The 2014 NFL regular season is mere days away. And there promises to be a ton of great matchups in Week 1. It starts with the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks hosting the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night. The week then culminates with two solid Monday Night Football matchups.
Let’s check in on the top storyline for each NFL game during the opening week of the regular season.
Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks: Statement Game for Aaron Rodgers and Co.
Now fully healthy, Aaron Rodgers looks to make a statement against the Legion of Boom in Seattle’s first regular season home game since hoisting the Lombardi this past February. A win here for the Packers could go a long way in proving that they are back among the best teams in the entire NFL.
With Eddie Lacy ready to the next step towards elite status, the Packers offense is nowhere near as one dimensional as it was in the past. That could very well help them move the ball against the best defense in the league. It’s going to be an incredibly hard task considering Seattle will be amped on national television in front of its home crowd.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons: Healthy Falcons Team Looks to Rebound
Atlanta fell back big time last year. But most of that had to do with a tremendous amount of injuries up and down the roster. With Roddy White and Julio Jones 100 percent, there is reason to believe that Mike Smith’s squad will be able to return to 2012 form. There is no better test than going up against a Saints team that many believe is the class of the NFC South and top contender for the conference crown.
Minnesota Vikings at St. Louis Rams: Two Veterans Looking to Make a Statement
Matt Cassel earned the Vikings starting job by playing at an incredibly high level during training camp and the preseason. He now leads a much more talented team than he took over for Christian Ponder last season. With Cordarrelle Patterson entrenched in as a starter and Adrian Peterson primed for another great year, Cassel has a tremendous amount of help on offense.
On the other hand, Shaun Hill will be thrown into the starting role in St. Louis after Sam Bradford tore his ACL during the preseason. He also takes over a talented team that has rather lofty expectations in the ultra competitive NFC West. This is a good barometer of where each team is early in the year.
Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers: Brian Hoyer’s Chance to Shine
Hoyer will have to perform at a relatively high level early in the season in order for Manziel Fever to be muted in Cleveland. If he struggles early on, we already know that fans will be calling for the rookie from Texas A&M to take first-team snaps. And the pressure will then be on head coach Mike Pettine to make the move.
Unfortunately, Cleveland goes up against a Steelers defense that is bound to rebound from a down 2013 campaign. With a solid front seven, Pittsburgh could very well put a ton of pressure on the veteran quarterback. If so, Hoyer may struggle in his first start of the season.
Jacksonville Jaguars at Philadelphia Eagles: Can Chad Henne Hold Off Blake Bortles?
The Jaguars have been consistent in their belief that Bortles should sit for his entire rookie campaign. The “problem” with this is that the first-round pick exceeded all possible expectations during the preseason and could very well be the best option for Gus Bradley and Co. this year.
If Henne struggles against an Eagles’ defense that has been less-than-stellar against the pass, there will be calls for Jacksonville to throw Bortles into the fire earlier than it wants to.
Oakland Raiders at New York Jets: Two Young Quarterbacks vs Solid Defensive Fronts
By virtue of naming Derek Carr the starting quarterback for Week 1, the Raiders become the first team to start a rookie signal caller this season. And it comes in the form of a second-round pick. Regardless of Matt Schaub’s injury, it’s readily apparent that Carr enables the Raiders to open up their offense more than his veteran counterpart. That’s also something they are going to need, especially with what promises to be another down season on the defensive side of the ball.
Rex Ryan made sure not to create any sort of quarterback controversy when the Jets signed Michael Vick this past offseason. The idea here was to show Geno Smith that the team has confidence in him to build off what was a strong end to an otherwise unimpressive rookie season. Now going up against a lackluster Raiders’ defense, Smith has a chance to show the football world that he has taken that next step.
Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens: Early-Season Divisional Matchup
The last two division winners going up against one another in a Week 1 matchup that could set the tone for what promises to be a very competitive AFC North this season. With Ray Rice out of action for the first two games of the season, Baltimore will have to rely on Joe Flacco and the passing game and improvement from Bernard Pierce and the running game in order to have success early on. Unfortunately, Baltimore will have to go up against one of the top-10 defenses in the NFL in this one.
For Cincinnati, it’s all about improving its offense under new coordinator Hue Jackson. Can his run-based attack with Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill help Andy Dalton perform at a higher level through the air? If so, the sky really is the limit for this team.
Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears: Chicago’s Revamped Defense
Jared Allen replaces Julius Peppers as the Bears’ top pass-rush threat. But more than that, Chicago is utilizing a completely new group of safeties and a rookie nickel back in the form of Kyle Fuller. These players need to improve a unit that was absolutely disastrous in 2013.
While Buffalo may not pose a great test in the opening game, Chicago’s defense will have to show some level of domination in this one if it’s going to be taken seriously in a division that has some high-flying offenses.
Washington Redskins at Houston Texans: Quarterback Play
It’s safe to say that Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III is at a crossroads in his young career. He struggled a great deal during the preseason and has drawn some criticism from unnamed teammates for his behavior. Now under the tutelage of new head coach Jay Gruden, RGIII needs to improve in nearly every aspect of his game in order to be considered a franchise quarterback. With the talent Washington boasts on offense, there really aren’t any excuses here.
As it relates to the Texans, their quarterback situation is a hot mess. Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is a couple years removed from being an average starter in the NFL, begins the season under center. He may very well be on a short leash after the Texans acquired Ryan Mallett from the New England Patriots over the weekend.
Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs: Any Receiver Help in Kansas City?
With Dwayne Bowe suspended for the opening game, other Chiefs’ receivers have an opportunity to step up and show Alex Smith they can be consistent threats through the air. While there is no reason to believe that veteran Donnie Avery will be more than what he has been in the past, A.J. Jenkins and undrafted fookie free agent Albert Wilson have the ability to show what they’re made of. In addition to this, Travis Kelce will have to step up at tight end after a lost rookie season.
New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins: Statement Game for Home Team
Imagine the Dolphins upsetting New England at home in their season opener. That would go a long way in helping them take that next step from mediocre team to legitimate playoff contender. And they have the talent to do just that. The key here will be pass protection in front of Ryan Tannehill and a solid running game with Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller. If the Dolphins are able to do this, they could very well pull off the early-season victory.
Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Important Early-Season Matchup
There is a new sense of optimism in Tampa Bay as Lovie Smith takes over for Greg Schiano as the team’s head coach. With an uber-talented roster on the offensive side of the ball, the Buccaneers could very well be a surprise team in the NFC South. Taking into account an even more talented defense, and we could be looking at a dramatic turnaround in Tampa.
For the Panthers, it’s all about finding some sense of cohesion in the passing game. After letting Steve Smith, Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell go in free agency, the Panthers will be relying on rookie Kelvin Benjamin and a couple veterans to provide Cam Newton with consistency at wide receiver. Tampa Bay’s secondary will be a good test in Week 1.
San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys: Struggling Cowboys Defense
The Cowboys defense was historically bad last season. With DeMarcus Ware moving on to Denver and Sean Lee lost for the season with a torn ACL, there really isn’t much optimism that this unit will improve at all in 2014. In fact, there is a chance the Cowboys will take a major step back on this side of the ball.
They will have a difficult test out of the gate with a 49ers offense that might have struggled in the preseason, but boast a ridiculous amount of talent. If the Cowboys can surprise on the defensive side of the ball here, it will give their youngsters some confidence early in the year. If not, it will likely be the start of what promises to be a long season for their defense.
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos: Early-Season Matchup Between Top Contenders
Andrew Luck will have a chance to show Peyton Manning who really is boss in the AFC on Sunday Night Football in Denver. A win here by the Colts would go a long way in proving that they are the class of the conference. For the Broncos, it’s all about forgetting their blowout loss in the Super Bowl and taking care of business at home. As two of the top teams in the conference, this is one of the biggest early-season games on the NFL slate.
New York Giants at Detroit Lions: Eli Manning and Giants Offense
To say that the Giants passing game was atrocious during the preseason would be an understatement. Manning completed less than 50 percent of his passes and averaged 4.6 yards per attempt. It was so bad that the Giants had a tough time completing as much as a pass in a couple of their outings.
While it’s difficult to draw a conclusion about a team based on preseason performance, the Giants just don’t have the look of even an average offense at this point. It’s really going to be a work in progress early on.
San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals: Bruce Arians and Co. Looking to Overcome Defensive Losses
Talk about an early-season statement game. Outside of the Green Bay-Seattle matchup, this is one that we should pay really close attention to. Arizona is looking to close the gap between itself and both the Seahawks and 49ers. In reality, the Cardinals must improve on offense in order to mask a defense that lost three important contributors from a season ago. If that doesn’t happen, this team could very well take a step back from a 10-win 2013 campaign. San Diego, especially with a stout fron seven is a good test.
Photo: USA Today