NFL Schedule 2014: Highlighting Most Intriguing Matchups on Early Season Slate

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2014

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 02:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos looks on against the Seattle Seahawks during Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium on February 2, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The 2014 NFL season storms right out of the gate with an array of great matchups decorating the opening schedule.

Before September ends, fans will be treated to some of the league's fiercest rivalries, as well as a Super Bowl rematch. That's right, the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, both serious threats to compete for the Lombardi Trophy once again, will clash for league supremacy in Week 3.

Check out NFL.com for the complete schedule, but for now, let's whet your appetite with a look at some of the season's best early bouts.

NFL 2014 Schedule: Notable Early Games
Week/MatchupDateTime (ET)TV
Week 2
Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore RavensThur., 9/118:25 p.m.CBS/NFL Network
Atlanta Falcons at Cincinnati BengalsSun., 9/141:00 p.m.CBS
Kansas City Chiefs at Denver BroncosSun., 9/144:25 p.m.CBS
Philadelphia Eagles at Indianapolis ColtsMon., 9/158:30 p.m.ESPN
Week 3
Green Bay Packers at Detroit LionsSun., 9/211:00 p.m.FOX
San Francisco 49ers at Arizona CardinalsSun., 9/214:05 p.m.FOX
Denver Broncos at Seattle SeahawksSun., 9/214:25 p.m.CBS
Week 4
Green Bay at Chicago BearsSun., 9/281:00 p.m.FOX
New Orleans Saints at Dallas CowboysSun., 9/288:30 p.m.NBC
New England Patriots at Kansas City ChiefsMon., 9/298:30 p.m.ESPN
NFL.com

Week 2: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens (Thursday, Sept. 11 at 8:25 p.m.)

BALTIMORE, MD - NOVEMBER 28: Coach John Harbaugh of the Baltimore Ravens and coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers shake hands after an NFL game at M&T Bank Stadium on November 28, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Baltimore Ravens won, 22-20. (Phot
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Let's be honestThursday night games of years past have lacked a certain luster. Knowing we'll gulp any football we get, the NFL poured out the $10 bottles of wine rather than the top-shelf stuff.

That will change this year with CBS getting into the Thursday business. To prove it, here's an early clash between archenemies from the AFC North, a division NFL Media analyst Gil Brandt believes is the toughest to predict.

Many divisions will, of course, be hard-fought, but this is one of the only groups in the NFL that is truly too close to call, featuring three good teams (the Pittsburgh SteelersCincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens) led by three good quarterbacks (Ben RoethlisbergerAndy Dalton and Joe Flacco, respectively) that are all capable of winning the thing. Consider that over the past three campaigns, the Bengals and Ravens have won 30 regular-season games and the Steelershave won 28, and that the division has produced six playoff teams and one Super Bowl champion (the 2012 Ravens) in that span.

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Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers picked up a three-point victory over the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field while their adversaries returned the favor with a two-point win at home. Since 2009, all but one game—a 35-7 rout by Baltimore to begin the 2011 season—have ended by a margin of three points or fewer. Through those five years, they've split the two bouts in all but that season.

In normal circumstances, each side looms large as a dangerous AFC title contender. This season, however, they're both looking to rebound from disappointing 8-8 seasons that saw both miss the postseason for the first time this millennium.

Don't let the records fool you: The Ravens or Steelers could bounce back and seize the division once again. If history tells us anything, this game will be extremely close and extremely physical.

Week 3: Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks (Sunday, Sept. 21 at 4:25 p.m.)

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - FEBRUARY 02:  Outside linebacker Malcolm Smith #53 of the Seattle Seahawks runs back an interception for 69 yards off quarterback Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos during the second quarter of Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Seahawks have a chance to make a colossal statement by shutting down the Broncos' incredible offense again, this time with the deafening 12th Man at their disposal.

These squads met for Super Bowl XLVIII, when Seattle decimated Denver in a shocking 43-8 blowout. Denver gained 27 rushing yards on the day, and Peyton Manning threw two interceptions. His 280 passing yards are unimpressive considering his 49 pass attempts, giving him an average of 5.7 yards per throw.

After the loss, Manning tipped his hat to the league's top-ranked defense that ended his record-setting season on a sour note.

"We played a great team," Manning said, via ESPN.com. "We needed to play really well in order to win, and we didn't come anywhere close to that."

Two weeks after shutting down another MVP quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, the Legion of Boom gets another crack at Manning. Moving from a neutral stadium to CenturyLink Field tips the odds even more in its favor.

Per NFL on ESPN's Twitter page, Seattle has lost just one home game since inserting Russell Wilson under center. 

Another convincing victory would make the Seahawks the runaway favorites to become the first back-to-back champions since the New England Patriots 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Manning can silence the nonsense of him not being able to "win the big one," an antiquated, shortsighted theory that insults everyone's intelligence by ignoring all the other players on the field.

Week 4: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears (Sunday, Sept. 28 at 1:00 p.m.)

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 29: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers plays against the Chicago Bears on December 29, 2013 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
David Banks/Getty Images

These two squads both found out last year that every NFL game counts. They improbably found themselves playing for the NFC North crown in what amounted to a Week 17 playoff match last season, and the returning Rodgers mitigated a five-game winless drought to take the Green Bay Packers into the postseason.

Had the Chicago Bears not allowed 45 points to the Washington Redskins or lost to the Minnesota Vikings with less than two minutes to spare in overtime, that final game wouldn't have mattered. Instead, it meant everything.

No Week 4 contest is a win-or-go-home affair, but all inner-divisions are pivotal in such a tightly contested quadrant. Both teams have the offensive weapons to make a lot of noise, but they'll need significant improvements on the defensive end.

Last season, Chicago ranked last in run defense, allowing 161.4 yards per game on the ground. With a playoff spot on the line, James Starks and Eddie Lacy combined for 154 rushing yards in Week 17.

GREEN BAY, WI - NOVEMBER 04: Eddie Lacy #27 of the Green Bay Packers avoids the tackle from Chris Conte #47 of the Chicago Bears during the second half of play at Lambeau Field on November 04, 2013 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Im
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Green Bay fans can't laugh, as the Packers placed 25th in total defense, equally inept against the pass (No. 24) and run (No. 25). They certainly didn't look much better against the Seahawks, allowing 207 rushing yards during a 20-point defeat.

If the same teams show up this year, the two will engage in an entertaining shootout during Week 4. For their Super Bowl aspirations, though, they'll need to progress with the other offense on the field.