We’ve known the “who” and “where” parts of the 2014 NFL regular-season schedule for months. But finally by Wednesday night, we’ll know the ever-important “when” as the league releases the much anticipated schedule.
So get those engagement books ready, it’s time to finally make some autumn plans for the can’t-miss home games, the once-in-a-lifetime road trip and of course the important bye-week (fall weddings have to happen sometime, right?).
Though NFL coaches and players will downplay the schedule announcement, they will be paying attention looking at several important factors: The season opener (is it at home or away?), the scheduling of division games and the number of prime-time games (including the dreaded Thursday night game).
As we await the unveiling of the schedule at 8 p.m. EST, let’s make a few final fearless predictions about the upcoming season.
– Toughest path to the Super Bowl: Denver Broncos. As if winning consecutive conference titles weren’t already difficult enough, the defending AFC champions will play half of their games against teams that made the playoffs in 2013. The Broncos went 4-0 against the NFC East last season – a feat they are unlikely to repeat against the NFC West in 2014.
– Easiest path to the Super Bowl: Indianapolis Colts. The Colts, a playoff team each of the past two seasons, should only get better in Year 3 of the Andrew Luck era. They will do so playing in one of the NFL’s weakest divisions. The Colts’ 2014 opponents had a winning percentage of .430 last season, and get tough opponents like New England and Cincinnati at home.
– Toughest path on the road: Oakland Raiders. Five of the Raiders’ eight road games come against playoff teams from 2013 (including all three AFC West opponents). To make it tougher for the Silver and Black, the Raiders will also play a “home” game in London’s Wembley Stadium against the Miami Dolphins.
– Toughest path at home: Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys went 5-3 at Jerry World last season, and will need to be better at home to finally finish better than 8-8. That will be tough in 2014 with home games against NFC East foes (the Eagles won in Arlington in Week 17 last season) as well as the 49ers, Saints and Colts.
– Most likely to be seen on national TV: Broncos. Were you sick of seeing Peyton Manning in prime time last year? Well, get used to it. The Broncos should get the maximum five prime time games in 2014.
– Least likely to be seen on national TV: Each team is guaranteed one prime time game, thanks to the Thursday Night Football package, but that one game might be it for a handful of teams like Jacksonville, Oakland or Buffalo.
– Five road trips teams won’t want to take:
* Opening Night in Seattle: The defending Super Bowl champs will host the annual kickoff game at CenturyLink Field, where they’ve established the league’s best home field advantage. The sexiest matchup is against division rival San Francisco, which hasn’t won in Seattle during the Colin Kaepernick era.
* Broncos at Patriots: This will be the fourth meeting of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady since Manning joined the Broncos – and the third time the teams will have played in Foxborough. Brady’s Patriots have won the previous two games at Gillette Stadium, where the Broncos haven’t won since 2006.
* San Francisco’s home opener: Candlestick Park got an emotional sendoff last season, but is anyone really going to miss that run-down stadium? Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers’ new home in Santa Clara, is beautiful (even if it is a haul to get to the South Bay from downtown San Francisco), and the team that plays there is pretty darn good as well.
* December games in Minnesota: The eight teams scheduled to play at the Vikings this year are probably each hoping that its trip to Minneapolis comes early in the season, with the Vikings playing their home games this year at the University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium. That is likely especially true for warm-weather opponents Atlanta and Carolina.
* The super challenge in the Superdome: Teams might love road trips to New Orleans for a Saturday night dinner out, but Sunday afternoons haven’t been nearly so fun lately. The Saints went 8-0 at the Superdome last year – with Drew Brees & Co. scoring an average of 34 points per game at home.