We get only 86,400 seconds each day, and every one of them spent watching preseason football is a questionable use of our limited time. The spirit is willing to ignore preseason football, but the flesh is weak. The players are wearing the jerseys, the coaches are on the sidelines, and Al Michaels is pretending to know something about the players on the field. We can sense it isn’t quite right since all of the players we know and love are wearing shorts and eating sunflower seeds. But preseason football doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be there. It’s the fake town North Korea built along the DMZ that looks like a functioning village but has no people or buildings.
For those who want to scratch the itch of preseason football but also want to preserve a modicum of self-respect and limit our indulgences, we have created a handy guide. Obviously everyone prioritizes their own teams, but for those who want a little extra sumthin’ sumthin’, here are the games where somewhat interesting things should be happening.
Week 1 (Technically Week 2*)
*Perhaps the most annoying thing about the preseason—and there are many—is that the league insists on calling the Hall of Fame game Week 1 and the first preseason games for the other 30 NFL teams Week 2. It’s nonsense.
New York Giants vs. New York Jets (Thursday, August 8, 7 p.m. ET)
Preseason Giants vs. Jets in the Meadowlands, New Jersey, a.k.a. the fake battle for fake New York. We likely won’t see too much of new Jets free agent acquisition Le’Veon Bell. Or maybe we will. Who knows? Adam Gase sounds as confused about this as anybody.
“It is a fine line with Le’Veon,” Gase told reporters Tuesday. “He hasn’t played in a year. At the same time, when’s the right time? Is it this game? Is it the next one? Is it the next one? Do we just not play him this preseason? Do we go through the whole time and just give him reps? All those questions are what we keep talking about.”
Good questions, coach. Smart to muddle expectations for Jets fans from the jump. For the national audience, the real show is rookie Daniel Jones, the Giants’ no. 6 overall pick this year that the team views as Manning’s successor but Giants fans see as Cousin Greg taking over as CEO. Lord knows Eli won’t play much in this game. No matter what Jones does, he is a near lock to become a meme, and the rookie GIFs the NFL released could make Jones infamous as soon as Thursday night. What could go wrong?
Arizona Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Chargers (Thursday, August 8, 10 p.m.)
”You’ll have to tune in,” new Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said when asked whether Kyler Murray will play in Arizona’s first preseason game. The only thing we know for sure about this game is that the Cardinals are eliminating paper tickets. But odds are we see Murray for at least a few snaps, and the human content machine will be worth watching. His presence alone makes it worth tuning in.
As interesting as Murray is, the Cardinals offense is interesting from a nerd perspective. Most teams will evaluate their players and show little of their schemes in the preseason, but Kingsbury’s air raid is so different from regular NFL football that he may have no choice but to slightly tip his hand: Lining four or five receivers up on multiple plays would be fascinating and a shot across the bow to defensive coordinators around the league. He’ll also likely want playing time for two receivers set to be serious contributors this season in rookies Andy Isabella and Hakeem Butler. The preseason is vanilla football, but this could have some chocolate swirl.
Oakland Raiders vs. Los Angeles Rams (Saturday, August 10, 8 p.m.)
Cancel what you are doing on Saturday night, buy a 4K TV, and acquire the mind-altering drugs of your choice, because this game is like if the Thrilla in Manilla happened on the surface of the moon. Blake Bortles and Nathan Peterman fighting a proxy war between Sean McVay and Jon Gruden.
NFL coaches famously believe they can fix any football player, and turning around a player’s career becomes a sort of measuring contest in the coaching world. When the Rams signed Bortles to back up Goff, the half-joke-slash-half-truth was that if Jared Goff goes down at some point this season and Bortles keeps the offense going, it would cement McVay’s genius. Not to be outdone, Gruden has gone out and acquired Peterman and gone out of his way to talk up the worst quarterback in modern NFL history.
There’s already some beef simmering between Gruden and McVay. Their two families go way back, and McVay wandering onto Gruden’s turf as a young offensive-savant head-coaching prodigy in 2017 surely nudged Gruden ever so slightly to returning in 2018. Outside of a potential Super Bowl, this is the most important matchup they will ever have. The only reason this isn’t pay-per-view is because we’ll be getting all of the inside footage from Hard Knocks.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Oakland Raiders (Thursday, August 15, 8 p.m.)
Kyler will likely be playing more in this game than he does in Week 1, and Kyler is the single most interesting thing about preseason football this year. Among other things, we will learn if he can slide since the Raiders have linebacker Vontaze Burfict. We’ll also get Gruden’s thoughts on Murray on Hard Knocks, which, again, is a gift.
Washington vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Thursday, August 15, 7:30 p.m.)
Look for Washington to show off Dwayne Haskins against the team that passed on him to keep Andy Dalton around.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Thursday, August 15, 7 p.m.)
This is probably the first time in NFL history that one team has a statue outside of its stadium of a player on the other team. We’re too far out from this contest to know whether Foles will play, but it’s still worth tuning in for the beginning, when we will be flooded with Super Bowl LII nostalgia and the feel-good nature of Foles’s relationship with his old team. Look at him and Carson Wentz, they’re still best buds! If Foles ends up playing snaps against a defense that still has many of his fellow Super Bowl champions, even better.
This is the only reunion worth watching, but there are a few other notable reunion games the same weekend. Patriots vs. Titans features Bill Belichick vs. Mike Vrabel, Detroit Lions vs. Houston Texans features two organizations with Belichick disciples at head coach and in the front office, and Saints vs. Chargers features Drew Brees’s return to, well, the Chargers, if not San Diego.
Los Angeles Rams vs. Dallas Cowboys (Saturday, August 17, 10 p.m.)
An excuse for Jerry Jones to air his grievances with Stan Kroenke over the Todd Gurley contract.
Your Team Here (Various Times)
Teams resist playing their starters in the preseason or showing their schemes, but the third preseason game is the closest teams come to showing their hand. Starters often play a full half, and young starters may play longer. If you tune in to one of your team’s preseason games this year, make it this one.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Baltimore Ravens (Thursday, August 22, 7:30 p.m.)
John Harbaugh said in July that the scheme the Ravens have built around Lamar Jackson uses concepts not seen in the NFL since the 1950s and will revolutionize offense. Talk is cheap until we see it. Even the vanilla version of a revolutionary offense built around a quarterback Michael Vick thinks was a superior college player than he was is a must-watch for the preseason and anyone who hasn’t drafted their fantasy team yet.
Minnesota Vikings vs. Arizona Cardinals (Saturday, August 24, 1 p.m.)
Hopefully you’re sensing a theme by now. Watch Kyler Murray play football in an offense nobody has ever tried in the NFL before.
Nothing. There is nothing worth watching in Week 4. Starters are unlikely to play in a week when coaches are trying to figure out who will make their practice squads, who will make the team, and who will be cut. Everyone’s main goal is to put good plays on tape in case they get cut and another team considers signing them, and also to make it out of the game healthy.
The NFL knows Week 4 is not an entertaining product. That is why all of the games are on the Thursday night before Labor Day weekend. This is the last Thursday of 2019 without a regular-season football game. Take a walk. Go to a happy hour. Scroll through Instagram for 45 minutes before falling asleep. We only get 86,400 seconds each day, and don’t spend any of them watching football the final Thursday in August. That’s what the next 21 weeks are for.