Another NFL season is here, so expect the unexpected.
Take the Bubble Wrap off Adrian Peterson and tell Johnny Football to holster that finger and find a seat. The NFL’s 95th regular season is about to begin.
Seattle’s defense of Super Bowl XLVIII begins Thursday night at home against Green Bay. The Seahawks are the logical league favorite, and the Packers should win a fourth consecutive NFC North title considering the third one came while going 2-5-1 without Aaron Rodgers.
Of course, standing between those two cities and their realistic goals are 30 other teams, 16 games and a weekly reminder that the NFL’s popularity is based primarily on very little going as planned. Except the Patriots quietly winning the AFC East while Jets coach Rex Ryan applies hammer to thumb through more drama at quarterback.
If the yellow blizzard this preseason is any indication, referees will be looking to open up the passing game even more with defensive holding and illegal contact penalties. Apparently, breaking a 65-year-old record for average points per game — 46.8, up from 46.5 in 1948 — is only the beginning since this league’s popularity also is rooted in grown men counting points in a fantasy land and then oversharing with the rest of us.
Speaking of scoring, the window of opportunity remains cracked for the Broncos’ record-setting offense and 38-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning. The latter threw a record 55 touchdown passes a year ago. Fifty-six if you count the one he threw to Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith in a 43-8 Super Bowl loss that made Broncos boss John Elway remember that there’s another side of the ball.
Denver forked over $60 million in guaranteed money, including $26 million to former Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. New England coach Bill Belichick saw Elway’s Talib and raised the pot with Darrelle Revis at one year and $12 million.
The arms race — or anti-arms race — between last year’s AFC Championship Game participants will hit the field Nov. 2 at New England. It will be the 16th meeting between Manning and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Brady holds a 10-5 advantage but lost the most recent meeting, 26-16 in last year’s AFC title game.
In the NFC, the Super Bowl still goes through the West. The 49ers are a popular choice to win their first Super Bowl in 20 years (yeah, it’s been that long). But their ability to keep pace with a Seahawks team that remains amazingly intact and reach a third consecutive conference championship will be tested. The league’s best defensive front seven will be without injured inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman for at least six games and suspended outside linebacker Aldon Smith for nine games.
Smith’s nine-game suspension — four for substance abuse and five for personal conduct — comes at a time when Commissioner Roger Goodell is desperately trying to clean up the league’s image with harsher penalties for drunken driving, domestic abuse and weapons-related incidents. He’s also trying to establish a more logical message after taking a public relations uppercut when Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, last year’s league leader in receiving yards, was suspended for at least 16 games for substance abuse while Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended only two games for spousal abuse.
On the field, Goodell also is striving for a more respectful environment after Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s excessive taunting of 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree at the end of the NFC title game shined a big-stage light the growing ugliness of arrogance.
Referees will be less tolerant of taunting and racial comments on the field. And, yeah, Goodell has to be squirming at the contradiction that presents as Redskins owner Daniel Snyder digs his heels in against mounting pressure to change his team’s 81-year-old nickname.
Like anything that happens on the field, who the heck knows how that one will play out. As for on the field, we’ll throw a few things at the wall Sept. 3 and assume they won’t be sticking come Feb. 1 in Glendale, Ariz.
In the AFC, the Patriots will earn the top seed and beat the Broncos in the conference title game. In the NFC, the Packers will have the best record, but the No. 4 seed Eagles will be the team that gets hot at the right time and beats the Saints to reach the Super Bowl, where they’ll lose to the Patriots 31-24.
Amount of money where mouth is: $0.0.