The early games on Sunday offer plenty of wonderful potential matchups. Again, I’m left wondering why the NFL, when they already have stand-alone games on Thursday Night, Sunday Night, and two on Monday Night in the season opener, chooses to basically treat the late afternoon slot as a stand alone game rather than balancing out the schedule for fans.
The 1 p.m. slate features ten matchups, while only San Francisco and Green Bay (the national game) and the NFC West matchup between the Cardinals and Rams comes in the second slot.
Those early games feature three matchups that I see as showdowns between teams that will both be contending for the playoffs, plus plenty of other compelling reasons to watch for teams that could surprise.
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Seattle at Carolina: Two young dynamic quarterbacks. Two teams that have plenty of young talent on defense. The pistol, the read option, and quarterbacks making plays with big passes and runs. Carolina wants to break out like Seattle did last year. It hasn’t happened yet as they have gotten off to horrific starts before closing strong. If Carolina starts poorly again, Ron Rivera won’t make it to November. These teams are a combined 11-3 since Thanksgiving. Seattle held Carolina to 190 total yards last year in a 16-12 victory in the same venue, with the Panthers only TD coming on an interception return. Cam Newton needs his receivers to win some battles to avoid another bad game.
Atlanta at New Orleans: In many weeks, this would be the marquee matchup. Sean Payton’s return in one of the underrated rivalries is buried on Sunday amidst other games, so I hope you can catch it. This matchup never fails to disappoint, and in addition to Payton, we have Steven Jackson in Atlanta, Rob Ryan and Kenny Vaccaro in New Orleans, and presumably lots of points.
Cincinnati at Chicago: Another great one to open the year, the Bengals are the favorite of many to win the AFC North. The Bears are entering a Brave New World with Marc Trestman instead of Lovie Smith. We get to see Jay Cutler in action in the new offense, see whether the Bears with Kyle Long will be much improved on that side and my optimism is warranted, and also how the defense handles life without Brian Urlacher.
Tampa Bay at NY Jets: Another headline winner due to Revis Island returning to New York for the opener. Geno Smith makes his first start.
New England at Buffalo: E.J. Manuel is expected to make his first start as well. Buffalo will need him to pick up first downs with his feet as well as his arm to shorten the game against New England’s high powered offense. At least that’s what we expect–we get to see Brady without most of his top targets from a year ago.
Minnesota at Detroit: Minnesota maximized what they had last year, going on a surprising playoff run while Adrian Peterson dominated. Detroit did, well, the opposite of that a year ago, finding new and unique ways to lose. The expectation is Detroit will surpass Minnesota. The Vikings can try to flip that back to the same story to start the year.
Miami at Cleveland: The other two rookie quarterbacks from a year ago meet. Norv Turner and Rob Chudzinski take over, and while the defense for the Browns should be better, they will start without first round pick Barkevious Mingo. The Dolphins hope that adding Mike Wallace opens up more explosive plays in the passing game.
Tennessee at Pittsburgh: The Steelers look for redemption after a disappointing end to last season. The Titans look for signs of hope with the offense, as Jake Locker needs to take big strides. The team added Chance Warmack to open bigger holes for Chris Johnson, and the ultimate boom/bust back will need a boom or two to keep the Titans alive to win this one.
Oakland at Indianapolis: The Colts overachieved in Chuck Pagano’s inspirational season fighting cancer. They arrived a year early with so many close wins. The question will be how much they improve with all the young talent surrounding Andrew Luck going into year two. Oakland is expected to be bad. Terrelle Pryor is the wildcard.
Kansas City at Jacksonville: The teams that tied for the worst record open the year against each other, with new coaches and different philosophies. The Chiefs went with the established veteran coach in Andy Reid, traded for a veteran QB in Alex Smith, and turned over the roster around the old guard of key players drafted by Carl Peterson. The Jaguars went with the hot coordinator (Gus Bradley of Seattle) and are giving Blaine Gabbert one more chance, hoping to improve the team around him. In the always sexy battle of tackles, this game features the first two lineman taken. Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]