Before we infuriate fans in almost every NFL season with our second annual list of the best and worst games of the 2008 season, we have one observation to make: New England is officially the first team in league history to have a two-month exhibition schedule. How's that? Well, after the annual parade of four non-counting games (We beg you Roger Goodell, please reduce that to two games ASAP), the Patriots have a decidedly easy first five weeks of the season. They open at home with Kansas City, travel to the New York Jets, host Miami, get a bye week (like they're even going to break a sweat in the first three weeks) and then go to San Francisco.
Subsequently, New England's first four games will be against teams with a combined record of 16-48 last season. Then they go to San Diego in what figures to be one of only four serious tests for the Patriots. Sure, there's another great matchup at Indianapolis set for Nov. 2, not to mention games with Pittsburgh and Seattle. But the Patriots have a total of 12 games against non-playoff teams from last year.
The Pats could make another run at perfection just by accident.
With that in mind, here's a week-by-week look at the best and worst of what 2008 has to offer:
Best: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers. As if Aaron Rodgers didn't have enough to worry about with this whole idea of replacing Brett Favre, now he has to make his initial start under the lights on Monday night. For the first time in 16 years and 275 games (including postseason), the Packers will play without Favre as their starter. Rodgers gets to step into Favre's crater-sized shoes. Having watched Rodgers play well as a sub at Dallas last season, here's a hunch: Rodgers is going to be just fine. Will he make Green Bay fans let go of their collective crush on Favre? Not anytime soon. But he should be good enough to get them back to the playoffs.
Worst: Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons. Here's the only compelling angle from this game: Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson goes home. Look for the Falcons, who are now in bad shape when it comes to selling tickets, to use a visiting player as a sales ploy. That's about the only way this game has a chance to sell more than say 25,000 tickets. Really, there's just about nothing compelling about this game. The Falcons are terrible and the Lions, well, they haven't been good for, well, forever.
Best: San Diego Chargers at Denver Broncos. The Broncos and coach Mike Shanahan are under some pressure this season and this game figures to be the first big test as they take on the premier team in the AFC West. That's the usual football stuff. The better story is the sideshow rivalry between Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and Broncos counterpart Jay Cutler. Rivers goofed on and woofed at Cutler late last season, which may be more a comment on Rivers than on Cutler Just hope that Rivers is completely recovered from his knee injury by the time this one is played.
Worst: New York Giants at St. Louis Rams. This game may not be as competitive as it has been in recent years if the Giants continue to ride the wave of momentum after their Super Bowl title. Furthermore, this is shaping up as one of those classic mismatches. The Giants' defensive line, particularly if Michael Strahan returns, is simply too good for the Rams, who are hoping for a serious return to health of left tackle Orlando Pace.
Best: Cincinnati Bengals at New York Giants. Yeah, yeah, I saw the Dallas-Green Bay game that's scheduled for prime time. That one is interesting, but I'm fascinated by the possibilities here with Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson playing on the big stage in New York, assuming he's still with the Bengals at this point. Johnson could put on a show to be remembered for years to come, especially if he's still angry at the Bengals. Also, having Johnson and pre-eminent trash talking cornerback Sam Madison of the Giants miked up could be awesome.
Worst: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots. Old friends and rivals Bill Belichick of New England and Bill Parcells of Miami take center stage once again. Too bad Parcells will be watching this one from a luxury box high above the field because that means he'll have even less to do with the outcome as his overmatched Dolphins take on the best team in the NFL this decade.
Best: San Francisco 49ers at New Orleans Saints. Call me stupid (that's right, a lot of you already have), but I'm playing a hunch here. Both teams are liable to get off to wobbly starts, so this could easily be a matchup of 1-2 teams. But by about this week, both offenses could really click, particularly the new passing game that San Francisco is putting in under offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Even if that doesn't pan out, the matchup of 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis vs. Saints running back Reggie Bush could be nice … if Bush starts living up to his billing.
Worst: Philadelphia Eagles at Chicago Bears. Thankfully, a lot of the rumors about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb going to the Bears this season have died down. However, if McNabb plays as inconsistently in the first three weeks as he did much of last season, look for the rumors to rev up again going into this game. Not that the rumors make a whole lot of sense (McNabb is too talented to give up on right now), but this game could have a really stupid sideshow effect.
