Here are the top 15 story lines (and, boy, are there more than that) as we get set to kick off the 2012 NFL season:
1. The NFL was bailed out by the players last season. It really was quite a show in 2011. Record-breaking offense. Comeback after thrilling comeback. Young players breaking new ground. All after a lockout-tainted summer. It was a great season, all things considered. Now we get to do it all again, with the only taint (ahem) being replacement referees being out there instead of the real ones. We’ve got 10 first- or second-year quarterbacks starting, including a few who are already under fire (Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder), a few who appear destined for greatness (Andrew Luck, Cam Newton), a few we just can’t wait to see get their chance (Robert Griffin III, Jake Locker) and a few, frankly, some are a little surprised to see so quickly (Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill). But save room for the older guys, too. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning (remember him?), Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, Michael Vick and Matt Schaub lead the over-30 crowd while the late-20s fraternity is in great shape with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Jay Cutler. It’s a great time to be a great quarterback.
2. Wednesday’s season opener between the Giants and Cowboys will be the first NFL game on said day of the week, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 64 years. But it was a mere nine months ago that the teams met at MetLife Stadium with a playoff berth on the line — winner moves on, loser goes home. The Cowboys lost. The Giants didn’t lose again, ripping through the Falcons, Packers, 49ers and Patriots for their second title in four years. And here they are again, in great shape to repeat. They are cool with no one picking them to win again, by the way, but they definitely think they can. Ask Justin Tuck, or Mathias Kiwanuka, who said, "There's no doubt in my mind that we can repeat." (Only five franchises have accomplished the three-in-six-years thing, in case you’re wondering.) They’ll take the field with a sore Hakeem Nicks (foot) and without a few key players out there. Heck, Sean Locklear will be the left tackle. But Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and that defense are ready to go again. It’s a mistake to dismiss how good this team really is, despite the deceptive 9-7 regular-season mark from a season ago.
3. What’s the deal with the Cowboys? The defense looked outstanding in the preseason, Romo is coming off a career year and DeMarco Murray has “breakout” written all over him. And yet there is doubt tattooed to their chests as they come into Jersey for Wednesday’s opener. One bad omen: TE Jason Witten (lacerated spleen) almost certainly is not playing, although he says he's willing to sign a waiver just to get out there. And advice for the throngs of media covering the game: If they Cowboys lose, don’t ask Romo about what Jerry Jones just said. He could storm off. No one likes that. Romo might also have to storm off when the Giants’ pass rush comes hither. They got him for nine sacks in the two head-to-head games a year ago, and the Cowboys have some jelling to do — stat — on the offensive line, which has been working together as a unit for a little more than a week. Tough spot for the ‘Boys.
4. So many compelling games in Week One. Let’s go north to Green Bay, where many believe the 49ers-Packers showdown could be an early forecast of the NFC title game. No biggie. It’s the slug-it-out No. 1 defense of the Niners against the showiest offense of them all, the Packers. Great theatre. Throw in some cool ties with the 49ers’ Jim Harbaugh, the former Bears QB, going back to Green Bay for the first time as a head coach and Mike McCarthy facing his old Niners team for the third time (he’s 3-0 vs. them), and you have a terrific matchup with story lines and depth. And there’s this: Alex Smith and Rodgers (a 49ers fan growing up), the top two quarterbacks in the 2006 NFL draft, going head to head for the second time. Rodgers and the Packers edged Smith and the Niners, 30-24, in 2009. (Smith was hurt in the teams’ other meeting in 2010). It’s a fantastic clash of styles, and the winner gets a head-to-head edge in the NFC title race. Funny to say that in Week One, but it never hurts.
5. Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Luck. It should be a terrific game at Soldier Field and a fascinating test against a once-great (still-great?) Bears defense. He could help tilt that notion one way or another with a big debut. Everyone will be watching the left knee of Brian Urlacher, who says he will play (you’ll notice a theme this week with this proclamation) and who has been known to victimize a young QB or two in his pre-Hall of Fame day. Of course, football savants also will be watching the other side of the ball, too, with the unveiling of the Cutler-Brandon Marshall passing combo, which has the earmarks of something really special, and the Colts’ switch to new head coach Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defense. Watching Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney in two-point stances this preseason has been nothing short of bizarre, but we’re excited to see the end results. One more interesting item: Maybe Marshall will be covered by former Dolphins teammate, CB Vontae Davis, who was traded to Indy a week ago.
