The NFL has released its 2013 schedule and, as is usually the case when The League is concerned, intrigue and interest are everywhere to be found. With that in mind, and remembering that we haven’t even had the NFL Draft yet, and that I probably missed a couple dozen notable games, here are the 10 games with the best storylines and/or most significant consequences (many of which will never be the same), in my factpinion.
How good is the NFL at scheduling vis-a-vis establishing intriguing and timely matchups? 60% of these games occur in the opening or final weeks of the season. Tone-setting, division-clinching fun will be had by all.
10a) Kansas City Chiefs at Jacksonville Jaguars – Week 1
Stick with me here, folks, it gets better. Yeah, these were the two worst franchises last year, and yes, there aren’t a lot of (or any) obvious home run picks available from the rising-non-collegiate pool, but the season’s first week will feature a matchup of the first two teams picking in this year’s draft.
I’m not going to flesh this out much more than that. If you can’t respect a good train-wreck, and the first unceremoniously-dashed tiny sliver of doe-eyed hope of the year, it’s like you don’t even know what this is all about. Also, Andy Reid.
Be sure to call your local cable provider and find out what sites illegally stream NFL action, because they’re certainly not going to be carrying this one.
10b) Denver Broncos at New England Patriots – Week 12
Ok, fine, I’ll retract the last one.
Brady-Manning, blah blah blah. Mallett will probably be starting by this point after Brady runs away to Michigan to rediscover his roots in a funk-jam band, anyway.
9) Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins – Week 1
Chip Kelly debuts, in Week 1, on the Monday Night Football opener for Two-Aught-Thirdeen. I’m listening. Mike Vick against RG3, winner gets to keep his knees for three more weeks, loser has to sit through a lecture from Rush Limbaugh. I’m in.
Seriously, though, Chip Kelly + Mike Vick + RG3 + MNF + drunk Redskins fans + the 2 or 3 not drunk Redskins fans = Holla. That’s math, and only the B1G and the Higgs Boson can defeat or ignore math.
8) Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers – Week 7
This could have gone a couple of directions, as the Steelers and Ravens have become the NFL’s runaway for "Best Modern Rivalry," and both of their regular season games have consistently had direct playoff implications since Baltimore recovered their NFL franchisehood. Looking at the bigger schedule, though, this may be the most impactful game of the middle part of the regular season.
The Steelers are still reeling from an unceremonious 8-8 season (and 0-16 offseason), and they need a quick start to the new year if they want to reverse trends, with the defending champs in their division, and the Bengals and Browns doing their yearly “no, seriously, we’re going to contend soon” dance.
It comes as a bit of bad news, then, that they open their season with home games against the Titans and Bears, sandwiching a trip to Cincinnati, followed by a game in London against Adrian Peterson and the Vikings, followed by a bye week and a four-game stretch involving three bouts on the road – against the Jets, Raiders and Patriots, three consistent thorns in Black’N’Yeller sides. The only home game in that four-week stretch? You guessed it, Baltimore, Week 7. With just the right mixture of fortune and health, the most dominant franchise in NFL history could rationally be 0-8 by the time this one is over (or 8-0…hope springs infernal).
The Steelers and Ravens also play in Week 13, on Thanksgiving night, around the time the AFC North has usually been decided between the two over the last decade and change; however, I’m trying so very hard not to be a homer right now, or I would have included both matches, and the hypothetical eventual battle in the AFC Championship Game, in this list.
7) Denver Broncos at Indianapolis Colts – Week 7
Von Miller against Andrew Luck. Are there any other storylines here? I don’t think so. Moving along…
6) Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears – Week 17
I know for a fact of at least one reader who went into a blind rage at reading my above-mention of Pittsburgh-Baltimore as the runaway best rivalry, and this rivalry here would have been that reader’s choice. The Bears and Packers have both returned to historical form in recent years, reigniting the passion and relevance of the oldest hatefest in the game.
For the first time in a long time, Brian Urlacher and Charles Woodson will be absent from the games (the two teams also play on Monday Night Football in Week 2), and Lovie Smith has been replaced by former Montreal Alouettes (it’s a Canuck thing) Head Coach Marc (spells like it might be a Canuck thing) Trestman.