Best: Pittsburgh Steelers at Jacksonville Jaguars: There has to be a delicate way of putting this. Let me say, um, well. OK, here goes. Right now, Jacksonville owns the Steelers. Yeah, that's going to be really popular with Steelers fans around the world, but the truth is the truth. The Jaguars have won four straight against Pittsburgh over the past three years, including a first-round playoff game at Pittsburgh last season. Yeah, Steelers fans can complain all they want about the apparent late holding call that wasn't made, but it's pretty weak when anybody associated with Pittsburgh football complains about getting manhandled physically. Plus, it doesn't come close to explaining the other three losses.
Worst: Buffalo Bills at Arizona Cardinals: This game has a strong chance to be an all-fraud game. Both teams have a good chance to enter this game 3-1, giving false hope to fans of both teams (not sure if there are enough left with either team to fill up a movie theater, combined). Truth is that both teams are at a crossroads at quarterback and could still be in the midst of figuring out who is the guy. Arizona is hoping Matt Leinart steps to the front ahead of Kurt Warner, but it's hard to tell if Leinart really takes this football stuff seriously. The Bills think Trent Edwards is the guy, but fellow youngster J.P. Losman still wants a shot.
Best: New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers. Just as the Colts have a problem beating San Diego, the Chargers have a problem beating New England. It's like one of those logic problems from a high school math class. The Chargers took a nice step last season by making it to the AFC Championship game and playing pretty well against the Patriots for three quarters. The Chargers' inability to get in the end zone once they got close was the deciding factor. Under head coach Norv Turner, the Chargers must solve that problem and they must solve it this year, in this game. If not, they won't have confidence going into the playoffs or, more importantly, home-field advantage against the Pats.
Worst: Houston Texans at Miami Dolphins. So many choices this week. It was really tempting to pick Cincinnati at the Jets, but Chad Johnson going to New York for the second time in four weeks will be too much fun. Just delicious. But Miami makes another appearance in the worst game of the week (now maybe all you readers will stop accusing me of being a Dolphins fan). Last year, the Dolphins nearly beat Houston, but then snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with some inept time management under former coach Cam Cameron. Perhaps new coach Tony Sparano can make a difference because the Dolphins could make this game somewhat competitive, if not dull.
Best: Indianapolis Colts at Green Bay Packers. This game might not be as dramatic now that Brett Favre has retired, but there's still a lot to like. Specifically, the matchup of Packers cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson against Colts wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne could be really fun. Even without Harrison, second-year wideout Anthony Gonzalez will be interesting. Harris and Woodson like to mix it up. Wayne is pretty tough, but Colts quarterback Peyton Manning doesn't like it when his receivers get knocked off their routes. This has the makings of really fun stuff.
Worst: New York Jets at Oakland Raiders. These teams both figure to be pretty good on defense, but neither has a compelling star on offense yet. Oh, I can hear it now from the Raiders fans, "Just another Raider Hater who didn't see where we got Javon Walker, kept Justin Fargas and we've got J-Mark at QB." Please, save it. Javon could be using a walker soon, Fargas is a nice backup and JaMarcus Russell needs a lot of work. The only hope for the Raiders is that Al Davis makes the smart move, takes Darren McFadden and milks the kid for all he's worth. If not, this game is going to be deadly dull.
Best: Oakland Raiders at Baltimore Ravens. I know, this one is pretty weird. But it's kind of a throwback game to football of the 1970s. Two really talented defensive teams figure to get locked in a low-scoring battle as the brother tandem of Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan takes on Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. The big question is how much the Ravens defense will mess with the second-year Oakland quarterback. Russell may be able to stand up to a lot of hits, but he's going to take a lot, particularly as the game progresses.