6. Welcome to the NFL, Mr. Griffin. The highly touted athlete could have a Newton-like debut against a Saints defense that looks like it’s in the middle of figuring itself out (translation: it could be a little ugly early) if the preseason is an indication. And like Newton a year ago, RG3’s preseason performance was a bit uneven. The Redskins have been holding back a lot, they haven’t named a starter at running back (Evan Royster is listed first on the depth chart, but even he isn’t putting much stock in that) and the O-line is a complete unknown. Meanwhile, the Saints might be the biggest mystery going in the NFL. Everyone — probably with excellent reason — assumes that Brees and the offense will not miss a beat. But what will happen with Aaron Kromer (who is replacing Joe Vitt) for the first six games and with Vitt thereafter? This is one game. We’ll start with that. Kromer has never coached an NFL game, and Mike Shanahan is 14-4 on opening weekends. Just saying.
7. Another first start, this one for Locker, who threw for 542 yards in five relief appearances last season as a rookie with the Titans. Brady almost hit that mark (a career-best 517, to be exact) in last season’s opener against the Dolphins in Miami. We’ll give the experience edge to Brady here. But this game is not just about who has played the most games. It features an underrated Titans defense and some explosive talent on offense at wide receiver (sans Kenny Britt, who is suspended this game) and running back, with Chris Johnson. Remember, the Patriots were at or near the bottom of the defensive rankings all last season, and though it didn’t keep them from making a Super Bowl, there’s pressure on this group (which added several pieces this offseason) to improve. Plus, it marks the return of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, which produced some explosive numbers in the good old days.
8. Jaguars-Vikings is odd in that it features two highly questioned second-year quarterbacks, Gabbert and Ponder (who are good friends off the field, by the way), and two former rushing champs, Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson, who probably will defer quite a bit to their backups. Mike Mularkey has said Jones-Drew will be the third-down back, and Frazier has said he will not push Peterson too far too fast. Excited to see Toby Gerhart and Rashad Jennings slamming into the line 25-30 times? So are we. Truthfully, it’s a big game for both QBs and for both head coaches, Mularkey and Frazier, who need to make an early statement. Frazier is more on the hot seat because he’s entering his third season (second full season), although Jaguars owner Shad Khan has proven to be a tough cookie (witness his hardline stance with MJD) and could seek a new coach if things go badly awry.
9. The Seahawks could be without RB Marshawn Lynch, who is battling a back injury, and they are already working with Wilson in his debut game. But it’s a great spot for the Seahawks, going to Arizona against a Cardinals offensive line that is in rough shape and with a quarterback, John Skelton, that apparently was the lesser of Ken Whisenhunt’s two evils. Wilson is the story here: He dominated the preseason, beat out a well-paid and steady Matt Flynn and now holds the key to the Seahawks’ offense, one that figured it was better off without Terrell Owens and Kellen Winslow. The Cardinals have some elite talent in all three phases of the game, but they are in trouble until they establish something offensively. It never happened in the preseason, but RBs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams could change that.
10. The Falcons travel to Kansas City, a place they have not been since 2004. Chances are, Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez can play tour guide. In what certainly will be his final trip to K.C. (and his first and only one as an opponent), the long-time Chief, who says he will retire at season’s end, will face a lot of emotions in his homecoming game, and the crowd is sure to reciprocate. He’ll also face a Chiefs defense that will be down OLB Tamba Hali (one-game suspension) and FS Kendrick Lewis (injury) and one that has a few banged up starters in CB Brandon Flowers and LB Derrick Johnson. It’s a tough chore for Romeo Crennel’s “D” to keep pace with Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Gonzalez, but maybe the offense can compensate. They’re excited about the two-headed rushing attack, and QB Matt Cassel has done some of his best work against the NFC (10-4 record as starter, 23 TDs, nine INTs) and since 2010, he has played some of his best ball at Arrowhead (9-4 record, 17 TDs, six INTs).
