• My best guess for the 2013 playoff team most likely to take a step back to the pack is Kansas City, which started last year 9-0, then went 2-5 down the stretch en route to an AFC wild-card berth and that memorable one-and-done second-half collapse at Indianapolis in the first round of the Super Bowl tournament.
The Chiefs seem ripe for a reversal of fortune with three games against last year's Super Bowl teams (two against Denver and a visit from Seattle), trips to San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Miami, and challenging home dates with other non-divisional foes like New England, the Jets and St. Louis. Playing against the four NFC West clubs will be much tougher for Kansas City than last year's task of drawing the NFC East, which the Chiefs went 4-0 against, no doubt aided by head coach Andy Reid's long stay in the division.
And keep in mind Kansas City went just 2-4 in the rugged AFC West last year, beating only last-place Oakland (4-12) twice. In addition, the Chiefs' schedule rates as the seventh-toughest in the league based on opponents' 2013 winning percentage, at .559. Alas, the downturn won't be anything new for the Chiefs, who last made the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 1994-95.
• Having defeated Peyton Manning and the Broncos once already -- in Week 7 of last season in Indy -- Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has a shot to double up on the NFL's first family of quarterbacks in 2014. On the road, no less. In prime time.
The Colts at Broncos Sunday Night Football opener in Week 1 on NBC is a beauty to get things started, but the QB who made neck beards famous and his team also draw a Week 9 Monday Night Football trip to MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, to try to check beating Eli Manning off his bucket list.
The Colts have the easiest strength of schedule in the NFL this season, at .430, but in fairness, that's simply a product of how bad the AFC South was last season. The bottom four teams on that list this year? Jacksonville at .453, Houston at .441, Tennessee at .438, and Indy. This much does bode well for the Colts: the last two teams to have the league's "easiest'' schedule both took advantage of it. The Broncos went to the Super Bowl in 2013 and the Patriots made it to the AFC title game in 2012.
• I'm plenty old enough to remember the Minnesota Vikings from their days playing outdoors in the sometimes harsh elements of an upper Midwest winter. But, by my calculations, the only current Vikings player who was even alive when Minnesota last played exclusively outdoors at home in 1981 is 33-year-old veteran long snapper Cullen Loeffler, who was born in late January 1981.
The Vikings, of course, will not be a dome team in 2014-15, with the Metrodome now torn down and the franchise calling the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium home while its new stadium is constructed. Here's hoping for a couple of late fall/early winter snowstorms on gameday for Minnesota's Week 14 and 17 home dates against the Jets and Bears, with new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer donning Bud Grant's old gray sweatshirt and purple cap.
• If familiarity helps breed success in the NFL, the 49ers figure to have a legit shot to cap their four-year quest for a Super Bowl ring this season. Unlike last year, when San Francisco traveled to the four corners of the NFL map and beyond (meaning London), Jim Harbaugh's guys will be staying relatively close to home this season, all the better to celebrate the opening of the team's new Levi's Stadium (dubbed "The Field of Jeans'') in Santa Clara, Calif.
Only one of San Francisco's 16 regular-season games will require a trip to the Eastern time zone, that being a Week 11 journey to face the Giants at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, the site last year's 49ers spent themselves trying to earn an invitation to in early February. San Francisco will play nine of its games this season in California (eight home games and a half-hour trip to Oakland in Week 14). For 11 of 16 games, the 49ers won't have to reset their watches whatsoever (all of their home games, obviously, and at Seattle, at Oakland, at Arizona).
That leaves just a trip to Denver, and three forays into the Central time zone against New Orleans, Dallas and St. Louis. Compared to last year's nearly 33,000-mile odyssey -- which was 6,000-plus miles longer than any other NFL team's itinerary -- 2014 should feel like a short jaunt at a little less than 20,000 air miles traveled.