Worst: San Diego Chargers vs. New Orleans Saints (in London). Why is this game being played in London? It makes far more sense to play it in Paris (a nice gift to the French for the Louisiana Purchase, no?) or in Mexico City (the Chargers have a sizable Hispanic fan base). I understand the desire to market the game to a European audience, but the NFL already did the London thing once and I'd much rather go to Paris. Oh, um, I mean, I think it's much more fitting. That's what I meant, boss. Really, I'm not looking for that freebie trip. No, not at all. As for the game, this is a similar matchup last year when the Chargers got thumped by Green Bay. If the Chargers are serious, they win this game.
Best: New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts. Last year, this game was referred to as Super Bowl 42½, even though it didn't live up to that by the end of the season. This year, these teams continue to be the elite of the league and could very well both be undefeated going into this one again. Sure, the story line is a little redundant, but it will make for some pretty cool drama. This time, however, look for the Colts to come out on top as Peyton Manning scorches a Patriots secondary depleted from free agent losses.
Worst: Atlanta Falcons at Oakland Raiders. Do you think Raiders cornerback DeAngelo Hall has circled this game on his calendar? Hall, who split Atlanta for the bounty that Al Davis was laying out, had plenty of cross words for the Falcons as he got himself shipped out of town. Hall likes to hold a grudge, big time. I get the feeling he's doing offseason trash-talk workouts just to get ready for this one. Then again, Hall might not be able to sell the talk that well if he has figured out just how bad things are in Oakland.
Best: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings. With the Packers going backward a bit at quarterback and the Vikings expected to make some progress (look for Tarvaris Jackson will be better or they'll find someone better), this has the makings of a really interesting game. Furthermore, these teams figure to be the class of the NFC North between Green Bay's defense and Minnesota's terrific running game. Neither may be great, but they'll be fighting it out for the division title at this point.
Worst: Seattle Seahawks at Miami Dolphins. OK, this is not piling on against the Dolphins, although how could you really blame me? This time, it's about the Seahawks. More specifically, it's about how tired the Seahawks are probably going to be of traveling to the East Coast after the first 10 weeks of the season. This will be the fourth and last time during the regular season that Seattle will cross the country for a game (they have Buffalo, Tampa Bay and the New York Giants earlier). Tired legs anyone? The good part is that at least the humidity will be gone in Miami. Well, probably.
Best: Tennessee Titans at Jacksonville Jaguars. I have no idea what to expect from this game, which is why it's so intriguing. In the season opener last season, Tennessee rushed for 282 yards, held Jacksonville to 75 yards on the ground and won 13-10. In the second game, Jacksonville rushed for 166 yards, held Tennessee to 62 yards rushing (including 52 by quarterback Vince Young) and won 28-13 in a walk. Tennessee's performance revolved around the health of defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. What happens this time? Really, no telling.
Worst: Philadelphia Eagles at Cincinnati Bengals. Here's a hunch: The Bengals are going to be 3-6 or 2-7 heading into this game and Chad Johnson is going to be in full implosion mode. The Bengals open the season with six of their first nine games against Tennessee, the New York Giants, Cleveland, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. That's brutal. By the time they host Philly, Johnson will be hating everything about his team and here's a decent bet that he will turn on his teammates, such as quarterback Carson Palmer.
Best: Indianapolis Colts at San Diego Chargers. When it comes to this matchup, the Colts are just plain snake bit. They lost in the regular season last year at San Diego when kicker Adam Vinatieri missed two field goals and quarterback Peyton Manning threw a career-high six interceptions (man, that's some weird parlay). Then they lost at home to San Diego when Manning threw two more interceptions, including his fourth of the season to Chargers Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
Worst: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions. I vacillate about this game. Should it be one of the best or one of the worst? OK, the Lions aren't any good and Tampa Bay is really boring. Still, there's a rubbernecking element to this matchup. These teams played a pretty wild one last year when the Bucs nearly rallied from down 16 in the final six minutes. The Lions took command of the game with a 32-yard touchdown by wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the guy Bucs coach Jon Gruden desperately wanted before last year's draft. If Johnson lights up the Bucs again, Gruden could be in a real demented mood after this one.
Best: Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Browns. I can't wait to see what the under-over is on this game. Over the past eight years, the Colts have been the most consistent offense in the NFL. This year, the Browns figure to be in Indy's league statistically, although probably not as efficiently. Cleveland is going to score in a big way this year with the collection of offensive talent Phil Savage has put together, starting with wide receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow and running back Jamal Lewis.
