Here are the top 15 story lines as we take an early look at the Week One slate of games:
1. We have to start in Green Bay. The champs take the field for the first time (that counts) since the Packers held off the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, and they look strong in their quest to ... win another Super Bowl. I would say "repeat," but most coaches will give you the "every year is a new year" line, and Mike McCarthy is exactly that kind of coach. The last defending champs to lose their opener? The Broncos back in 1999, way before they gave the winner the Thursday-night showcase. That team had a decent excuse: It was changing quarterbacks after the retirement of John Elway. The past two champions meeting, in Titletown with the Lombardi Trophy in the house, in the city where he made his name. It doesn't get much better than this for season openers.
2. This opening game features two quarterbacks at the heights of their powers in Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. We'll celebrate the game first for that arms race, but wait a second. Consider the defensive coaches they're squaring off against: Rodgers vs. Gregg Williams' myriad pressure packages, and Dom Capers' zone dogs defense against Brees and that great screen game. First question: What was the phrase Williams used for Brett Favre in the NFC title game a few years ago, "remember-me hits"? Guessing he's hoping for a few of those vs. Rodgers. The Packers will try to limit Williams' creative maneuvering with the no-huddle. What a match of wits. And second: Will that great Saints screen game work without Reggie Bush? Mark Ingram might not grind out 100 yards on the ground, but he will be an important figure. Sean Payton told him to be ready this week because these are the Packers and not Kent State. (Actually, Coach, hate to nitpick, but Ingram never faced the Golden Flashes in his college career, but we get the point.)
3. It's no shock that we head to Houston for our next-most intriguing matchup, and naturally, we start with No. 18. The recent news that Peyton Manning's neck and back problems might be worsening (or certainly not improving at the rate either he or the Colts had hoped) is unfortunate but not shocking. You also can't blame Manning for wanting to be conservative this offseason with his surgery and rehab. If the lockout ends up costing Manning his regular-season streak and keeps the Colts' most valuable player off the field in a crucial early-season divisional game, well, you can blame the owners and the NFLPA for this one. Forget the fact that the Texans' pass defense was miserable a year ago and that they only twice allowed fewer than 24 points — without Manning (and with Kerry Collins), the Colts' chances of winning this game will be sliced in half. Wade Phillips will find ways to pressure Collins with a rebuilt front seven and disrupt that passing game. We're going back a few years to 2006, but the last time Collins faced off against Phillips, he completed 6-of-19 passes for 57 yards and two INTs.
4. There's the other side of the coin, and that's Texans RB Arian Foster. It's looking more and more like Foster will try to play. And if he can't go — or if his hamstring starts barking during the game — the Texans have great reinforcements in Ben Tate (fantasy owners, take notice!) and Derrick Ward, who averaged more than six yards a carry a year ago. The offense doesn't change with either one of them in the game and Foster out. The passing game did not flourish in two games against the Colts last season, but it's dangerous enough to pick apart a Colts defense that might be weaker this season. Even though it's a big game, we also have to note that the divisional tide didn't turn a year ago when the Texans won in Week One and everyone anointed them the new AFC South front-runners. The Colts won the Week Eight rematch and claimed the division. Even if Manning misses this game and the Texans win, think he'll be ready and motivated for the second matchup in Week 16? Uh, yeah, safe bet.
5. Speaking of rivalry games, by the way, we have another decent one. As I wrote Monday, you could make the argument that Ravens-Steelers is the best rivalry going in the NFL and I would still be listening. The way it has gone in recent years: Ravens win the first one, Steelers win the next two, including a playoff game. This one is in Baltimore, and you could make the argument that the Ravens need this one more. But how good are things in Pittsburgh? The Steelers remain loaded coming off the Super Bowl loss. They re-signed several key players in the offseason, avoided any major personnel losses and have Ben Roethlisberger (in his prime years) for a full season. His passing weapons look better than ever, too, with Antonio Brown stepping out, Emmanuel Sanders waiting in the wings and Jerricho Cotchery a superb security blanket.
