Games Every Super Bowl Contender Has Circled on Its 2014 Schedule
As we are looking toward training camp, you can bet NFL teams are looking beyond that to the regular season.
The best teams already have started thinking about the biggest weeks on their schedule.
What constitutes a Super Bowl contender?
Well, we looked at the current odds for winning the Super Bowl, then adjusted based on how the teams look on paper right now.
Some teams look like no-brainers, but there were also many on the bubble. Teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons had enough questions to give me pause, so I consider them bubble teams—franchises that aren’t favorites to appear but if they got hot they could do it.
That’s another article though, so we’ll stick with the favorites, knowing full well we’ll have some surprises in there no matter what.
San Francisco 49ers/Seattle Seahawks
I put them together because looking at both schedules, I don’t see any more important games for either team than when they play each other.
Especially for the fact that the games come late in the season (Week 13 and Week 15), which means they’ll be key in determining who wins the division as well as where each team could end up in the playoff brackets.
There are only a few divisions which can boast more than one true Super Bowl contender, and even then it’s hard to argue they are a tougher and more critical matchup than this one.
The rest of the schedule for either team won’t be a cakewalk (especially for Seattle with a target on its back), but these two games might be not only the toughest, but the ones with the most riding on the outcome.
Let’s start with an obvious one—Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks.
There are the obvious reasons for that—who wouldn’t want a shot at the kid who shoved your face in the sand and took your lunch money last February?—but ultimately this is an early test for a team which clearly had changes to make.
Among the lessons the Broncos got from their beatdown in the Super Bowl was that they were not nearly physical enough. To that end, they signed a pair of hard-hitting, physical defensive backs in cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward.
They also added DeMarcus Ware to a front featuring (a now healthy) Von Miller and Terrance Knighton.
Was it enough? Is this a defense which can play physical ball? Week 3 is a good, early indication.
Two other teams the Broncos will keep a careful eye on will be AFC West foes San Diego and Kansas City.
It’s hard to get a read on just how good either team is, but both were nipping at the Broncos’ heels last season, the Chargers being an especially problematic foe in both their regular-season games.
If the Broncos want a shot at home field, a sweep of one of these two teams is critical to that aim.
Finally, there’s no way this section would be complete without mentioning the other powerhouse in the conference, the New England Patriots. The Pats are the team most likely to be trying to steal home field and the first seed from the Broncos, so you know both teams will have Week 9 circled on their calendar.
New England Patriots
The Patriots have an interesting—and challenging—schedule this year.
In 2014 the entire NFC North is on the agenda, and I’d say there isn’t a weak team on it (yes, including the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions).
That said, of the four teams the Pats face, the two they’ll focus most on are the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears—the two teams in the division who have the best shot at appearing in a Super Bowl.
The Packers are always in the hunt, certainly as long as Aaron Rodgers is around and with the ground game Eddie Lacy brings, and should be a strong contender again this year. The biggest question (aside from the ever-present “how many players will be hurt at season’s end?”) is whether the defense can avoid the collapses which hurt the Packers several times last year.
But certainly they are a team the Pats will be focused on.
Some might be surprised that the Bears made the cut, but if the defense improves—and I believe it will—that offense is incredible and will give not only Green Bay fits, but anyone in the NFC.
Both are teams who will be great primers for the Patriots, who hope they’ll see an NFC team in February.
Among the other teams the Patriots will be looking forward to are tilts with the Broncos (their chief competition for the AFC crown), the Colts and, as always, the Jets if for no other reason than those teams always circle each other on the calendar.
Right out of the gate, the Colts lock horns with the Denver Broncos, a team who did nothing but got better this past offseason.
The Colts have a questionable defense—especially along the secondary—and that could spell trouble against the Fighting Peyton Mannings. Last season they beat a Broncos team which had offensive line issues, but that isn’t likely to be the case this year. What adjustments they need to make on the defensive side of things could be very apparent after this game.
Another big game for the Colts would be in Week 11 right after their bye week when they meet the Patriots, who handed them the ticket for their playoff exit last season. The Patriots have been at the top of the food chain in the conference for years and will always be a roadblock to go through, over or around for the Colts as long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are around.
This game could have a lot of playoff implications. It’s not insane to assume the Colts will win the weak AFC South, but how far they go in the playoffs could depend on if they get home field or at least get some favorable home games and perhaps a bye. They’ll be battling the Patriots (and Broncos) for those things, so what happens in Week 11 will impact the entire playoff picture.
As I touched on in the very first slide, if you’re going to get to the Super Bowl you’ll be going through a combination of teams in the NFC. One of these is the San Francisco 49ers, who the Eagles meet with in Week 4.