Worst: Arizona Cardinals at Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles have ended up in the worst game category three times, which really isn't attributable to them. They're a better team than that, but they do have some really ugly matchups and this is yet another one. Worse, this game is on Thanksgiving night, featured on the NFL Network. Why that is, I'm not sure. It's not like these teams are still division rivals. Anyway, it's going to be ugly. The Eagles defense is going to blitz the heck out of either Matt Leinart or Kurt Warner and neither will handle it well.
Best: New England Patriots at Seattle Seahawks. Although the Seahawks aren't exactly the picture of consistency, they do have the type of pass rush to make this one pretty interesting. But the real key to this one is that Mike Holmgren will likely be facing Bill Belichick for the last time and this will also be Holmgren's last big chess match before the playoffs (St. Louis, the Jets and Arizona are the final three games). Look for Holmgren to pull out a few stops in this one to make it interesting against Belichick.
Worst: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Carolina Panthers. This game has Monday night snoozer written all over it. ESPN will try to hype this one, but there's a really good chance that both teams will be down to backup quarterbacks by this time in the season. I can't wait to hear from all the Bucs fans who think their team is a lock to get back to the playoffs this season. Sorry folks, that 9-7 playoff performance last season was just a repeat of the limited success the Bucs had in 2005. As the Sex Pistols used to wail, "There's no future."
Best: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys. The Giants go back to Dallas for the first time since beating the Cowboys in the divisional round last season. Expect the crowd to be really hostile in this one (an 8:15 p.m. ET start makes for more pre-game imbibing). The Cowboys are a much better team at home and they need to play better down the stretch this season compared to what they did a year ago. With the Ravens and Eagles coming up after the Giants, the Cowboys had better be ready for some physical battles.
Worst: Detroit Lions at Indianapolis Colts. How do the Colts end up in a worst game of the week? Easy, the final two weeks of the regular season feature games with Jacksonville and Tennessee. While the Colts could have the division in reasonable control, they're not going to completely shut it down against either of those teams. Rather, the Lions are a classic opponent for them to overlook, particularly at home. If wide receiver Marvin Harrison is hurting again with his chronic knee injury, look for him to skip this one. This game has "dull" written all over it.
Best: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars. Hopefully you Colts fans haven't emailed me yet to say what an idiot I am (never mind, the email is already overflowing). Anyway, the Jaguars played the Colts very tough the second time around last season in Indianapolis and are rugged enough to toss Indy around for the better part of the game. This is a Thursday night NFL Network affair and might actually be worth purchasing (sorry, NFL Network isn't going to be free for most of you this year again). If the Jaguars can continue to improve on offense this year, they could be hanging tough for the AFC South crown with two games left.
Worst: Miami Dolphins at Kansas City Chiefs. Talk about two really nondescript teams. Both are in the midst of rebuilding and aren't even worried about competing just yet. At least they shouldn't be, each team's roster is too woefully thin. Give the Chiefs the nod in this one, but only because they're home and because they'll have the better defensive end in this game with Jared Allen. Sorry, Dolphins fans, I just don't except Jason "Saturday Night Fever" Taylor to be in a Miami uniform for this game.
Best: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers. With nine of the 16 games on the schedule featuring intradivision battles, there's a good chance a division or two could be decided in the final weekend of the season (Dallas-Philly and Carolina-New Orleans look like good bets to still matter). This game is the top one that figures to help decide a division crown. Better yet, it features two teams with very different approaches. The Browns have built themselves into an offensive juggernaut. The Steelers are still and blood-and-guts team. With no foreseeable changes on the horizon for either team, this should be a fun one.
Worst: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills. It's so tempting to pick Oakland at Tampa Bay, but this game has "Backup Bowl" written all over it. With New England figuring to cruise to a playoff spot and the Bills still in the building stage (sorry, Trent Edwards still has much to learn), about the best you can expect from this game is one quarter of Tom Brady and Randy Moss. Pats backup quarterback Matt Cassel could easily challenge his personal record of 20 pass attempts in a single game.