receiver/returner played a big role in the Panthers getting to their first Super Bowl.

    Since then, Smith's fiery leadership and streakily impressive production (despite a revolving door at quarterback) have been instrumental in whatever success the Panthers have achieved.

    Then came 2013. Despite being the only proven playmaker quarterback Cam Newton had to lean on, Smith had just 64 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns—his lowest totals across the board for any season in which he started more than 14 games.

    Nevertheless, the Panthers went 12-4. But this offseason, they decided to move on, releasing their longtime captain.

    The Baltimore Ravens desperately missed the physicality, leadership and tough in-traffic catches of Anquan Boldin in 2013. Smith seemed like a perfect fit to fill that role, and he signed a three-year deal with Baltimore in March.

    In Week 4, Smith will have the chance to prove to the Panthers that he still has plenty of fuel for his fire.

21. Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, Week 12

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    Both the New York Giants and the Dallas Cowboys expected better finishes in 2013 than 7-9 and 8-8, respectively.

    Both the Giants and Cowboys had every opportunity to win the NFC East last season, but neither team could get out of its own way. The Giants, especially, couldn't get out of the way of the Cowboys, who swept the season series between the two teams.

    Giants quarterback Eli Manning is coming off the most disappointing season of his career, and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo turned in yet another up-and-down performance. This will surely be Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett's last season to prove himself, and aging Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is now on permanent retirement watch.

    With this game being scheduled as Week 12's Sunday Night Football matchup, it'll surely have massive implications for all of the above.

20. Cleveland Browns at Buffalo Bills, Week 13

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    Thanks to the NFL's pre-determined matchups (and the Houston Texans hiring a college coach), just two of the NFL's seven new head coaches will have to face their former teams in 2014.

    One of them is the Cleveland Browns' Mike Pettine, hired away from the Buffalo Bills after a protracted search. Rampant rumors and speculation, as detailed by Bleacher Report AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst, held that Pettine wasn't anywhere near the Browns' first choice.

    Nevertheless, he was their ultimate choice, and the tough-nosed rookie skipper should have very good insight into what the Bills can do. Both teams have some dynamic young players and figure to add major pieces in the draft.

    This matchup could go a long way toward proving the Browns are moving out of the AFC's doghouse, or it could prove that the Bills are pushing toward the postseason.

    No wonder it's scheduled for Week 13, as a victory or defeat could seal the fate of either teamor both.

19. New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons, Week 1

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    There's no argument: The New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons rivalry is one of the best in football.

    After the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the Saints' surprise victory over the Falcons was so symbolic and so momentous that it's immortalized outside the stadium in a bronze statue.

    When head coach Sean Payton returned from the year-long Bountygate suspension last year, his season-opening game against the Falcons was so huge that I wrote the Saints hired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan just to make the difference in that one game.

    He did, and the Saints went on to have a great season, making the playoffs, winning a game and losing only to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

    On the other hand, the Falcons cratered, taking an all-in run to the Super Bowl in 2012 into the NFC South basement in 2013.

    Now, Falcons head coach Mike Smith is coaching for his job, and guess who's coming to town in Week 1?

    Oh yes, the Saints, who they won't get another crack at until they travel to the Superdome in Week 16.

18. Miami Dolphins at New York Jets, Week 13

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    You can see it in their faces, can't you?

    Just looking down the Miami Dolphins bench in the above picture—captured in the waning minutes of their 20-7 loss to the New York Jets in the final week of the 2013 regular seasonsays it all: "This isn't going to happen, is it?"

    Needing just one win in their last two games to stake a strong claim on a playoff berth, the Dolphins just couldn't get it done. The Jets and Buffalo Bills combined to outscore the Dolphins 39-7 over those two games, and it's no stretch to say that the Week 17 contest saved Rex Ryan's job—and put Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin on notice.

    Back in the 2000s, these two teams had a rich, feisty rivalry. As both head coaches may face a playoffs-or-bust scenario in 2014, there's no doubt that both teams will give it everything they've got in this matchup.

    As a special treat, this matchup will be the post-Thanksgiving Monday Night Football contest in Week 13.

17. Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals, Week 16

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    The Arizona Cardinals should have been one of the biggest stories in the NFL in 2013. Too bad they were stuck in the same division with two bigger stories: the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks.

    Despite being trapped in the toughest division in the NFL, however, the Cardinals managed a 10-6 record. They even handed Seattle their only home loss, which came in Week 16.

    It's only fitting, then, that the Cardinals should host the Seahawks in Week 16 this season. Better yet, they'll be hosting them on Sunday Night Football, when the whole NFL world can't help but notice them.

    If they've managed to keep their heads above water in the NFC West for a second season in a row by this point, the Cardinals could put everybody on notice.

16. New York Giants at Detroit Lions, Week 1

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    On Dec. 22, 2013, a 45-yard field-goal attempt by New York Giants kicker Josh Brown went through the Ford Field uprights, and then-Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz's fate was sealed.

    The Lions missing the playoffs for the second straight season was unacceptable after going 10-6 in 2011, with many of the key players from 2011 remaining on the team last season. The overtime loss marked five losses in six games after a 6-3 start. And after the Lions sleepwalked through a Week 17 loss to the Vikings, it was over.

    Just over seven months later, the New York Giants are coming back to town—this time to open the season's slate of Monday Night Football games. According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, the Lions haven't opened the season on Monday night since 1971.

    Of course, the game will feature two of the league's oldest franchises, with two of its most prolific (and most visibly struggling) franchise quarterbacks.

    Between the Lions' desire for revenge, both teams seeking redemption for surprisingly poor seasons and the MNF factor, this should be an excellent matchup.

15. Denver Broncos at New York Jets, Week 6

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    While watching the New York Jets in 2013, one thing became painfully obvious: If the Jets didn't add some offensive firepower, it wouldn't matter how good their defense was or how many breaks they caught. No matter what, head coach Rex Ryan was going to be in hot water.

    Ryan managed to hang on to his job for 2014, and general manager John Idzik has brought the firepower. Quarterback Michael Vick, running back Chris Johnson and wide receiver Eric Decker should combine to give the Jets a much more potent offense next season.

    One of the never-ending debates in free agency, though, centered on Decker's viability as a No. 1 receiver—or any kind of receiver—outside of the Denver Broncos offense.

    The Broncos went all in on free agency, shoring up every level of their defense in a bid to win the Super Bowl.

    The Jets went all in on free agency, shoring up the three pillars of their offense in a bid to make the playoffs and save Ryan's job for good.

    In Week 6, we'll see which team did a better job of shoring up its weaker unit.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Chicago Bears, Week 12

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    When the Chicago Bears fired Lovie Smith, the news rocked many of his players; Smith's tenure in Chicago had been long and successful, and his bonds with the players had been strong. 

    After hearing the news, star receiver/returner Devin Hester told ESPN Chicago that he was considering retirement rather than play for anyone else. That's the kind of loyalty Smith inspired.

    Smith's roots in Tampa go even deeper.

    As the Buccaneers' linebackers coach from 1996 to 2000, Smith helped build one of the most dominant defenses of all time, as the Bucs finished in the top 10 in scoring defense every season he was there.

    When Smith moved on to St. Louis as the defensive coordinator and then to Chicago as head coach, he took the "Tampa 2" defensive system with him, often hiring fellow Bucs alumni like Rod Marinelli as his assistants.

    Now, Smith will have to take his new-look squad—with star acquisitions like Alterraun Verner and Michael Johnson as well as former Bears Josh McCown and Major Wrightback up to Chicago in Week 12. Can he make Bears general manager Phil Emery eat some crow?

13. Washington at Philadelphia Eagles, Week 3

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    Of course, this rivalry doesn't need much to make it interesting.

    Fortunately for football-loving fans everywhere, it'll have plenty of spice. One of the strangest sagas of the offseason will come to a boil in Week 3, when new Washington receiver DeSean Jackson gets a chance for revenge against the Philadelphia Eagles team that cut him loose.

    In the span of a couple of weeks, Jackson went from being a cornerstone of the Eagles offensive machine to persona non grata, and rumors that he could be traded escalated into his outright release in what seemed like a matter of hours.

    Going to an in-division rival raised the hackles of many Eagles fans, and Jackson is surely hoping to show that he still has plenty of touchdowns left in his speedy legs.

