NFL Schedule 2014: Four key games for the Buccaneers

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 NFL schedule was released yesterday, including that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Which games will be crucial for the Bucs to win in the fall? Which games will be must-watch affairs?

Week 1 - Carolina Panthers, Sunday Sep 7

You want a good barometer of where the team is as a whole? Go against the division winners and one of the league's best defense -- paired with a pretty barren offense. You know, outside of Cam Newton.

This game should give us our first look at Lovie Smith's new defense, facing a not-too-dominant offense. First looks are important, but for the defense it may be a bit misleading. Something similar is likely to be the case for the offense, for very different reasons: going against a dominant defense with a terrific front four will not be a good measure of offensive production, for obvious reasons. It should provide a good opportunity to see Anthony Collins tested against a top-notch pass rusher, though.

More importantly, this will be the Bucs' first game of the season, and it will be their first opportunity to prove that they can hang with the big names and battle for the division title. Winning this first game would go a long way toward a successful season.

Week 3- at Atlanta Falcons, Thursday Sep 18

The only nationally televised game on the schedule, and it's going to be anchored by Phil Simms. Oh joy. Still, this will be a great litmus test: how does the team perform on the big stage, and  how do they compare to the division rival that also finished last season with a 4-12 record? Which team has done a better job this offseason?

Division games are always important, but a road game, on national television, against a team that was basically just as good as you were last season? Yeah, that's a pretty important game.

Week 8 - Minnesota Vikings, Sunday Oct 26

Leslie Frazier returns home! Okay, so, defensive coordinator-faces-old-team isn't all that relevant. What is relevant is that the Vikings are a very similar team to the Bucs right now. They have talent, and at some positions they have dominant talent, and they were fairly active in free agency. Both teams also have a veteran quarterback on a cheap, two-year deal, and both teams are likely to draft a quarterback this year.

Combine all of that and you should have another good barometer of how far the Bucs have come this year, and how well they've done compared to other teams in their situation.

Week 12 - at Chicago Bears, Sunday Nov 23

The Chicago Bears had an explosive offense last year, and there's very little reason to assume that'll be any different in 2014. This should be a terrific test for Lovie Smith's defense. Some people claim the Tampa 2 is outdated -- but if they can shut down the Bears (or the Saints, earlier in the season), those people should feel free to be quiet.

Meanwhile, the Bears put up a horrible defensive performance last year, which should give Jeff Tedford an opportunity to strut his stuff. More importantly, assuming the Bucs are even in the playoff hunt this late in the season, winning an away game against a tough conference rival could be the deciding game for a playoff berth

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