We know the New York Yankees are good, that the Big Red Machine is back and that the Dodgers are in court. But with Brett Favre headed to New Orleans on Thursday night, does anybody really care about baseball? "Past"-ime is a great name for that baseball thing because football is all about now, the present and what’s going to happen next. Here are John Czarnecki's 10 critical story lines that figure to shape the NFL’s 91st season.
After missing the playoffs for seven straight seasons, are the 49ers really returning to the January party?
With no Kurt Warner, plus some pivotal defensive stars missing in Arizona, the 49ers are being touted as the next NFC West champ because of linebacker Patrick Willis and a much improved offensive line. Still, you have to wonder whether Alex Smith can really deliver when his two best receivers, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, are fighting in the locker room. Davis didn’t like how Crabtree was nursing a neck sprain, declining to play in two preseason games. Imagine that. There is a lot to like about San Francisco, especially Frank Gore, but right now they are the favorite simply because the Cardinals have such a major quarterback reshuffle. Heck, Max Hall may end up the quarterback in Arizona. Yes, Max Hall.
Do Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have enough around them to face each other in the playoffs again?
Manning definitely does, although his offensive line has had a major shakeup. Brady looked sharp this summer after his horrible playoff performance against the Ravens. Brady, though, has an unhappy Randy Moss, who is in the last year of his contract, and a defense that is very, very young and lacking the customary veteran interchangeable parts. They especially miss the front seven that helped the Patriots reach four Super Bowls in the past decade. No one really believes the Texans or Titans will scare the Colts, who swept those teams last season. Some things never change.
Can Baltimore and Cincinnati really win with passing offenses in the black-and-blue AFC North?
The defense won’t take a back seat to Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco in Cincinnati, but Baltimore has surely put the team on Joe Flacco’s right arm after trading for Anquan Boldin and even adding T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a fading star. Baltimore does have some major injuries on the offensive line and in its secondary, which will put even more pressure on Flacco to score and score. And, believe it or not, nobody really believes T.O. and Ochocinco will undermine and cause the Bengals to self-destruct.
The Vikings and Cowboys are talented, but aren’t the Packers right there?
Green Bay finished last season 7-1 and looked like a world beater once QB Aaron Rodgers figured out that he should throw the ball away instead of taking so many sacks. Also, the coaches corrected a faulty protection scheme. The offensive line should be much improved, the defense will be better against the run and tight end Jermichael Finley already talks like a receiving star. The schedule breaks for them, too, with the first Minnesota game at home the week after the Vikings play the Cowboys.
Will another fast start and an easy division ruin the Chargers for the playoffs?
Well, San Diego opens at Kansas City, hosts Jacksonville, visits Seattle, then heads home to Arizona before road games at Oakland and St. Louis. Smells like 5-1, doesn’t it? No question that Philip Rivers laid an egg in the playoffs against the Jets last season and now he has no Vincent Jackson. But tight end Antonio Gates is finally healthy once again and Ryan Matthews sure doesn’t run like a rookie.
Will Cowboys live up to their hype and have a shot at hosting Super Bowl XLV?
Their schedule is awfully difficult (seven playoff teams from a year ago with a combined .543 winning percentage), so if they do win the mighty NFC East they will be battle-tested for a January run. However, the first-team offense looked bad in preseason, seemingly out of rhythm. But rookie Dez Bryant could be a Showtime player and Wade Phillips has his defense right where he wants it. But to be champs, Tony Romo must play like Roger Staubach or Troy Aikman. Hey, the Giants could have a very good defense and I still like Andy Reid without Donovan McNabb. They could easily not win the rugged NFC East.
With personnel virtually the same, why won’t Saints repeat?
Damn good question. They have a legitimate shot. You have to love the magic that Drew Brees and Sean Payton can create and New Orleans has a great shot at being the No. 1 offense all over again. Brees always seems to find the open man and his receiving corps is deep and talented. The defense will miss Sharper in the first half of the season, but the rest of the secondary is talented with two great cornerbacks in Tracy Porter and Jabari Greer. The schedule isn’t that tough, especially if Carolina and Tampa Bay have down years.
Can Vikings protect Brett Favre and is there still enough magic in his tank?
We all know that the Saints are going to blitz him (even with safety Darren Sharper on the bench) frequently in the Thursday opener, hoping to apply a TKO. Favre has the bad ankle now and no Sidney Rice ... and his best bailout receiver, Percy Harvin, is another migraine away from not playing his best. People in Minnesota have been talking all summer about those five turnovers against the Saints. Otherwise, the Vikings might have been champs. It’s difficult to keep turning back the clock and virtually impossible for Favre to duplicate last season’s ratio of 33 TD passes to only 7 interceptions. Plus, the Packers are saying there's no way he will beat them twice this year. Minnesota can, though, if Adrian Peterson stays healthy and becomes a great third-down back.
Can Steelers stay afloat without Big Ben?
With the game’s best safety in Troy Polamalu back, Pittsburgh will strike fear in opposing quarterbacks once again. The Steelers can strike from any angle. But young Dennis Dixon must produce points in those first four games if Pittsburgh is going to have a playoff chance. Ben Roethlisberger begged for playing time this summer in order to be sharp once he returns against Cleveland on Oct. 17. With no Santonio Holmes, guys like Rashard Mendenhall and Hines Ward have to produce big time.
How will Jets handle the braggadocious hex of Rex Ryan?
Some think that the Jets were pretty fortunate to finish 9-7 last year, considering they beat two teams at the end who were resting players while awaiting the playoffs. But all you heard on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” was how they were one game away from the Super Bowl (which is true) and how great they are, especially now with cornerback Darrelle Revis financially happy once again. You got to love Rex, though, for putting the bullet squarely on his team’s back. You can also bet that teams like New England can’t wait to knock them down a peg or two. Teams will play them like they really won the Super Bowl. — John Czarnecki