The Eagles are going to have to work hard to overcome the very tough defense San Francisco brings to the table, especially without vertical threat DeSean Jackson.
The Niners will be a good early test for the Eagles defense as well, although until we see quarterback Colin Kaepernick beat a team through the air, it will probably see if the run defense, which ranked No. 10 in the NFL last year, is still up to snuff.
Another top team on the slate is the Green Bay Packers, who the Eagles will face on the road in Week 11.
This is a game which will fully test the secondary and give Malcolm Jenkins a lot of work both in the run game against Eddie Lacy and through the air with Aaron Rodgers and Company.
The Eagles secondary was a bend-but-don’t-break affair last season—its overall ranking looked bad for sure (No. 32 overall), but it was tied with the ninth-most interceptions and was in the middle of the league in passing touchdowns allowed with 25.
Rodgers will put that to the test.
Both of these games should have some impact on postseason seeding, depending on how each of the three teams involved does in actual football games.
However, one game we haven’t talked about yet has all that as well as a great revenge-factor storyline.
Yes, we’re talking about the two games against the Washington Redskins featuring hero-turned-heel DeSean Jackson. Both games are big and will help decide who is coming out of the NFC East as well as where it will be seeded. The first one, in Week 3, has the added bonus of being home at the Linc—Jackson’s first game home since the ugly divorce.
If you don’t think the Eagles have that date circled in red ink with stars around it, you’re nuts.
After those two games (the second of which is in Week 16), the Week 17 tilt against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium almost seems quaint.
Green Bay Packers
There are a ton of critical games on the slate here, so we’ll just point out that every NFC North game is critical. The one divisional game which seems to have the most juice on paper right now is the Week 10 tilt with the Chicago Bears.
Both Bears-Packers games have a lot riding on them, and how they fall out could impact the playoff picture a ton. As we saw last season, losing that one game to the Packers at the wrong time cost the Bears the playoffs.
Of course, it didn’t help that they dropped both games to the Detroit Lions and split with the Minnesota Vikings.
The Bears and Packers are done earlier this year, but the battle for the NFC North crown is likely decided by those two games, and the second one could be more critical than the first.
The Packers also have important games against the New Orleans Saints (Week 8), Philadelphia Eagles (Week 11), New England (Week 13) and Atlanta Falcons (Week 14).
Given that the Packers watched the Bears get sent home in Week 17, you can expect them to take the Week 17 game against the Detroit Lions seriously as well.
Like most other folks on the list, the Bears will be highlighting the Week 2 appearance of the San Francisco 49ers on their schedule. This will be a nice, early test of what we think will be one of the more dynamic offenses in the NFL.
If the Niners offense gets a little more vertical, it will be a good test for the revamped Bears defense, especially to see if it can contain Colin Kaepernick when he scrambles.
As we mentioned a few slides ago, the two games with the Green Bay Packers are huge, and you can bet the team will remember that splitting the games last year cost it the playoffs.
Plus you can bet the defense will be fully tested by both games.
The Atlanta Falcons in Week 6 and New England Patriots in Week 8 are also key matchups—the Falcons because there could be Wild Card implications, while the Patriots will be a great test right before the bye week.
The New Orleans Saints in Week 15 will be a tough matchup, as the offense always finds ways to score points, and the defense under Rob Ryan was exceptional last season.
But more than anything, you can bet the Bears will pay close attention to the final two games of the season against the Detroit Lions (Week 16) and Minnesota Vikings (Week 17).
The Bears folded during the last two games of the season, and you can be sure they will be reminded of that as we reach the last month of the year.
New Orleans Saints
Of course, like more than a few of these write-ups, we start with the big division battles.
The Atlanta Falcons just about bookend the season for the Saints, appearing in Weeks 1 and 16. Usually the ones threatening to take control of the NFC South from the Saints, Atlanta is looking to bounce back from a disaster of a 2013 season. A win in Week 1 would help wash the taste out of its mouth, and beating the Saints in Week 16 could win it the division.
Don’t overlook the Carolina Panthers in Week 9 and Week 14—after the run Carolina made last season, the Saints won’t. Given the wide receiver issues the Panthers seem to have, it would be easy to forget how good the team (especially the defense) was last year.
The Saints have two tough out-of-division games in the Week 8 game against the Green Bay Packers and Week 10 match against the San Francisco 49ers.
Both games will have plenty of playoff implications, either from a Wild Card standpoint or in terms of potential playoff seeding even if all three win divisions.
Finally, the Chicago Bears will be someone the Saints want to watch out for in Week 15. We’ll know by then whether the Bears defense is legitimate. But regardless, the Saints will want to get familiar with the Bears as there is a good chance they will meet again in the playoffs.