With the lockout over and the NFL season in full swing here are the top story lines to watch this year as I see it.
1) Green Bay Packers: Will the Super Bowl champions become the first team to successfully defend their title since the New England Patriots in 2004 and 2005? The Packers return most of their starting roster from their championship run, with one hitch — they are actually healthy. One of the hallmarks of last year’s team was their perseverance through a wicked string of major injuries.
2) The Peyton Manning saga: The four-time MVP is out indefinitely after his third neck surgery. The last time the Indianapolis Colts developed a quarterback was 1998, a quarterback named Peyton Manning. Get the picture here? The Colts are in trouble. They will try to patch together the season with back up Curtis Painter and the recently retired Kerry Collins who they pulled off the couch. Also is this the beginning of the end for one of the greatest players of all time?
3) Three’s company: The Denver Broncos quarterback situation is a complete mess. After unsuccessfuly trying to trade the neck bearded Kyle Orton, they decided to hold onto the former Chicago Bears quarterback as their starter. That left last year’s first round draft pick Tim Tebow in a battle with former Cleveland Browns bust Brady Quinn for the back up job. Quinn won out, relegating Tebow to third string status. But that didn’t stop the Broncos fans from chanting Tebow’s name during their Week 1 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
4) Miami Heat V2.0: After the Philadelphia Eagles signed top free agent prize, cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, fellow Eagles signing defensive end Jason Babin declared the Eagles the “The Miami Heat of the NFL”. Eagles quarterback and dog-fight kingpin Michael Vick called the Eagles a “Dream Team”. But will they choke like the Heat did?
5) Michael Vick: The Play Station quarterback showed the world that it was possible for him to not only rebound from his jail sentence for dog fighting, but that he could be even better than when he was the disgruntled face of the Atlanta Falcons where he was the sport’s highest paid player. How did the Eagles reward Vick, who bumped Kevin Kolb from the starter’s job last season? They handed him a six year contract extension that could pay Vick as much as $100-million.
6) The New New England Patriots: The Patriots haven’t won the Super Bowl since 2005. Quarterback Tom Brady is now 34. The window is starting to close on the Pats if they want to add another championship with this group of players. In attempt to invigorate those chances they added defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth who was a flop in Washington for two years after inking a $100-million deal with the Redskins, and former pro bowl receiver Chad Ochocinco. Both of them are reclemation projects at this point, but they have had great success with reclaimation projects of the past like Randy Moss and Corey Dillion.
7) The J-E-T-S: Is this the year the Jets — the red headed step child of the New York football scene — get over the hump? They have lost the AFC Championship game the last two years and bombastic head coach Rex Ryan has once again proclaimed them to be on target for a Super Bowl title this season. To take this next step they are going to have to see quarterback Mark Sanchez — the, ahem, “Sanchize” — go to the next level in his progression. It’s the third year of his development and it is arguably the biggest year of his career. He has all the charisma in the world, but he needs to lead and play at a consistently high level.
8) The curse of the runner up: Being the Super Bowl runner up hasn’t been good news of late. Seven of the last eight have missed the playoffs altogether the following year. Not a good omen for the Pittsburgh Steelers. An even worse sign was the shellacking they suffered at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. In the ultra competitive AFC, they have their work cut out for them if they want to end the trend.
9) Lions Pride: The Detroit Lions have been rebuilding for 65 years, but for the first time in generations there is legitimate optimism surrounding the Lions. They have one of the top defensive lines in all of football, an improving secondary and one of the best receivers in the sport. Their hopes, it seems, all rest on the wing of quarterback Drew Stafford. The uber-talented gunslinger has also been injury prone and has yet to complete a season off of the IR.
10) Bear down: The Chicago Bears won their division last year. Won 11 games. Made it to the NFC Championship game. Have one of the best defences in the game. And are in one of the NFL’s biggest markets. Yet they can’t get no respect. Understandably their offence is much maligned, but they showed in a Week 1 domination of the Atlanta Falcons that they are starting to hit their stride in Make Martz’s offence. Now the key will be for quarterback Jay Cutler to continue to prove the critics wrong.