5 Must-Watch Matchups on Tampa Bay's 2014 Schedule
The release of the 2014 NFL schedule on Wednesday marks the dawn of a new league year. As usual, the Bucs are chiefly relegated to Sunday afternoons.
That doesn't mean the Bucs won't play any prime-time games.
This year the Bucs take on the NFL's northern divisions. They will play some of the best the NFL has to offer in the Cincinnati Bengals and the Green Bay Packers, as well as the bottom rung, including the Minnesota Vikings and the Cleveland Browns.
The NFC South is no cake walk, either. Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers won the division title last year but are far from perfect. Perennial contenders Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints will be a handful as usual.
The Bucs and the Atlanta Falcons represent the division's two wild-card teams. With a new coach and a largely overturned roster, the Bucs should be better than they were last season under Greg Schiano.
The theme for the Bucs' season this year is improvement. While divisional matchups will be tough as always, some of the Bucs' most interesting games will come against teams the Bucs must beat in order to prove themselves worthy of contention.
It's the dawn of a new season and new era for the Buccaneers. Here are the matchups to watch for during the 2014 NFL season.
Week 3 at Atlanta
The Atlanta Falcons always put up a spirited game, and this year it will play out on Thursday Night Football.
In their only scheduled prime-time game of the season, the Bucs will face a divisional rival in the first of a three-game road trip.
Though this is not the first divisional game the Bucs play in 2014, it has significant importance to the Bucs' prospects for the rest of the season.
The three-game road trip comes just as the season kicks into high gear. With only two games in the can, the Bucs will hit a rough stretch of road games, including Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
If the Bucs can beat the Falcons in Atlanta, it not only gives them a key divisional victory but also sets the tone for the rest of the road trip and guarantees that it won't be a total disaster.
Week 12 at Chicago
This one is personal.
There was no way for the NFL to predict that Lovie Smith would be the Buccaneers' head coach when they devised this year's NFL schedule. The Bucs were set to play the NFC North teams before former head Greg Schiano was even fired.
Nevertheless, this will be an emotional game for both teams. While Smith brushed off the gravity of his return to Chicago, according to JoeBucsFan.com, there is no way this game won't carry greater weight for the Bucs head coach.
The Bears are a much different team under head coach Marc Trestman. Defense-focused under Smith, the Bears are now an offensive powerhouse with possibly the best receiver tandem in the NFL in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
Unfortunately for the Bears, Smith's defensive acumen left with him, along with a number of former Bears.
Josh McCown is the one departed player who should cause the Bears the most concern. McCown started eight games under center for Chicago last year and proved he is well versed in Trestman's offense.
Depending on each team's success at this point of the season, this could be a game the NFL flexes to prime time. Emotions will be running high, and this game lends itself to the sort of narrative the league drools over broadcasting.
Week 13 vs. Cincinnati
Expectations are not high for the Bucs this year. They have holes all over the roster and are adopting new schemes on both sides of the ball.
The only way the Bucs are going to prove themselves as a team on the rebound is to beat a consistent contender.
Who would've thought that contender would be the Cincinnati Bengals?
Over the course of a decade, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis transformed the consistently embarrassing "Bungles" into a perennial playoff team.
Lewis has done such a good job finding great players and using them well that the Bucs signed two of his former players, defensive end Michael Johnson and tackle Anthony Collins, to lucrative contracts this offseason.
With their matchup deep in the season, this could be a pivotal game for both teams. With a home stretch of divisional games awaiting them after this one, the Bucs not only need this game to build their stature around the league but also to launch toward the postseason with full momentum.
Week 16 vs. Green Bay
Playing one of the league's best quarterbacks is always a must-see event.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers cut his teeth playing Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears for years before Smith came to the Bucs. It's only appropriate that the biggest test the Bucs defense faces in 2014 comes in Rodgers' hands.
The Bucs' old NFC Central rival have faced their share of ups and downs in recent years. Since winning Super Bowl XLV in 2011, the Packers have struggled to replicate the same success, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Last year, Josh McCown led the Bears to a 27-20 victory over the Packers. Though Rodgers was knocked out of that matchup early, McCown may look forward to having a better defense help him out, as it's unlikely the Bucs will see Seneca Wallace for their game.
Like the Cincinnati game, the Bucs' matchup with the Packers will serve as a gauge in Lovie Smith's efforts to rebuild the Bucs into a contender.
Week 17 vs. New Orleans
Last year's season finale against the New Orleans Saints was nothing short of an embarrassment. It was likely the death knell to Greg Schiano's tenure in Tampa.
Lovie Smith is, however, unlikely to allow his team to deliver a repeat performance in what will be very similar circumstances this season. While the Bucs will be hosting the Saints this time around, expect no less drama to the game.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees laid waste to the Bucs defense last year, which is a definitive possibility anytime any team faces him. The Bucs will more likely have to keep up with Brees rather than outright stopping him.
If last year's playoff race was any indication, the NFC South will still have teams in contention in the season's final week. The Saints had to beat the Bucs in order to get into the playoffs.
This year, the Bucs could be on a more level playing field and vie for a postseason berth of their own.