The 2010 NFL regular season kicks off in a week and a half and both the 49ers and Raiders have some incredibly intriguing matchups on tap for the upcoming season. Although the NFL schedule is only 16 games long, I thought it would be fun to take a look at the top five games on each of the Bay Area NFL teams' respective 2010 schedule.
We're going to start with the 49ers and I thought we'd go in order, rather than ranking the games by some order of importance. After all, the importance of the game depends on the context surrounding it, and it's hard to predict how the playoff race will be shaping up any given week.
1. Opening in a tough environment - 49ers @ Seattle Seahawks, Sunday September 12
At this point in time it is incredibly difficult to tell how good or bad the Seattle Seahawks will be in 2010. They've got decent talent that has a problem staying healthy. They've got a running game that can be boom or bust depending on the running back. Oh, and they've added a new head coach in former USC giant Pete Carroll. I'd argue no NFC West team has more question marks than the Seahawks. They could go 10-6 or 6-10 and I really wouldn't be shocked with either.
For the 49ers, this season opener is a perfect test right out of the gates. The Seahawks are generally a tough home team in part because the fans at Qwest Field are incredibly loud. The decision to go with two rookies on the offensive line, as well as having a new center, will be put to the test immediately. Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis and David Baas have all shown some strong skills at their various roles for 2010. However, making line calls and avoiding false starts in the preseason is nothing like the ruckus that will be raised by Seahawks fans in the season opener.
Furthermore, this 49ers team is favored to win the division and very likely will require some divisional road if they're going to win this thing. Even when injuries have racked the team, the Seahawks have always been trouble for the 49ers, and cost the team a chance at a playoff spot last year. The 49ers need a win in this game to make a statement that they're taking their favored status seriously.
2. The champ is in the house for a Monday Night party - 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints, Monday September 20
One of Ric Flair's catch phrases was that to be the man you had to beat the man. The 49ers might not have to beat the New Orleans Saints in a playoff game, but they will get an early opportunity to face the defending Super Bowl champions under the bright lights of Monday Night Football in the 49ers home opener. The 49ers have been picked by many folks to win the NFC West and are gaining some sleeper steam, which makes their first national appearance all the more important.
The Saints have looked solid enough in the preseason and will be looking to jump out of the gates early in their title defense. The two teams last hooked up in 2008 with the Saints rolling to a 31-17 win. The 49ers defense comes into the 2010 season with a lot of respect, but a need to show more consistency across the board. This game will be an excellent test of how close this defense is to being one of the top defenses in the league. If you can contain the Saints offensive attack, you'll get a lot more respect.
3. Rodgers vs Smith on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field - 49ers @ Green Bay Packers, Sunday December 5
After four seasons, the NFL finally got the battle between the forgotten (outside of the Bay Area) draft-related rivalry of Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith. Rodgers sat for several years behind Brett Favre while Smith was thrown to the wolves in his rookie season. There's plenty of discussion about what could've been with the former Cal star Rodgers, but given the two franchise situations, it's a fairly useless woulda/coulda/shoulda discussion.
Then, last year the 49ers moved Alex Smith back into the starting lineup a month before the 49ers and Packers squared off in Lambeau Field. Rodgers got the win with a strong performance while Alex Smith lost in spite of a furious comeback attempt. Now we arrive a year later and the two teams are expecting to be in the thick of the playoff race. While the 49ers might be favored in the NFC West, it remains a division where Arizona or Seattle could surprise folks. The 49ers will likely be underdogs heading to Green Bay, but this is an eminently winnable game for the 49ers, and a chance for Smith to get the Aaron Rodgers monkey (as small as it might be) off his back.
4. Potential battle for the division crown - 49ers vs Arizona Cardinals Sunday January 2
The NFL has to be praying the Cardinals can stick in the divisional race and make this season finale be for the NFC West title. Although one or both of these teams have been struggling each time they've faced off, the 49ers and Cardinals have put together some highly entertaining battles over the last five years. Throw in the Darnell Dockett trash talk and there's a good chance this is your Sunday Night Football NBC flex game.
Not much else really needs to be said about this game. The Cardinals are the two-time NFC West champions even though they lost both matchups to the 49ers last year. The 49ers are looking to take the crown from Arizona and will likely have to win this game to do it.
5. Return to the promised land - 49ers vs ????, Saturday/Sunday January ????
This game might not yet be on the schedule, but every 49ers fan has their eye on the postseason with a bit more conviction than any time in the recent past. Fans went into 2009 with a little bit of confidence, but knew the team still had some growing to do. The team continues to grow this year, but given the changes in the division and the development of the 49ers young players fans are expecting a playoff berth.
Now, whether it's a first or second round game after a bye remains to be seen. A playoff game is a playoff game at this point and we just want the 49ers in the playoffs in some form or fashion.