6. Yes, this one is big for Joe Flacco. A big game, a big season. His reputation, fairly or not, is starting to take a hit. You'd think that a fourth-year QB who has improved his passing yards (and yards per attempt) and his touchdowns in each season and kept his turnovers to a very reasonable level would be cut more slack. He isn't. One reason is that the Ravens are built to win now, and some feel they might even have missed their window a bit with so much elite talent reaching their expiration dates on defense. After a brutal first week of free agency, the Ravens rallied, as GM Ozzie Newsome seemingly can do, by adding FB Vonta Leach, WR Lee Evans and OLs Bryant McKinnie and Andre Gurode, although the latter two have reputations that exceed their on-field productivity. Can the Ravens win the game? Of course. Can they outlast the Steelers? It probably will be harder this season than it has been in recent years, when the Ravens have fallen short.
7. Like Flacco, Matt Ryan is entering his fourth season. And like Flacco, Ryan has received his share of flak. Neither man has done much in the playoffs, but Ryan is 0-2. The Falcons clearly are undaunted, as they have reformed the team to fit Ryan's strengths. The Packers stomped the Falcons in the playoffs in January, and the lack of speed on offense was glaring. They go out and get Mr. 4.3 40, Julio Jones. The shift away from a power-running, slug-it-out team appears more obvious now. They are more of a passing outfit now. Michael Turner looks slow. They failed to re-sign OG Harvey Dahl in the offseason; he's more of a blue-collar run blocker. The Falcons called for Ryan to throw 42 times (!) in a preseason game two weeks ago. It will be interesting to see how many times they chuck it against a Bears secondary that's somewhat in flux with Major Wright having a so-so preseason and Brandon Meriweather suddenly entering the picture.
8. It's a big game for the Bears, too, as nearly everyone has them taking some kind of fall this season. Remember, they were the ones who won the division and hosted the NFC championship game, and there weren't too many teams that defended Aaron Rodgers better last season. But the sense is that the Bears won with smoke and mirrors last season and that Jay Cutler is doomed to fail this season after his NFC title-game (society word, not mine) meltdown. Another reason why the Bears are being panned in many circles is that they didn't properly address the offensive line. Let's see, what else? They got rid of TE Greg Olsen, Lance Briggs is demanding a trade five days before the start of the season and their would-be No. 1 receiver (Roy Williams) is being outshined by Earl Bennett. Rome might be burning, but the coach would never act differently. Lovie Smith has a Keith Richards-like constitution and a Phil Jackson-esque keel, so there's something to be said for that kind of stability. We'll find out a lot about this Bears team in the first three games: vs. Atlanta, at New Orleans, vs. Green Bay.
9. The Eagles head to St. Louis with offensive line problems. The Rams are just settling into Steve Spagnuolo's scheme in his third season and have more DL depth than at any time he has been there. Emerging DE Chris Long faces Todd Herremans, who has switched from left guard to right tackle. Ageless, spry, crafty DT Fred Robbins could make life hard on Eagles rookie ORG Danny Watkins, who has had a rude welcome to the NFL. First-round DE Robert Quinn is coming on. The Eagles must be ready for a blitz assault (including from former S Quintin Mikell, who felt slighted by the Eagles letting him walk) in order to protect their biggest investment in an offseason of big spending. Michael Vick slumped (relatively speaking, compared to his blistering start) down the stretch last season because the offensive line failed to protect him well, and he started throwing more wildly in an attempt to make plays. We saw more evidence of that in the preseason this year. OL coach Howard Mudd and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg are going to work their tails off to get it right eventually, but this is a tricky Week One assignment on the road. Spagnuolo's DL movement and pressure schemes can pose problems for the most experienced of offensive lines.
10. It wouldn't be stunning if Lions-Buccaneers ends up being one of the better QB showdowns of the opening weekend. While the league has waited for Matthew Stafford to develop and play a full season, Josh Freeman already stood out last season and had one of the better statistical years by a quarterback in franchise history (and the more you look at the numbers, the more you realize it was one of the better seasons by a second-year QB not named Marino ever). Stafford lit it up in the preseason, as he looked to be in full command of the offense despite having started only 13 career games in two seasons and having endured a lockout this offseason. Both young defenses feature some real firepower up front (and Gerald McCoy would be wise to have a big game opposite the man he'll be compared to for his entire career, Ndamukong Suh), but this one is about the passers. The team that does the most damage through the air will have the edge.
