Feature attractions A look at the top NFL games in 2004 — week by week By Dan Arkush (firstname.lastname@example.org) July 27, 2004 Now that the shock over Ricky Williams’ out-of-the-blue retirement announcement has subsided for the most part — I can see him now, riding bareback on an elephant somewhere in Asia a la Joe Don Looney, warbling the Tom Petty classic, “I’m Free!” — it’s time to look ahead. Today, as you all know, marks the opening of a handful of training camps around the league, but short of news regarding the possible signing of a few first-round draft picks here and there, we’re going to have to wait a day or two before we’re bombarded with enough column fodder to keep the PFW crew busy every waking moment well into February. In the meantime, let’s reflect a little bit on the real deal — a thrill-a-minute 2004 regular season that promises to pick right up where the Patriots’ last-second Super Bowl victory over those plucky Panthers left off. Before we know it, the games will begin in earnest, and already the anticipation couldn’t be higher. Thanks to the magic of DirecTV, those of us in the PFW offices can watch bits and pieces of every NFL game every week, pushing the buttons on our remotes with reckless abandon as we jump from game to game, formulating instant analysis in addition to feverishly checking out the players on our fantasy teams. With a little more than six weeks before the regular season officially opens for business, there are intriguing matchups galore to look forward to every week. In today’s NFL, however, the best games each week have become impossible to predict, with more than a few supposed heavyweights sure to fall on their faces while an equal number of so-called sleepers take dead aim on the postseason. But right now, it would appear there is at least one weekly matchup — and in some weeks a lot more than just one — that warrants our special attention. What follows is my personal preliminary guide to the hottest attractions on a weekly basis — at least for now. (Times of games are all Eastern.) Week One (Indianapolis at New England, Thursday, Sept. 9, 9 p.m.) You really couldn’t ask for a better opening game to the 2004 season. Armed with a brand-new contract attesting to his superstar status, Colts QB Peyton Manning will be looking to make amends for his very forgettable performance the last time he faced the Patriots, when New England manhandled him in the AFC championship game, sacking him four times and forcing four interceptions in a 24-14 victory. It will be interesting to see if the league’s new crackdown on pass-interference calls helps Peyton’s cause. As for the Colts, the big question, as usual, is their relatively no-name defense, which must do a much better job handling a Patriots offense that could be fortified a great deal by one Corey Dillon. Week Two (Minnesota at Philadelphia, Monday, Sept. 20, 9 p.m.) Here’s an enticing game to say the least, with Mike Tice’s Vikings, the NFC North favorites over the Packers in the eyes of many this season, invading Lincoln Financial Field to do battle with an Eagles team that made a bigger splash in free agency than any other team in the league with the high-profile additions of WR Terrell Owens on offense and DE Jevon Kearse on defense. Worth noting: The Vikes were just 3-5 on the road last year, while the Eagles had their share of struggles in their new facility, finishing 5-3 during the regular season in addition to falling short — again — in the NFC playoffs. Will “T.O.” have something goofy up his sock? Should be fun. Week Three (Tampa Bay at Oakland, Sunday, Sept. 26, 8:30 p.m.) A rematch of Super Bowl XXXVII caps off what should be a terrific Sunday for NFL junkies. Both teams have made wholesale changes this offseason in an effort to get back into contention. What more could you ask for than Jon Gruden scowling on the sideline, Warren Sapp donning silver and black and all those lunatic Raiders fans in the background? The Monday-night Cowboys-Redskins matchup, which pits Bill Parcells against Joe Gibbs, is a very close second. Week Four (Kansas City at Baltimore, Monday, Oct. 4, 9 p.m.) The Chiefs’ high-powered offense, featuring ex-Raven Priest Holmes, will try to do a number on the Ravens’ high-powered