Week 1 of the 2014 NFL season commences Thursday with a prime-time showdown featuring the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers. Both are defending division champions in the superior NFC, but Seattle won the ultimate prize in the Super Bowl in the most recent postseason.
A ton of hype and fanfare will surround that matchup at CenturyLink Field. Even though it's hard to get a read on any team at this early stage of the year, the league made sure to schedule several excellent games featuring teams with ambitious playoff aspirations.
Two other division defenders from the AFC will do battle in Sunday's night game, while the second contest in Monday Night Football's doubleheader features a couple of upstarts trending in the right direction.
Here is a look at the complete Week 1 schedule, followed by a breakdown of what figures to be the best games to kick off the new pro football season.
|Thursday, September 4||Time (ET)||TV|
|Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|Sunday, September 7||Time (ET)||TV|
|New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons||1 p.m.||FOX|
|Minnesota Vikings vs. St. Louis Rams||1 p.m.||FOX|
|Cleveland Browns vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Philadelphia Eagles||1 p.m.||CBS|
|Oakland Raiders vs. New York Jets||1 p.m.||CBS|
|Cincinnati Bengals vs. Baltimore Ravens||1 p.m.||CBS|
|Buffalo Bills vs. Chicago Bears||1 p.m.||FOX|
|Washington vs. Houston Texans||1 p.m.||FOX|
|Tennessee Titans vs. Kansas City Chiefs||1 p.m.||CBS|
|New England Patriots vs. Miami Dolphins||1 p.m.||CBS|
|Carolina Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||4:25 p.m.||FOX|
|San Francisco 49ers vs. Dallas Cowboys||4:25 p.m.||FOX|
|Indianapolis Colts vs. Denver Broncos||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|Monday, September 8||Time (ET)||TV|
|New York Giants vs. Detroit Lions||7:10 p.m.||ESPN|
|San Diego Chargers vs. Arizona Cardinals||10:20 p.m.||ESPN|
Analyzing Prime-Time Week 1 Matchups
Green Bay Packers vs. Seattle Seahawks
The last time the Packers took a trip to Seattle was in 2012, site of the "Fail Mary" controversy with the NFL's replacement officials outmatched and lost amid the confusion as much as anyone involved.
With the emphasis placed on illegal contact and defensive holding penalties in the preseason, it will be interesting to see how the league enforces such infractions in this game in particular. The first game of the 2014 regular season will be a great test for it.
Should the exhibition games serve as any indication, Seattle is doing just fine adjusting, per NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano:
Point of emphasis? As pointed out by @richeisen, the Seahawks were the only team not flagged for defensive holding in the preseason.— Andrew Siciliano (@AndrewSiciliano) September 3, 2014
Superstar Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will seek to air it out to the myriad of weapons at his disposal, but the Seahawks' Legion of Boom secondary figures to make life difficult for Green Bay's passing game.
That is, if Seattle is permitted to play the aggressive, bump-and-run coverage that helped capture the Lombardi Trophy.
Referees seem more likely to swallow their whistles with the Seahawks hosting. Things could get ugly if the game is stopped too many times for flags.
Green Bay is more balanced than it has been in years past, and Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey documented just one high opinion of bruising ball-carrier Eddie Lacy:
The key here is that the Packers haven't done a lot to upgrade their defense, which has been among the league's least consistent in the past few years. A unit that ranked 24th against the pass and 25th versus the run in 2013 needs Rodgers and Co. to put up a ton of points to stay competitive this year.
That won't be possible in Seattle, where the Seahawks are almost unbeatable, losing just once since Russell Wilson took over as QB. Wilson's playmaking ability with his legs, a healthy Percy Harvin at receiver and the smashmouth rushing attack led by Marshawn Lynch will help Seattle get its Super Bowl defense off to a proper start.
Prediction: Seahawks 31, Packers 20
Indianapolis Colts vs. Denver Broncos
The Broncos first 4 opponents are Colts, Chiefs, Seahawks, Cardinals. Those teams combined for a .703 winning percentage last season— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 2, 2014
But the home crowd shouldn't be concerned about the Colts coming to town. Indianapolis has a defense that simply can't match up with the Broncos' high-octane offense, especially with pass-rushing stud Robert Mathis serving a four-game suspension of his own.