11. The numbers are pretty ugly for the Bills when it comes to facing the Jets. They’ve lost seven of the past eight in the series, Chan Gailey is 0-5 against the Jets and the last time they met at MetLife, Mark Sanchez hit Santonio Holmes for the game winner with 1:01 remaining last November to pretty much end any chance of the Bills making the postseason. A campaign that started out 5-2 sat at 5-6 following the loss to the Jets that day. But the tables have turned again, at least as far as optimism. The Sanchez-Holmes-Rex Ryan-Tim Tebow bizarre love quadrangle has attracted circus-like attention but borne little in the way of quality results in the preseason. The Bills haven’t set the world on fire, either, but there is a real belief that they now can overtake the Jets and perhaps challenge the Patriots for the AFC East title. This game will go a long way towards determining how close to competing the Bills really are.
12. We’ve got teacher vs. student when Jeff Fisher and Jim Schwartz meet in St. Louis. Fisher is set to take control of the Rams, his first head-coaching job outside the Oilers/Titans organization, while Schwartz has improved every season in his only job, leading the Lions to two, six and 10 wins in his three seasons. The two men are respectful of each other and remain close, but they have downplayed the significance of the game as far as the two coaches are concerned. Said Schwartz, matter-of-factly: “Lions playing the Rams, that’s what it is.” We also have a good QB battle of former No. 1 overall picks, Sam Bradford (2010) and Matthew Stafford (2009), going head to head for the first time. But these teams will be defined in many ways by their defenses. The young Rams have spent gobs of money on that side of the ball to improve what has been a dreadful performance the past few seasons, and the Lions know they must get more from their talented front and find a way to slow down the pass better. It starts Sunday for both.
13. This one clearly is special. We’ve waited this long to talk about Peyton Manning’s return to the NFL after being away since January of 2010. Steelers-Broncos is going to be big Sunday night, and it’s easy to see why. First off, everyone wants to watch Manning, who improved through the preseason, take on a bona fide opponent in the regular season and see if he can rip it like in the good old days. It’s going to be fun. You’ve got the playoff rematch angle, too, with the Broncos having beat the Steelers on the same Mile High field less than nine months ago, with the Tebow-to-Demaryius Thomas walk-off homer in extra innings. And one other interesting nugget: Steelers FS Ryan Clark once more will not play in this game because of his medical condition. On top of that you have two good football teams with high expectations facing off. Manning is the story, but the Steelers remain quite intriguing with Mike Wallace having just reported, an injured James Harrison apparently going to play and an offensive backfield that remains in flux.
14. The Monday-night early show features the Bengals at the Ravens, and we’ve already had the first shots fired. Noted diplomat Bernard Pollard (also a Ravens safety) has warned Bengals WR A.J. Green: "When we see receivers come across the middle, if we are in the right defense, we are going to smack you, and we are going to let you know that you came across the middle on the wrong team.” Fantasy owners of Green, please take note. Of course, Pollard — the man responsible for singlehandedly changing the health statuses of Patriots Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski (but is otherwise noted as a swell guy) — also had some praise for Green. “Having said that, if you miss him, he can hit a home run,” Pollard said. There is legit concern about the Ravens’ pass defense this season, and it might be the offense that carries the team for the first time in … ever? Joe Flacco and the no-huddle have looked good this preseason, even if the O-line remains a mixed bag. The Bengals, meanwhile, have a good QB of their own (Andy Dalton), plus the explosive Green and an underrated “D.” The AFC North figures to remain wide open, and this is a good one.
15. Chargers-Raiders, aka the “mute button game,” as some people are calling it in light of Chris Berman’s regular-season debut as a play-by-play analyst in the now-traditional second Monday-nighter on the opening weekend. If ESPN acts like the NFL and says that replacements are as good as the real thing, feel free to call them on their bluff. His preseason action was off-the-charts bad at times. New Raiders head coach Dennis Allen hopes for a more auspicious debut, and based on sweeping changes on defense, you can see his imprint already. The Chargers are, well, the Chargers, similar to how we’ve known them in seasons recent. They’re still talented and still contenders in the AFC West, but they are constantly cloaked with questions, especially given the rash of injuries they have suffered in the preseason and the tentative footing that head coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith appear to be on this season. On the bad news-good news front, RB Ryan Mathews is almost certainly a no-go for this one, but TE Antonio Gates looks better than ever.