Fans already know the opponents their beloved teams will be facing next year, but the order in which they play them is very important.
The Denver Broncos will face a quartet of opponents next year in games that will help prepare them for another championship run. All four of them happen to come from the NFC West.
It seems like just a few years ago, the NFC West was the least-competitive division in football, often finding itself on the receiving end of some disparaging jokes.
|NFC West vs. Denver Opponents in 2013|
|Statistical Category||NFC West||Denver Opponents|
|Yards Allowed Per Game||313.2||361.0|
|Points Allowed Per Game||18.6||24.3|
|Win-Loss Record||42-22 (.656)||96-112 (.461)|
That is no longer the case. The NFC West began to emerge in 2012 with the likes of San Francisco and Seattle, but over the course of last season, the division became the toughest one in the league.
The NFC as a whole was much more competitive than the AFC in 2013, and each year, every team will play an entire division from the opposite conference.
The Broncos drew the NFC East in 2013, and those four games hardly prepared them for the final NFC opponent they would face.
The NFC East combined for a 28-36 win-loss record last year, but the Broncos still had to win a 51-48 shootout to beat Dallas, and later in the year, they let Washington hang around longer than they should have before handing them one of their 13 losses.
In 2014, the Broncos will face a division that has produced the last two NFC champions. These games will aid in the Broncos becoming a battle-tested team come playoff time.
While it will be interesting to see how the Broncos fare in these games, the real key will be how their offense matches up against the defensive units of these four squads.
It's hard to take away anything the Broncos did on offense last year, but the Seahawks pushed them around in the Super Bowl en route to a 43-8 pounding.
The Rams finished at 7-9 in 2013, but that can be very misleading. They had to play six games against their own division, and not counting those games, they were 6-4 otherwise.
With one of the best head coaches in the NFL in Jeff Fisher on their sideline, this is clearly a team on the rise.
The Rams ranked No. 15 in total defense last season, but they have a pair of defensive ends who the Broncos will have to protect Peyton Manning from.
Robert Quinn had 19 sacks on the year and Chris Long added another 8.5. Together, they helped the team rank third in the NFL with 53 total sacks.
The secondary also features one of the best young defensive backs in the league: ball-hawking cornerback Janoris Jenkins.
Denver fans should not count this as an easy victory when the schedule comes out. This game will be no cake walk.
Head coach Bruce Arians definitely has this team heading in the right direction.
In 2013, the Cardinals finished 10-6 and missed the playoffs. That's an indication of how good the conference was as a whole.
But the Cardinals are no fluke.
Defensively, the team ranked sixth in total defense in 2013, and they have a pair of young defensive backs in Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu that would love to make life hard for Manning.
The Cardinals have an aggressive defense that won't be intimidated by Denver's high-powered offense.
Quick, name the only team to win in Seattle in the last two seasons. That's right, it's Arizona.
Denver vs. San Francisco will be one of the marquee matchups of the 2014 NFL season. After all, these are the teams that have lost the last two Super Bowls.
The Denver defense will have a challenge in trying to slow down quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who can make you pay with his legs as well as his arm.
When Denver has the ball, they will have to find a way to move the chains against a defense that ranked fifth overall last season.
The 49ers gave up just 17 points per game last season and their defense is full of great athletes, including Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith.
San Francisco plays a brand of football that is very similar to the one that Seattle used to maul Denver in the Super Bowl. That makes Denver's matchup with the Niners one of its most important games in 2014.
There is a good possibility that the NFL will kick off the 2014 season on a Thursday night in September with a Super Bowl rematch.
Regardless of when it happens, the Broncos will have to play the Seahawks next season, and they will have to do so in Seattle.
The Seahawks are 17-1 at CenturyLink Field over the course of the last two seasons. The combination of a stingy defense and an incredibly noisy crowd makes them nearly impossible to beat there.
But the Broncos need to find a way to get it done. They need to find a way to run the ball against Seattle and not rely entirely on their aerial game. When they do throw the ball, the wide receivers need to find a way to get separation from the physical batch of Seattle defensive backs.
It will be a tough task for the Broncos to pull off this victory, but they need to send a message to the Seahawks that they won't be bullied around this time.
Aside from the Super Bowl, the Seahawks pushed the Broncos around in the preseason last August, too. Make light of that if you will, but they did a lot of that with starters playing against starters.
The Broncos should be hoping for as many of these games to come later in the season as they can get. All four games will be physical contests, but that is exactly what Denver needs.
If they are going to run through the AFC playoffs again, there is a good chance they'll see another NFC West opponent in the Super Bowl. Having that familiarity and experience will go a long way in producing a much different final result.