Plus, check out how well Manning did without Welker in 2013, courtesy of ESPN.com's Mike Sando:
Peyton Manning during 2013 regular season: 16 TD, 1 INT when Wes Welker was OFF the field. He's kind of good.— Mike Sando, ESPN.com (@SandoESPN) September 3, 2014
The Colts have benefited from playing in what is perhaps the worst division in football in the AFC South for the past two seasons. Luck is too careless with the ball and makes a lot of poor decisions for being touted as the next great NFL QB.
Don't expect any Super Bowl hangover to come over Manning, as he is seeking to rally after falling short to Seattle in the big game.
Which road team is most likely to pull a Week 1 upset?
Those occasional lapses in decision-making will doom Indianapolis in this one. The additions of Aqib Talib at cornerback and DeMarcus Ware as an edge-rusher make Denver's defense far more formidable, something Luck won't be able to handle amid a hostile environment at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Superior speed from the likes of Demaryius Thomas and free-agent arrival Emmanuel Sanders will make the Broncos even more explosive through the air. Manning will carve up an outmatched Colts secondary and go to tight end Julius Thomas often to exploit the lack of speed across the Indianapolis front seven.
Prediction: Broncos 41, Colts 24
San Diego Chargers vs. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals won more games (10) than the Chargers did in 2013, yet San Diego managed to make the postseason with a 9-7 record.
A tough NFC West division makes it critical for Arizona to do well outside of those six games against their familiar foes. That creates even more pressure for the Cardinals to get a "W" in the season opener at home.
One glaring concern for Arizona is its ability to defend opposing tight ends, which no team in the NFL did worse in 2013. Productive Chargers veteran Antonio Gates and potential breakout star Ladarius Green are both pass-catching threats to account for at the position.
Philip Rivers has never quite carried San Diego as far as he could have in years past. In the team's second season under crafty, offensive-minded coach Mike McCoy, Rivers is bound to put up a monster year.
The defense should also be much improved with the return of a healthy Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram at outside linebacker. Both played just four games apiece last season. Freeney, at age 34, is entering 2014 with a chip on his shoulder, as he professed to Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman:
I'm going to prove the haters and doubters wrong. I like when the doubters try to say that I'm (not still) elite or that I'm too old. I'll use that. [...] When I came out of college, I was told that I was too small to play in the NFL. I was told that I was just a pass-rush guy and couldn't do anything else. I've always had people tell me what I couldn't do and then I'd prove them wrong. I'm going to do (the) same this year.
First-round rookie nickelback Jason Verrett figures to be a prime candidate to line up opposite first-year receiver John Brown, a spark plug who could be the X-factor for the Cardinals offense this year.
Cornerback Brandon Flowers came over from the AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs to join the Chargers this offseason and had nothing but good things to say about Verrett, per U-T San Diego's Michael Gehlken:
He sticks in coverage. He's a playmaker. He has that "want to" in his eyes. I've been around a lot of cornerbacks in my days, from old guys to young guys. He wants to be the one to make a play. He's not going to shy away from it like, 'I hope the quarterback doesn't throw my way on third down.' He wants the quarterback to throw his way on third down. Just having that "want to," his athleticism, I can't wait to see him when the lights come on."
Verrett is more diminutive, yet is a physical player not afraid to pack a wallop or get testy on the outside. The older Flowers has made an impact of his own, as Louis Riddick of ESPN observed:
The Cardinals have a strong secondary themselves, highlighted by corners Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie. But again, the tight ends have to be the focal point of Arizona's defensive game plan.
Most important, as it often does in the NFL, this Monday Night Football tangle will come down to quarterback play.
Carson Palmer is more mistake-prone than Rivers and is under immense scrutiny to deliver. The San Diego defense will surprise with how strong it is, allowing even a modest night from Rivers to carry the Chargers to a landmark road victory.
Starting fast has been tough for San Diego to do in recent years. With a better beginning, this team has all the talent to make a Super Bowl run.
The Cardinals shouldn't be written off in the event that they lose, but until Palmer proves otherwise, they can't be considered a true championship contender with him under center.
Prediction: Chargers 27, Cardinals 17