11. So it's Rex Grossman for the Redskins against the (likely) Osi Umenyiora-less Giants. And really, you could call them the Steve Smith-less, Terrell Thomas-less, Barry Cofield-less (he'll be on the other sideline), Marvin Austin-less, Prince Amukamara-less Giants. Yeah, it has been a pretty awful August, and Eli Manning didn't throw a TD pass the entire preseason. Grossman, by comparison, looked pretty good, throwing two TDs, only getting picked once and looking solid in the two-minute drill a few different times. Are the Giants ripe for the plucking early? Don't forget you're talking about DEs Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul (my pick for breakout star this season) going up against an offensive line that is not overly talented, although it has looked pretty decent in the preseason. I expect Mike and Kyle Shanahan to move the pocket, utilize the screen game and execute a lot of three- and five-step drops if the pass rush gets heavy in the first quarter. That and a generous dose of Tim Hightower, Ryan Torain and Roy Helu. Don't snooze on this Redskins team if the QB play isn't awful. Remember, Grossman is the starter for now; the situation remains fluid.
12. If you picked a Vikings-Chargers Super Bowl a year ago, you might have had a lot of support for it. The Vikings were coming off an appearance in the NFC championship game, and the Chargers were the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed in 2009. (Another example of how much changes from year to year.) Hard to come up with two more disappointing teams last season, really, but the Chargers appear to have more immediate resolutions to their problems now. The special teams, such a disaster a season ago, are coached by one of the best in Richard Bisaccia, and you safely can predict that the trio of Vincent Jackson, Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd will play more than one quarter together this season. The Vikings might be in flux, but they still have RB Adrian Peterson, and everyone remembers what he did to the Bolts the last time he faced them. Still, the Chargers know the knock on them — they can't win early in the season — and will look to take it out on a Vikings secondary that is thin at corner and one that hasn't announced a starting strong safety yet.
13. Everyone is excited to see Cam Newton's debut, but the game might actually be more important for the quarterback on the other sideline. Kevin Kolb lost his mojo (if he ever really had it) in Philadelphia and now is being counted on becoming — and paid like — a savior for the Cardinals. So far, the results have been fairly promising in the preseason, although he threw only one TD and completed 55 percent of his passes. Sources in Philly said that Kolb's accuracy and consistency were issues at times, but he doesn't need to be as precise in this offense. It's an intermediate and downfield passing game (he averaged nearly nine yards per attempt in the preseason), with higher-risk and lower-percentage passes. He's a better fit here than in the Eagles' West Coast scheme. The Panthers' secondary looks to be a work in progress, ripe for the picking in this game. Don't be shocked if Kolb is one of the top five passers in Week One. Newton, on the other hand, might do most of his damage on the ground. He has appeared far more dangerous in the preseason with his legs than with his arm. The arm will come. He's good.
14. When you have brothers openly discussing their foot fetishes the week before their matchup and their father putting off cancer surgery until after the game, you know it's big. When it's Rob, Rex and Buddy Ryan, when isn't it big? Rex has changed the landscape (boy, is that an understatement) for the Jets, and Rob is hoping to do the same with the Cowboys' defense. He's been going to work on the Jets' offense ("Man, if I watch any more Jet tape, Joe Namath will have to be the quarterback," Rob said this week), and it will be interesting to see if it gets off to as slow a start as it did last season. The Cowboys are not getting a lot of love right now, and they do have their share of worries (young offensive line, likely no CB Terence Newman in this game, depth concerns). But the Jets will not roll to victory in this one. It feels a lot like the 10-9 Ravens-Jets game in Week One last season, and the backdrop will be the emotional 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the (likely) stirring tribute beforehand.
15. The Patriots are coming off a 14-2 season, and if you have any questions about how talented they are (or how envious other teams are of their talent), witness the post-cutdown raiding by other teams of their roster. Six players they cut were picked up by other clubs, which was by far the highest number from any team. But that doesn't mean they are not without their issues. They are thin at tight end (with two on the roster) and have had a series of injuries the past few weeks. Brian Waters, picked up on Sunday, might be the starting right guard a week later. We also don't know what they have in Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth and whether the new 4-3-heavier scheme will reverse what was a pretty bad third-down defense a year ago. You might say the Dolphins are a perfect opening opponent, with their QB questions, OL concerns and a general funk around the team. But they are feisty defensively, typically play the Patriots tough in Miami (last year's special-teams debacle aside) and should be fired up for this showcase game.