The most important week of the NFL preseason has arrived.
Week 3 is when coaches give their starters a full look in what amounts to a dress rehearsal before the regular season begins.
Really, all weeks of the preseason are important on different levels, especially because there are so many players fighting for a tiny 53 spots on 32 teams. But in a more broad sense, Week 3 is the most important for teams as a barometer of how next year will play out.
There are a wealth of storylines in such a critical chunk of time, but let's attempt to narrow it down a bit after a look at the full slate.
2014 NFL Preseason Schedule
|Date||Matchup||TV Info (ET)||Predicted Winner|
|Thu., August 21||Pittsburgh at Philadelphia||7:30 p.m.||Eagles|
|Fri., August 22||Oakland at Green Bay||8 p.m., CBS||Packers|
|Fri., August 22||Jacksonville at Detroit||7:30 p.m.||Jaguars|
|Fri., August 22||Carolina at New England||7:30 p.m.||Patriots|
|Fri., August 22||NY Giants at NY Jets||7:30 p.m.||Jets|
|Fri., August 22||Chicago at Seattle||10 p.m.||Seahawks|
|Sat., August 23||Tampa Bay at Buffalo||4:30 p.m.||Bills|
|Sat., August 23||Dallas at Miami||7 p.m.||Dolphins|
|Sat., August 23||Tennessee at Atlanta||7 p.m.||Falcons|
|Sat., August 23||Washington at Baltimore||7:30 p.m.||Ravens|
|Sat., August 23||New Orleans at Indianapolis||8 p.m., CBS||Colts|
|Sat., August 23||St. Louis at Cleveland||8 p.m.||Browns|
|Sat., August 23||Minnesota at Kansas City||8 p.m.||Chiefs|
|Sat., August 23||Houston at Denver||9 p.m.||Broncos|
|Sun., August 24||San Diego at San Francisco||4 p.m., Fox||49ers|
|Sun., August 24||Cincinnati at Arizona||8 p.m., NBC||Cardinals|
Each preseason game can be streamed with NFL Preseason Live.
Matchups to Watch
Cincinnati Bengals at Arizona Cardinals
Digging up good storylines is half the battle when it comes to the preseason, and while the details around Week 3 make them less imperative, a sound storyline is like the cherry on top of a matchup.
Take when the Cincinnati Bengals travel to the desert to encounter the Arizona Cardinals, for example.
There was a time when Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer decided he would rather retire than play another snap for the Bengals. His replacement, fourth-year star Andy Dalton, just cashed in on a contract worth in the neighborhood of $90 million.
For those who do not care for the drama, some great football will be on display, too.
Which team wins?
The Cardinals not only have an interesting receiving situation thanks to Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and the fast-rising John Brown, running back Andre Ellington might just be the league's biggest breakout star next season.
He averaged a ridiculous 5.5 yards per carry last season and gained 652 yards on the ground and another 371 through the air, but he will have to do it against a perennially elite Bengals defense this time.
Fans know about the Bengals offense at this point. A.J. Green is the focus. A rejuvenated Andy Dalton in a no-huddle attack (8-of-8 for 144 yards and a touchdown in Week 2).
But the defense is a unit in transition, especially after losing a defensive end such as Michael Johnson in free agency.
As Paul Dehner Jr. of Cincinnati.com notes, second-year end Margus Hunt has held up well on a rotational basis when tasked with more responsibility:
More Margus Hunt impressing. Blows up Chris Johnson for a loss on the run.— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) August 16, 2014
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hunt has actually ranked as the No. 2 overall 4-3 defensive end in the NFL this preseason.
He, along with up-and-comers such as Vontaze Burfict, must find an answer for Ellington and pressure Palmer in an audition that will decide whether the unit as a whole can remain elite after the loss of coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Carolina Panthers at New England Patriots
There was a point in time a season ago when this did not look like a horrific Super Bowl matchup.
This year, the exhibition touts a war of contrasting styles that will say much about two particular units.
For Carolina, Luke Kuechly and the defense figure to be elite once more. The problem is the front office has elected to lean on veteran safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud to shore up a rather weak point of the unit.
Which team wins?
Here is the issue—both were miserable a season ago. Harper came in as the No. 54 safety in the league at PFF, DeCoud came in at No. 82—on a list that graded 86 players. The former, despite being 31 years old, says the new scenery has him energized, per Max Henson of Panthers.com:
"It's an adjustment. Everything is different – new colors, new teammates, new city. But at the same time, it has really energized me after eight years in one place. It's refreshing and it's a new challenge. It's really got me going."
Harper and the new-look defense gets to prove its mettle in a big way—against Tom Brady and his backups who, to be frank, have looked great.
Brady is Brady. He went 8 of 10 for 81 yards and a touchdown last week, with an interception returned for a touchdown that was solely the receiver's fault. The battle behind him between Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Mallett has brought out the best in both men.
The rookie led scoring drives on his first two attempts last week to finish with 72 yards and two scores, while Mallett made his case shortly after with 92 yards and a score of his own.
So Brady will be tested if he plays significant time, but so will two talented younger quarterbacks, one of which might just wind up on another roster by the time the regular season rolls around if the staff elects to keep just two players.
As far as preseason contests go, it does not get much better. The intrigue starts at the top and goes all the way to the bottom between what figures to be two powerhouses yet again. Don't miss out.
Note: Preseason stats courtesy of NFL.com.