RGIII's return, NFC West grudge match among must-attend games
By the time October rolls around, we generally have a pretty good idea of which NFL teams will be contenders in any given season. We only think we know that info at the onset of September.
Everyone's still in the hunt when Week 1 begins, adding a little extra intrigue to the early-season games. From a potentially thrilling NFC East showdown on the NFL's opening weekend to a couple of enticing interconference matchups, here are five games to watch in the season's first month:
Week 1: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins
What more could you ask for in the first Monday nighter of the season? (The second Monday Night Football game, Houston at San Diego, follows this one in the traditional Week 1 doubleheader.) On one sideline you'll have Robert Griffin III, expected to make his triumphant return from a knee injury, mere months after it happened. Across the field will stand Chip Kelly, making his regular-season coaching debut, with Michael Vick quarterbacking his fast-paced offense.
Kelly also has a totally reworked defense, which struggled during the preseason -- meaning that there should be fireworks between two of the league's most exciting QBs. Adding importance to this one are the upcoming schedules for the two combatants. The Eagles host San Diego and Kansas City in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, meaning a 3-0 start would not be out of the question should they pull the upset here. Washington, on the other hand, has to travel to Green Bay in Week 2, so chalking up a win would keep the stakes low there.
Week 2: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks
These two teams may not have the head-to-head history of, say, Green Bay-Chicago or Pittsburgh-Cleveland. But the level of intensity here right now is about as good as it gets.
Last season, the 49ers took home the NFC championship, while upstart Seattle fell two points shy of meeting its division rival in the conference title game. Even though this is Week 2, the expectations for both clubs mean that this matchup is of the utmost importance. Seattle finished last season 8-0 at home; San Francisco was 6-1-1 with a playoff victory as well. Which of these two teams finishes on top in the NFC West and secures home-field advantage in the playoffs could be largely determined by this early-season slugfest.
Week 3: Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers
Both Chicago and Pittsburgh narrowly missed out on the playoffs last season -- the Bears losing a wild-card tiebreaker to Minnesota, and the Steelers dropping a do-or-die Week 16 game against Cincinnati by three points. Those failures will have the pressure cranked up for these two proud franchises heading into 2013.
Because of the NFL's scheduling format, these two storied teams do not meet often in crossover games. The last time they did, in 2009, Chicago's Robbie Gould nailed a 44-yard field goal in the closing seconds to give his team a victory. That game was exactly what you'd expect from the Bears and Steelers: a hard-fought, defensive-minded struggle.
Times have not changed all that much. Chicago finished last season third in points allowed, Pittsburgh sixth. The offenses, however, are an ever-growing focus, with Chicago bringing in new head coach Marc Trestman from the CFL ranks to jumpstart a stalled attack.
Week 4: New England Patriots at Atlanta Falcons
Anytime powers from opposing conferences clash in the regular season, folks wonder if the game will serve as a Super Bowl preview. And, well ... this one might.
At the very least, this Week 4 game will pit two of the league's best quarterbacks against one another in future Hall of Famer Tom Brady and rising star Matt Ryan, who has proven to be an elite QB. Of course, Ryan does not have anywhere near the level of playoff success Brady has, meaning that any Atlanta regular-season win is often met with some skepticism. Still, this could be a message-sending victory for Ryan and the Falcons, one that gives them confidence throughout 2013.
Bonus pick: Houston Texans at Baltimore Ravens (Sept. 20)
The Texans' playoff history is short and redundant: AFC South champs in 2011 and '12, wild-card round wins over Cincinnati, losses on the road. Houston now is facing some of the same questions Baltimore was prior to its stirring Super Bowl run last season: Is this team at its ceiling? Can the starting QB (Matt Schaub, in the Texans' case) get to the mountaintop?
Because of those mysteries, the national expectations for the Texans have remained relatively tempered. Scoring a win on the road against an upper-echelon foe -- exactly the type of challenge that has tripped Houston each of the past two playoff seasons -- could rework the script.