The NFL released its 2014 schedule Wednesday, so let the fun begin.
It starts in the West. The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl but play in a division that could have four teams with winning records. That makes things tougher for the AFC West, which had three playoff teams last year but faces the NFC West this year. Last year, Denver, Kansas City and San Diego piled on for 11 wins in 12 games against the NFC East.
Here are the five games I'm looking forward to most:
1. San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Dec. 14: Could this NFC West rivalry get any better? Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman went on a long rant aimed at 49ers WR Michael Crabtree after tipping a pass that was intercepted by linebacker Malcolm Smith to seal Seattle's victory in the NFC Championship Game. Crabtree, the intended receiver on that late drive, pushed Sherman after the play. The Jim Harbaugh-Pete Carroll rivalry goes back to their college-coaching days and continues to escalate. For winning the Super Bowl, Carroll was rewarded with a contract that could be worth as much as $9 million a year. Harbaugh, despite three consecutive trips to the NFC title game, is stuck at $5 million, and the 49ers might offer an incentive-laden deal to extend his contract, which expires after the 2015 season. The competitive Harbaugh must hate the fact that Carroll and the Seahawks have Super Bowl rings before his team. The teams don't like each other, which makes for a great rivalry. During the offseason last year, the 49ers and Seahawks were in a personnel arms race to improve their chances of going to the Super Bowl. The result was a great, close NFC Championship Game. The way this series works is that the home team usually prevails. Last January, the 49ers gave their most competitive effort in Seattle and almost pulled out a victory. But the Seahawks crowd might have gotten to the 49ers. These were the best two teams in the NFC last year, and they are still at the tops of their games.
2. Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Sept. 21: All NFC East rivalries are good ones, but this one moved to the top of the list after DeSean Jackson's move from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Washington Redskins. Apparently, Eagles coach Chip Kelly tired of how Jackson worked off the field and decided to release him. The Redskins and Dan Snyder wasted no time getting him into their offense. Seeing Jackson play in Philadelphia will be one of the highlights of the season. How the Jackson move works out will be telling for both franchises. For the Eagles, they have the chance to show that Kelly's system and offense can be more important than the talent used in that offense. The Eagles won the division last year with Jackson at receiver. For the Redskins, the Jackson move could indicate talent is more important than just schemes. Jackson gives the Redskins a more talented receiver corps than the Eagles have heading into the draft. Robert Griffin III can throw to Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and Santana Moss. If the Redskins can win in Philadelphia, Eagles fans might be scratching their heads about the release of Jackson.
3. Denver Broncos at New England Patriots, Sunday, Nov. 2: The regular-season meeting between Manning and Tom Brady often plays a big role in determining the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. This year should be no different. On paper, the Broncos and the Patriots are the best teams in the AFC. After Denver beat New England in last season's AFC Championship Game, both franchises were aggressive in what might be considered a personnel arms race similar to what we saw last offseason with the Seahawks and the 49ers. The Broncos added DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. The Patriots added Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Brandon LaFell. Now, the Broncos have former Patriots Wes Welker and Talib on their roster. The winner of this game might have the edge for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
4. Denver Broncos at Seattle Seahawks, Sunday, Sept. 21: Did the Seahawks teach the Broncos a lesson during the Super Bowl? What was expected to be a close game turned into a blowout. The Seahawks dominated and embarrassed the Broncos. As a result, the Broncos invested significant money to give themselves a tougher defense that can be more aggressive with pass coverage and rushing the passer. The Broncos also learned not to be too tricky when playing the Seahawks. Carroll uses one of the simplest defensive schemes in the game. His corners play man. The rest of the secondary plays Cover 1 or Cover 3. If you try to trick Seattle's defense, the Seahawks can destroy an offense. The best strategy against them is to be physical and try to hang in for close games in the fourth quarter. Last year, the Seahawks dominated the Broncos in the preseason and the Super Bowl. We'll see if the Broncos have closed the gap.
5. Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears, Sunday, Sept. 28: Julius Peppers quietly worked along the Chicago Bears defensive line for years. He was their main pass-rusher. But the Bears let him go in a cap-related move, and now he's a Packer. Could Green Bay's addition of Peppers open a wider gap in the NFC North race between the Packers and the Bears? Bears-Packers has been one of the best rivalries in football for years, and Peppers' move to the Packers elevates it slightly ahead of Baltimore-Pittsburgh for this year. With the help of cap savings from the Peppers move, the Bears rebuilt their defensive line with the additions of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Adding Peppers creates a slight change in the Packers' defensive strategy. They are going to use him as an outside linebacker or an "Elephant'' defensive end in pass-rushing situations. The Bears have Jay Cutler at quarterback. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers. The team that gets to the quarterback the fastest might have the edge in winning the division.