More prime-time games? Top QB matchups? 49ers' schedule should have intrigue

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It's become an NFL tradition for the league to unveil the regular-season schedule about a week before the start of the NFL draft. That, of course, depends on the ability of schedule makers to get it done on time.

In keeping with that preferred release date, we should know when the San Francisco 49ers will play each of their 16 games this season on Thursday evening.

With that in mind, here's a sort of preview for the schedule release:

Niners in prime time?: Not so long ago, the 49ers were a prime choice for nationally televised games on Sunday and Monday nights. As you'd expect after the team dropped into the NFL abyss, their profile has also fallen off.

In fact, over the past two seasons, the 49ers played under the prime-time lights just three times. Two of those were Thursday night games that are given to nearly every NFL team each season. The other was the late Monday Night Football game against the Los Angeles Rams to open the 2016 season.

That could very well change this year. In fact, it would be a surprise if the Niners didn't have multiple prime-time games in 2018. Their 6-10 finish last season aside, the Niners have already been hailed as one of the league's most interesting teams going into next season. That buzz is the result of their five consecutive wins to finish last season under the guidance of emerging franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

I'm going to predict the Niners match their two-year total of prime-time games in 2018, landing three appearances on some combination of Thursday, Sunday and Monday night games.

Garoppolo vs. Rodgers and more: Taken by himself, Garoppolo is enough to make the 49ers a curiosity for football fans who might not necessarily identify as 49ers fans. Some are already believers and excited to see whether Garoppolo can continue his strong finish to 2017. Others still have their doubts and want to see whether he can hold up and perform over the course of a full season. Regardless, they should all be watching.

The abundance of good quarterbacks Garoppolo will try to outperform should make his first full season as a starter even more interesting. At the top of the list is Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. The Niners are slated to visit Green Bay, a game that could be one of those aforementioned prime-time matchups. Garoppolo will also be part of a surefire storyline involving him versus the quarterback who many believed would be in his spot, Minnesota's Kirk Cousins. That road game also could draw enough interest to be nationally televised.

Other top quarterbacks on the Niners' schedule this year include two meetings each against Seattle's Russell Wilson and the Rams' Jared Goff and one against the Chargers' Philip Rivers, Detroit's Matthew Stafford, Oakland's Derek Carr and the Giants' Eli Manning. If nothing else, the league's most highly compensated quarterbacks (Garoppolo, Cousins, Stafford, Carr) are all set to meet at some point in 2018.

Burgeoning Rams rivalry: The Rams and Niners played one of the most entertaining games of the 2017 season on a Thursday night, and that was before Garoppolo's arrival. Los Angeles rested its starters in the second meeting, essentially rendering that game meaningless. So the first 2018 game between these two teams will be one of the most anticipated on either schedule.

And that was before the Rams went out and had one of the most fascinating offseasons in recent memory. The reigning NFC West champions added cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and receiver Brandin Cooks. The message was clear: The Rams are going for it all. But they also don't figure to be going anywhere for a while, with plenty of young talent and cap space to keep most of it.

Add in the Sean McVay vs. Kyle Shanahan factor and this has the potential to be one of the best battles of offensive minds in the league on a yearly basis. The amount of young talent on both sides could return this once-fierce rivalry to the glory days.

Sherman's return to Seattle: Upon signing with the 49ers, cornerback Richard Sherman didn't hesitate to point out that he will have the opportunity to play against the Seattle Seahawks twice per season. That's something he's reveling in, though it's also not the only reason he signed in San Francisco.

Regardless, the NFL is a storyline-driven league, and there's no doubt that whenever Sherman meets the Seahawks, particularly in his first trip back to Seattle, the date will be circled on many calendars.

Last dance with Oakland's Raiders: The two Bay Area teams don't meet often, but they will get one last chance to play in the regular season before the Raiders depart for Las Vegas.

That alone makes this a game to highlight on the schedule, but it's not the only reason. Jon Gruden's return to the Raiders means he will get a chance to coach against Shanahan. Gruden gave Shanahan his start in NFL coaching back in their Tampa Bay days. This will be their first chance to match wits as head coaches.

If that wasn't enough, the chance to see Garoppolo attempting to avoid Raiders star pass-rusher Khalil Mack and the potential for linebacker NaVorro Bowman to play against his longtime team (if he re-signs in Oakland) for the first time should make this must-see television.