NFL

Analyzing the 10 Best ‘Litmus Test’ Games on the 2015 NFL Schedule

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The NFL schedule was released on Tuesday and it was filled with litmus tests. These are critical contest that determine which teams are on the rise and which are ready to fade into the background. With that in mind, here is a look at the season’s 10 best “litmus test” games. We left divisional games off the list, because those are just too easy … and the following match-ups are anything but easy.

Vikings at 49ers (Week 1)

The Vikings finished strong last season, winning five of their final nine games (it would have been six if not for a late meltdown in Miami). Minnesota is clearly trending upward under coach Mike Zimmer and QB Teddy Bridgewater and opening the season on Monday Night Football is the perfect chance to display their growth in front of a national audience. The 49ers will be fired up for this game, as they are playing at home in the first game of the Jim Tomsula era. It is up to the Vikings to show out, quiet the Levi’s Stadium crowd and start the season with a win over another NFC playoff contender.

Jets at Colts (Week 2)

New York laid the blueprint on how to rebuild a secondary in one offseason, signing Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Marcus Gilchrist and Buster Skrine. That remade unit will face its first major test here on Monday Night Football as it goes on the road to battle Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Andre Johnson and the Colts. Indianapolis boasts a big-play offense, especially at home, where last season Luck averaged more than four completions of 20-plus yards per home game. This will be a great test for new coach Todd Bowles as he looks to prepare a group of new faces for this massive challenge.

Lions at Seahawks (Week 4)

When experts predict which 2014 playoff team is most likely to fall off in 2015, the name that comes up most often is the Lions. Maybe it is because they lost their best defensive player (Ndamukong Suh), or maybe it’s because they won an unusual amount of close games last season (Detroit had a point differential of plus-39, worse than non-playoff teams like the Eagles, Chiefs, Texans and Bills). This Monday night game in Seattle is the perfect chance for the Lions to prove they are still strong contenders and can hang with the best teams in the conference, even in a hostile environment like CenturyLink Field.

Steelers at Chargers (Week 5)

A fourth straight Monday night game atop this list? Hey, it’s not our fault this year’s Monday night lineup is especially epic. This is a great matchup between two quarterbacks from the 2004 draft class (assuming Philip Rivers is still a member of the Chargers). San Diego must maintain its contender status or risk losing Rivers, Antonio Gates, Eric Weddle and Corey Liuget as free agents after the season. Beating the reigning AFC North champions — in a “home” game that figures to see plenty of Terrible Towels in the stands — would prove that the Chargers aren’t content to ride off into the Los Angeles sunset just yet.

Patriots at Colts (Week 6)

We’re finally off the Monday night streak and onto a game that screams “litmus test.” The Colts went all-in this offseason by adding veterans like Johnson, Frank Gore, Kendall Langford and Trent Cole. All that is left is to see whether that’s enough to close the gap on the defending Super Bowl champions, who beat the Colts by an average of 30 points in two meetings last season. It is important for Luck to play well and win a duel against Tom Brady before he can be considered the top QB in the conference. And who knows? Maybe the whole “Deflate Gate” investigation will be completed before this rematch takes place.

Buccaneers at Redskins (Week 7)

How did two teams that finished last in their respective divisions make it onto this list? You’ll find your answer under center. This matchup between Jameis Winston and Robert Griffin III features two of the most polarizing quarterbacks in the league. If Winston plays up to his potential (and how could he not with receivers like Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans?), the Bucs could be immediate contenders in the wide-open NFC South. But to get there he will have to win games like this, a road contest against a Redskins team led by a talented (but uneven) quarterback and a head coach who hates him.

Rams at Ravens (Week 11)

The Rams, who have come in just under .500 in each of their three seasons under Jeff Fisher, look ready to finally get over the hump and compete for a playoff spot. The problem is St. Louis plays in arguably the toughest division in the league, where the Rams would be happy to go 3-3. That puts pressure on Fisher’s squad to pick up quality wins outside the division and outside the conference. This Week 11 matchup is a great opportunity, facing a Ravens team that has never posted a losing record in seven seasons under John Harbaugh. If the Rams can go on the road and pick up a win against one of the most physical teams in the league, it will lend credence to the belief they are ready for postseason play.

Panthers at Cowboys (Week 12)

On paper, this is a battle between two reigning division champions. The difference is the Cowboys were extremely impressive last season while the Panthers were a massive disappointment. Carolina hopes to flip the script in 2015, but most of the team’s improvement will have to come from within, as the Panthers were quiet in free agency. The draft will help — Carolina has killed each of the last three drafts — but what will ultimately decide the Panthers’ fate is the play of Cam Newton. The former No. 1 overall pick is determined to make the most of his contract year and winning a head-to-head matchup with Tony Romo would certainly help his cause.

Packers at Cardinals (Week 16)

The Cardinals were very good last season until injuries took down Carson Palmer and Andre Ellington. They figure to be even better in 2015, bolstered by the healthy return of their stars and the additions of veterans like Mike Iupati, Corey Peters, Cory Redding and Sean Weatherspoon. But just how good can the Cardinals be? Can they be good enough to go on the road and win in Lambeau — in December, at that — in a game that figures to have playoff implications for both teams? If Bruce Arians’ team really harbors Super Bowl aspirations, this would be the perfect time to flex their championship muscles.

Bengals at Broncos (Week 16)

Cincinnati’s biggest win of last season came at home in Week 16 against the Broncos. Andy Dalton threw for two scores, Jeremy Hill ran for 147 yards and the defense picked off Peyton Manning four times. The Bengals will aim for a repeat performance in the rematch — the final Monday Night Football game of the season — but will have to do it on the road as the venue changes to Sports Authority Field at Mile High. This is huge season for the Bengals, as coach Marvin Lewis enters the final year of his contract, as do about a dozen core veterans. If this team doesn’t want to be broken up, it better win in Denver and keep on winning all the way into January.

Want to talk more about the schedule? Join Michael Lombardo for his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … ask your question now!


About Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.