    Should Jackson falter, he, Robert Griffin III and Co. will host the Eagles in Week 16.

12. Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, Week 4

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    It was a renewal of the NFL's oldest rivalry.

    It was a spectacular, frozen evening in Chicago.

    It was a dramatic back-and-forth battle for the NFC division title.

    A last-minute 4th-and-8 touchdown pass sealed a playoff berth for the Green Bay Packers in the final week of the regular season last year, and it also kept the Chicago Bears out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons.

    It's a rematch we all can't wait to see, and we won't have to wait long to see it, as the Bears open Soldier Field to the Packers in Week 4.

11. Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys, Week 13

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    The NFC East rivalries are always a treat, and the Thanksgiving games mean a little bit extra.

    The Philadelphia Eagles coming to AT&T Stadium on Thanksgiving adds a little revenge factor too; the Eagles not only took the NFC East crown in 2013, but they spiked the football by beating the Cowboys in Dallas in Week 17.

    In the process, they locked Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett into his third consecutive season with an 8-8 record as head coach—in just three seasons as a head coach. Garrett might have survived a third straight failure to play winning football, but he's surely on his last chance in Big D.

    Chip Kelly and the Eagles have the chance to put his career in the cooler during the Cowboys' annual showcase game.

10. Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens, Week 2

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    The bad blood between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers sure didn't start last Thanksgiving, when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin interfered with a Jacoby Jones kickoff return that would have otherwise likely gone for a touchdown.

    The bitter divisional rivalry didn't die down when the Ravens went on to win anyway, 22-20, or when that loss prevented the Steelers from making an improbable run from their 0-4 start to making the playoffs.

    Now, with both teams looking to improve upon their 8-8 records from last season, they won't have to wait long to settle the score, as the Ravens host the Steelers in Week 2.

    The reverse fixture, in Baltimore, is Week 9's Monday Night Football matchup.

9. New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles, Week 6

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    OK, you might be saying, "Enough with the NFC East already!"

    Even though every team not coached by Chip Kelly in the division faltered badly in 2013, the NFC East is still home to plenty of the game's biggest stars, grandest franchises and most intriguing storylines.

    Better yet, all three non-Eagles teams are going hard this season—either to save a coach's job, get a coach's new job off to a hot start, bounce back from a disappointing season or some combination of the three.

    Amidst a confusing and disappointing early slate of Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football matchups, this Week 6 SNF matchup is one of the few that really pops.

8. Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens, Week 1

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    It's not like the brutal rivalries of the AFC North needed any more juice.

    After years of domination by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, though, the Cincinnati Bengals finally took the division crown last season—in style, no less, by finishing three wins clear of second place.

    The exclamation point came in Week 17, when the Bengals hosted the Ravens and soundly beat them 34-17. The win gave the Bengals the No. 3 seed in the AFC, and it slammed the door to the postseason in the Ravens' face.

    The defending Super Bowl champions couldn't even muster the ninth win it would have taken to get back to the playoffs.

    The Bengals, though, went on to get humbled by the sixth-seeded San Diego Chargers in the first round of the playoffs, and the Ravens are hungry to get back in contention in 2014.

    These two teams will open the season against each other in Baltimore.

7. New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts, Week 11

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    As NFL.com's schedule teaser says, "This is why Sunday Night Football was invented."

    Yes, these two teams are perennial playoff contenders—and they are sure to be again this season.

    Yes, this matchup features one of the NFL's best young quarterbacks against one of its best quarterbacks ever.

    Yes, this matchup is a Sunday Night Football prime-time fixture that's being played in Week 11, at a critical pivot point in the rhythm of the regular season.

    All these reasons would be make it a must-watch matchup, regardless. But the fact that the Patriots whomped the Colts 43-22 back in January, bouncing them out of the playoffs, makes it even more enticing.

    Best of all, this game will serve as a real measuring stick for both quarterbacks. We will see if Luck has what it takes to beat greats like Brady head-to-head. As for Brady, we'll get to see if he's still got enough mojo to beat swaggering young studs like Luck.

6. New York Jets at New England Patriots, Week 7

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    When former New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis signed with the New England Patriots, it set off a rash of jersey burnings across the tri-state area.