• If you were of the mind to place a blind bet in Vegas before the season even begins, take the Cowboys to lose in Week 17 against the Redskins, costing themselves the NFC East title and ending the season 8-8. You know that's easy money.
Dallas' Week 17 game has been an NFC East title game for three years in a row (and four times in the span of five years dating from 2009 on), with the Cowboys dropping that win-or-else game to the Giants on the road in 2011, at the Redskins in '12, and home against the Eagles in '13. Each time, Dallas finished at .500. Even though it was New York's turn again, Washington will get that coveted slot for the second time in three years. Jerry Jones' team did manage to earn one playoff berth by blanking Philadelphia at the then-new Cowboys Stadium in Week 17 of 2009, but that was eons ago by NFL standards.
Check that. I can't see the Cowboys even thriving enough to break even in the NFC East this season. Not with a defensive front that looks decimated by defections. A 6-10 last-place finish feels more like it.
• In 2010, the NFL's two West divisions featured just one team that made the playoffs with a .500 or better record (upstart AFC West champ Kansas City at 10-6). In 2011, only resurgent San Francisco held that distinction, going 13-3 to take the NFC West.
But some of the best football in the league has been played in the West for a couple years now, and in 2014 we'll get to see those teams go head-to-head for the first time in the three-year divisional schedule rotation. It's NFC West versus AFC West this year, and that eight-team heavyweight grouping now includes the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, two participants in last year's conference title games (the 49ers and Broncos), five 2013 playoff teams and a sixth winning club that managed to miss the postseason at 10-6 in Arizona.
What an embarrassment of riches we'll have to look forward to when West meets West this season: The glamor Week 3 Super Bowl rematch of Denver at Seattle; two more editions of the best rivalry in the league when the 49ers and Seahawks renew hostilities (Weeks 13 and 15); San Francisco at Denver in Week 7 gives us an old school-new school Manning versus Kaepernick quarterback duel; not to mention Kansas City's Alex Smith getting his first crack at playing back in the Bay Area against Harbaugh and the quarterback who made him expendable (Kaepernick).
It was 20 years ago this season that another former 49ers' quarterback-turned-second-year-Chief played his old team for the first time, with successful results. Smith probably knows that K.C.'s Joe Montana won that one, 24-17, over Steve Young and a chagrined San Francisco team.
• Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady, Week 9. 'Nuff said. It never gets old. It never gets dull. And when you set up this year's meeting amid the backdrop of the Patriots' near-miraculous 24-point comeback regular-season victory over Denver in Foxboro last November, and the Broncos' thorough dismantling of New England in the AFC title game, well, who really needs to add the annual caveat that this could be the last time we ever see the two greatest quarterbacks of this era go head to head? (See what I did there?)
As always, when Manning and Brady are involved, supremacy for the AFC's top playoff seed and a potential route to the Super Bowl will likely be part of the equation when this game unfolds at Gillette Stadium. Adding a little more juice is that ex-Pats cornerback Aqib Talib now will be trying to read Brady's intentions, and ex-Jet and ex-Buc cornerback Darrelle Revis will be on patrol against a Peyton-led Broncos' passing game. For once, the glamor matchups won't revolve exclusively around the two Hall of Fame-bound quarterbacks.
• For sheer entertainment value in that strength versus strength sort of way that we love about football, Week 14's Seattle at Philadelphia matchup deserves it share of hype. The chess match of the Eagles' fast-break offense pitting its most creative gameplan against the depth and resiliency of Seattle's superlative defense could make for game of the year stuff.
Both head coaches (Chip Kelly and Pete Carroll) have a considerable amount of pride in their respective expertise on offense and defense, and won't take this challenge lightly in any way. We also get a rather unforeseen matchup of star third-year quarterbacks who were drafted in 2012's third round in Russell Wilson and Nick Foles. Wilson went 75th overall to Seattle and Foles followed to the Eagles 13 picks later, but both are a combined three-for-three in getting their teams to the playoffs as starters.