The complete 2014 NFL regular-season schedule was released Wednesday evening, and while it's tough to project which marquee matchups will be significant later in the year, there are some epic prime-time showdowns on paper.
Starting things off in style on Thursday, Sept. 4, Week 1 features a season-opening clash between the visiting Green Bay Packers and the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. Both teams won their divisions in 2013 and will be seeking a momentous victory to get their campaigns off on the right foot.
With some of the most decorated quarterbacks in league history and some new-wave signal-callers also in action in the other midseason battles, these games promise to be intriguing regardless of what happens in the draft.
Below is a list of the schedules for every team, along with a breakdown of the 2014 season's prime-time contests sure to thrill NFL fans of all allegiances.
|Sept. 4||Regular-Season Opener|
|Sept. 7-8||Regular-Season Kickoff Weekend|
|Dec. 28||Regular Season Concludes|
|Jan. 3||NFL Playoffs Begin|
|Feb. 1||Super Bowl XLIX|
Thursday, Sept. 4 (Week 1): Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Pack will get a shot at ultimate revenge for the "Fail Mary" that occurred in Week 3 of the 2012 season, when Russell Wilson threw a last-second "touchdown" pass to Golden Tate to give the Seahawks a big win.
ESPN Stats & Info alluded to the slim chance the hosts had to win before that fateful play:
The Packers-Seahawks open the 2014 NFL season. In the infamous "Fail Mary," the Seahawks' win probability was only 3.4% on the final play.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 24, 2014
Green Bay won the Super Bowl following the 2010 season, and now Seattle just had its grand victory parade with pro football's top prize. Two of the past four champions, squaring off again for bragging rights.
Unless the Packers can shore up their defense, they may be hard-pressed to beat the Seahawks on the road to start the year. Now that Percy Harvin figures to enter the season healthy, Wilson has a needed weapon to get the ball to in space who can devastate opposing defenses and get yards after the catch.
General manager John Schneider should add another playmaker for Wilson at some point in the draft. And that's just the offense, not even mentioning how physical Marshawn Lynch can get between the tackles on a softer Packers defense.
Seattle's "Legion of Boom" secondary promises to give Green Bay star quarterback Aaron Rodgers plenty of trouble. The Seahawks have a strong front seven, too, that should see its depth bolstered through the draft.
It's hard to endorse Green Bay at this point to knock off Seattle, especially since the reigning Lombardi Trophy winners lost their last home contest to the NFC West rival Arizona Cardinals. That was the first time in Wilson's two-year tenure that the Seahawks failed to win at home.
Sunday, Oct. 19 (Week 7): San Francisco 49ers vs. Denver Broncos
Something will have to give in this Sunday night tangle between the Niners' top-flight defense and the Peyton Manning-led Broncos offense. However, the X-factor in this one should be San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, whose mobility can offset the terrorizing Denver pass rush featuring DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller.
Questions linger as to whether the Broncos can be balanced enough to keep opponents honest, and they've lost a significant amount of their physicality in the offseason. Guard Zane Beadles is gone, as is all-purpose running back Knowshon Moreno and big-bodied receiver Eric Decker.
There's a chance that the Niners could control the line of scrimmage with their front seven and pound Denver to a pulp with their own rushing attack.
Manning also has immense expectations to meet after putting up a record-setting 2013 season, only to fall flat in Super Bowl XLVIII versus Seattle. Montee Ball has to prove he can pull his weight in the backfield, too. The offense could be in for some retooling, but Manning doesn't appear worried.
"It's certainly possible," said Manning about potential adjustments, per The Denver Post's Troy E. Renck. "I know the coaches are excited to see some of our new players. I think it's wide open at this point as to what kind of offense we are going to have based on the personnel, because it's still up in the air at this point."
Although he's facing his Indianapolis successor in Colts quarterback Andrew Luck on Sunday night in Week 1 at Mile High, Manning's second meeting with Luck figures to be anticlimactic compared to last year. Plus, this game versus San Francisco figures to have more significance to the playoff picture.
This is also the beginning of an extremely arduous stretch for the Broncos—even though they get San Francisco at home—as Fox 31 Denver's Michelle Tuckner highlights:
Tough stretch for #Broncos week 7 Sunday night vs. 49ers, then a short week vs. Chargers on Thursday night, then 3 straight road games.— Michelle Tuckner (@MichelleTuckner) April 24, 2014
Kaepernick is elusive enough to evade the rush, will have even more chemistry with Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, and should be as polished as ever as a passer and decision-maker. All of this bodes badly for the Broncos, but they can never be counted out as long as Manning is under center and healthy.
Sunday, Nov. 16 (Week 11): New England Patriots vs. Indianapolis Colts
A rematch of last year's AFC divisional round game promises to be different this time around. What will be the same, health permitting, is the QB duel between New England legend Tom Brady and the 2012 No. 1 overall pick in Luck.
Brady has gotten the better of his precocious peer in two previous meetings, but it was hardly Terrific Tom's doing in the last encounter. The Patriots ran for six touchdowns in a 43-22 win in Foxboro, as Luck threw four interceptions and had to press to compensate for his hapless defense.
With an additional half season under his belt, home-field advantage and the fuel to beat one of the best quarterbacks ever, expect to see Luck come out firing in Week 11 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Reggie Wayne should be back on the outside, and Hakeem Nicks was added in the offseason to give Luck another weapon.
Kevin Bowen of Colts.com notes how this rivalry has picked up some serious steam in recent years:
The @Colts and Patriots rivalry heads to Indy in 2014 for Sunday Night Football on 11/16. It's the 15th time they’ve met since 2003.— Kevin Bowen (@KBowenColts) April 24, 2014
That was driven by the marketability of the Brady-Manning dynamic when Manning played in Indianapolis. Now it's Luck who is carrying the Colts franchise on his shoulders—and doing it well so far, to be sure.
Which prime-time game are you most excited for?
But as mentioned before, it's too early to tell which games will be significant or have true ramifications beyond the first several weeks of the season. It's amazing what matchups, personnel and some strong QB play can do to generate hype even several months away from the start of the season, though.
The NFL created some of these prime-time duels on purpose, and a league source told NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal that flex games can occur as early as Week 5. Thus, even some of the surprise teams from early in the year should get the national spotlight, which hasn't necessarily been the case in years past.
With regard to these three games fixed on the prime-time schedule, though, all six of these clubs figure to be factoring into the chase for the Lombardi Trophy.