Schedule-release day! It’s one of the sneaky-good pro football events of the year.
When I ponder the schedule, I look for clues for where a team may soar, wobble or plummet. The following 12 games all look like they could teach us something important about the teams on the field. I generally focused on games earlier in the season than later; it’s tough enough to speculate on how a team could play in September, but projecting a team’s late-December form is even more challenging.
Here are 12 games that particularly interest me:
49ers at Seahawks (Sept. 15) — Appointment viewing. End of story. To paraphrase Mike Mayock, put on the tape of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick from the postseason. Just do it. I’ll be watching for many reasons, but mainly to see whether either West power looks significantly better than the other.
Giants at Panthers (Sept. 22) — This is the sort of game the upstart Panthers will win if they are going anywhere. And it’s precisely the sort of game Tom Coughlin’s team pulls out when in top form.
Lions at Packers (Oct. 6) — The Lions have the offensive might to give any defense fits and were a legitimate playoff entrant two years ago. Can they bounce back after a disappointing 2012 performance? This looks like a big class test for them.
Seahawks at Colts (Oct. 6) — I love out-of-conference battles between two talented clubs. A win for either team is a real nice item to have on the résumé. The Seahawks are capable of winning in a tough venue, but the Colts were very, very tough at home a season go.
Eagles at Buccaneers (Oct. 13) — The Buccaneers had a strong run defense a season ago, and the Eagles’ Chip Kelly-designed offense is talent- and potential-laden. This should be fun.
Ravens at Steelers (Oct. 20) — For years, this has been one of the NFL’s compelling rivalries, and doesn’t figure to change in 2013, not with Baltimore the depending champion and Pittsburgh trying to regain its footing among the AFC elite. The Steelers won in Baltimore last season, one of the highlights of a disappointing campaign.
Dolphins at Patriots (Oct. 27) — Last year, the Bills were the chic pick to make a run at New England’s AFC East supremacy. This year, the Dolphins are the East sleeper. Can Miami live up to the hype? The Dolphins are likely to be underdogs in Foxborough; if that’s the case, how the Dolphins play may trump whether they win or lose, in my view. If the Dolphins give a strong Patriots team a game, it’s a good sign for Miami.
Colts at Texans (Nov. 3) — For the Texans, getting to the playoffs doesn’t constitute great success anymore. For the Colts, a step backwards after a surprising 2012 season would be a big disappointment.
Chiefs at Broncos (Nov. 17) — Who’s going to push Denver in the AFC West? Kansas City might have the best shot. Let’s see how the Chiefs measure up.
Saints at Falcons (Nov. 21) — A weakened Saints team managed to split the season series in 2012. Now, Sean Payton is back, and New Orleans could be ready to seriously contend once again in the NFC South. With both teams again likely to field strong offenses, the play of the defenses could tell the tale.
Broncos at Patriots (Nov. 24) — Including the playoffs, this is the fourth meeting between the teams in the last three seasons — and Denver has had no good answers for New England’s powerful offense. The Patriots have won all three meetings, averaging 39 points in the victories. The Broncos have the ability to be strong contenders, but their problems with the Patriots can’t be overlooked.