Important questions to be answered in this game: Who will win the NFC North? Will either team be healthy and relevant moving into the playoffs? Will Jay Cutler express an emotion? Will Clay Matthews be asked by a confused fan to sign a picture of Brienne of Tarth? Will Lovie Smith somehow find a way to call two timeouts in the first quarter?
5) Atlanta Falcons at New Orleans Saints – Week 1
Cough*NFL enforcement is lame*cough. Super burn. Sean Payton returns to the sideline after a season’s sabbatical, because of something or the other something-something. His return in Week 1 will be at home against Atlanta, a franchise on the upswing following the first playoff win in the days of Matty Ice.
Two historically horrible franchises, now in the midst of what is possibly each’s most consistently competitive era, looking to set the tone for another post-season appearance, in what has become one of the most fiercely contested division rivalries in the game. The teams have been splitting at home for a while, and in a sport where playoffs and lottery picks are often separated by one or two games, Payton will have to hit the ground running in his first regular season game back. Or passing, I suppose, all things considered.
Were it 1994, this would likely be about 324th or so on the list, but if it were 1994, I wouldn’t need two references to buy gas for my lawn mower.
4) Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos – Week 1
Not only do the defending Super Bowl Champs open the season on the road for the first time in a decade, they do it in the very first game of the season overall, against Peyton Manning, without Ray Lewis or Ed Reed, and with Elvis Dumervil. This offseason has seen a veritable smorgasbord (author’s note: I may or may not know what exactly either of those words actually mean) of roster changes including major franchise faces, and the most notable from last offseason, Manning, will no longer have to concern himself with being sacked or Pick 6-ed by the two most notable from the reigning titleholders.
Baltimore’s schedule is full of elite matchups, providing very few practical opportunities for stumbling in a league that is so unforgiving at the margins, and opening up on the road against one of the top QBs in the history of the game, a scant few months after ending – in overtime, following a late 70-yard bomb – that QB’s attempt to reach another Super Bowl in his final years, is probably not the most inviting of scenarios.
The Broncos and Ravens are all over this list, and I hate both of them with a fiery-hot passion, so I feel I deserve some props here.
3) Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers – Week 14
A couple of seasons ago, the Seahawks making the playoffs was proof that the NFC West was the worst division in the NFL. Last year, the Seahawks making the playoffs was proof that the NFC West was the best division in the NFL.
Two up-and-coming franchises with stout defenses and playmakers all over the field, captained by two of the leaders of the new crop of dynamic young signal-callers, coached by first-class former Pac coaches, coming off what has been widely regarded as fantastic offseasons (pending draft results, sort of) in a late-season game with a huge potential for settling the NFC playoff picture, and opportunities for "Bad Lip Reading" references in every frame. Excelsior!
2) Denver Broncos at New York Giants – Week 2
Peyton Manning here, Peyton Manning there. This list is, in too many places, a farewell tour for Peyton Manning, who will likely play for 17-20 more seasons. Assuming he does, in fact, retire at some point in the next four years, however, this SHOULD be the final regular-season matchup between Peyton and Eli-cant-you-be-more-like-your-brother Manning. Unfortunately for the Giants, the game will be played in Week 2, or about 16 weeks before their QB typically starts playing his best ball.
We can make jokes about the Mannings all we want (not true, there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to make all of the jokes about Eli I want), but we’re living in the era of the Greatest Football Family, and this could be the final chance to see them compete against each other.
To date, Peyton is 2-0 against his brother on the field, 2-1 overall, when you consider which town they each had to attend college in.
1) Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers – Week 17
A rematch of last season’s NFC Championship game, the Falcons and 49ers will face each other to finish the regular season. Atlanta lost a three-score lead to San Fran in that title game, and added Golden Gate nemesis Steven Jackson to the running game to round out their offensive balance in a wonderful example of neveragainism.
Reigning AFC and Super Bowl Champion Baltimore has a fairly revamped roster, so you could argue that these are the top two returning rosters from a year ago, especially with the addition of notable players like WR Anquan Boldin and DB Nnamdi Asomugha to the 49ers lineup. Regardless of whether you buy that reasoning or not, in a final week full of standings-race-showdowns, this game appears at this point to have the potential to be the showdowniest.
By: Jeremy Hurtt