    The two franchises have been divisional rivals for decades. Ever since 2000, when now-Patriots head coach Bill Belichick resigned after just one day as the Jets skipper, there's been a growing feud that's seen players, coaches and executives get fired up, get personal and even defect from one side to the other.

    Add this latest transgression—combined with the Jets' controversial overtime win over the Patriots in 2013—and tempers will be flaring at their highest.

    The two teams will put it all on a Week 7 Thursday Night Football matchup, when the seasons' narratives will be in full swing. But neither team will be mathematically in or out of the postseason at this point, so you've got a drool-inducing matchup.

    The rematch is a likely fateful Week 16 tilt, with sure divisional and playoff implications for both teams on the line.

5. Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks, Week 1

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    Aaron Rodgers is one of the very best quarterbacks in football, and when he's healthy the Packers are one of the NFL's most potent teams.

    If you'd forgotten those two facts, it's perfectly understandable. Last season's extended injury to Rodgers, along with the Packers' ongoing struggle to best Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers, meant that the Packers were mediocre during the regular season and quickly bounced out of the playoffs.

    As the opening Thursday Night Football game, this matchup will also be the very first live-action contest of the 2014 season. We won't have to wait long to see these two NFC titans test themselves against each other.

4. Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers, Week 13

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    The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are, arguably, the NFL's two best teams.

    They play in the same division. They both have ferocious, physical defenses. They both have true power-back, run-first offenses in an era where that's become increasingly rare. They both have mobile quarterbacks who clawed up the depth chart and took the league by storm. Also, their head coaches didn't care much for each other long before they took their current jobs.

    This was nothing less than the best rivalry in football, even before their instant-classic showdown in the 2013 NFC Championship Game.

    NFL fans might finally be taking it easy on the food and drink this Thanksgiving, as they'll want to stay awake for the dessert course: this fantastic matchup. 

3. Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, Week 9

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    The script was flipped.

    The narrative was inverted.

    After two incredible, Hall of Fame careers spent with Tom Brady as the Joe Montana to Peyton Manning's Dan Marino, Manning's remarkable 400-yard, two-touchdown performance soundly put his Denver Broncos past Brady's New England Patriots in last year's AFC Championship Game.

    Manning had clutched up, and Brady couldn't get it done when it counted. Add in the spring defection of receiver Wes Welker from the Patriots to the Broncos and a surprise midseason overtime win by the Patriots over the Broncos, and the 2013 AFC Championship Game was a cathartic victory for Manning and Broncos fans everywhere.

    After the Broncos' Super Bowl XLVIII collapse, though, this regular-season rematch will again mean a little something extra. Top Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib followed in Welker's footsteps this offseason, and the Patriots replaced him with some guy you might have heard of named Darrelle Revis.

    In Week 9, Manning and Brady meet for an incredible 16th time, renewing their epic rivalry.

2. Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks, Week 3

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    It was an epic tale of failure and triumph. It was the season's biggest surprise on the NFL's grandest stage. It was the inglorious end to the most glorious season any quarterback has ever had.

    It was Super Bowl XLVIII, and the ultimate triumph of the Seattle Seahawks over the Denver Broncos was Peyton Manning's ultimate defeat. After shredding the NFL almost at will from September through January, Manning and the Broncos seemed unstoppable. To everyone's shock, the Seahawks routed the Broncos 43-8.

    Somehow, this marquee matchup wasn't deemed worthy of a prime-time spot on the schedule, but make no mistake—it deserves to be ranked at least this high.

1. San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, Week 15

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    After the anticlimactic thrashing the Seattle Seahawks laid on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, the football-watching world was left to stare in amazement at what Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman and the "Legion of Boom" defense had accomplished.

    Not only did they completely shut down the most potent passing offense in NFL history to emphatically win the Super Bowl, but they also beat their rival San Francisco 49ers at their own game to get there.

    The image of Sherman denying Michael Crabtree what would have been the game-winning touchdown catch has since been seared into our collective minds.

    In Week 15, these two teams will meet for the second time—and just like in 2013, the game could have huge implications for the NFC West title and NFC home-field advantage in the playoffs.