defense, featuring LB Ray Lewis. The NFC South tussle one day earlier between the Falcons and Panthers should also be worth the price of admission and then some. Week Five (Miami at New England, Sunday, Oct. 10, 1 p.m.) This is an absolute no-brainer, assuming the defending Super Bowl champs win their first three games vs. the Colts, Cardinals and Bills, in which case they would be attempting to break the Dolphins’ 31-year record of 18 consecutive victories. The absence of Ricky Williams will remove a little luster from the occasion, but the game should still be an AFC East chess match to die for. The first game of the year between NFC West opponents St. Louis and Seattle later that day should also be a real crowd-pleaser. Week Six (Carolina at Philadelphia, Sunday, Oct. 17, 1 p.m.) Still steaming after being dominated at home in the NFC championship game last year by Carolina, the new-look Eagles will have fire in their eyes. So will their fans, who won’t hesitate to fill the air with boos if Philly comes up empty again. Other good games: Seattle at New England, Minnesota at New Orleans (Sunday night) and Tampa Bay at St. Louis (Monday night). Week Seven (Denver at Cincinnati, Monday, Oct. 25, 9 p.m.) The Bengals on a national stage? Say it ain’t so. Will Carson Palmer rise to the occasion for Cincy? Or will he back on the sideline by Week Seven in favor of Jon Kitna? In any event, you gotta love this team getting its prime-time props for the first time in a long time. Week Eight (Baltimore at Philadelphia, Sunday, Oct. 31, 1 p.m.) Think Ray Lewis and the Ravens might have it out for Terrell Owens after T.O. left them high and dry in favor of the Eagles? If I’m T.O., I’m wearing extra padding. Week Nine (Minnesota at Indianapolis, Monday, Nov. 8, 9 p.m.) Is an over-under of 60 out of the question? An offensive smorgasbord if there ever was one, with Daunte Culpepper, Randy Moss, Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James, Marvin Harrison, et al, providing a lot of potential fantasy thrills and chills. Week 10 (Philadelphia at Dallas, Monday, Nov. 15, 9 p.m.) What we’ve got here is a compelling NFC East barn-burner in the making, with native Philadelphian Eddie George offering a scintillating subplot in his newest uniform. Week 11 (New England at Kansas City, Monday, Nov. 22, 9 p.m.) Arrowhead will be rocking big-time, as the defending Super Bowl champs come a calling on the Chiefs’ home turf. Can Gunther Cunningham muster up enough defensive pressure to make the always-cool Tom Brady break a sweat? Stay tuned. Week 12 (St. Louis at Green Bay, Monday, Nov. 29, 9 p.m.) Can Brett Favre supply the same kind of Monday-night magic as he did last year vs. the Raiders, when he came up with one of the most inspirational performances ever? The Rams should offer a lot stiffer competition than Oakland did, with an offensive arsenal that figures to mount a stern challenge vs. the defensively challenged Pack. Week 13 (Tennessee at Indianapolis, Sunday, Dec. 5, 1 p.m.) Two AFC South stalwarts that stood pat this offseason in the free-agent department figure to let it all hang out as they always do. Will Manning and Steve McNair again be battling it out for MVP honors? Week 14 (St. Louis at Carolina, Sunday, Dec. 12, 4:15 p.m.) Remember last year’s double-overtime classic in the divisional playoffs between these two teams? Mike Martz certainly does. Week 15 (Carolina at Atlanta, Saturday, Dec. 18, 8:30 p.m.) Remember the last time Michael Vick strutted his stuff on a Saturday night in the frozen tundra? Will he be just as good on his home turf in what could be a very meaningful NFC South affair? Week 16 (Green Bay at Minnesota, Friday, Dec. 24, 3 p.m.) Merry Christmas, everybody. Brett Favre heads a stellar cast in a good old-fashioned black-and-blue brouhaha. Pass the eggnog. Week 17 (Dallas at N.Y. Giants, Sunday, Jan. 2, 8:30 p.m.) Ah, what perfect symmetry. We started our rundown with the first game of the year, and we end it with the final game — a Sunday-night finale featuring Bill Parcells, who could be warming up for the playoffs if past form holds true, vs. a Giants team that could very well have Eli Manning at quarterback by then in a potential spoiler’s role. Let the games begin!