After a long offseason marred by arrests and an ongoing concussion controversy, the new NFL season is finally upon us. It all begins with a must-watch matchup of Peyton Manning and the Broncos against Joe Flacco and the defending-champion Ravens on Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. ET. But of course, there's far more to this season than opening night. Here are seven storylines to watch for the next 17 glorious weeks.
1. Will Adrian Peterson break the single-season rushing record?
Last year, Peterson came within eight yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's record for most rushing yards in a season (2,105), and he did it less than 12 months after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee. Can Peterson finish what he started in 2012 and break Dickerson's mark? Working in his favor: He'll face a schedule no tougher against the run than the Vikings' slate last year. Working against him: His quarterback, Christian Ponder, is an inaccurate passer whom defenses don't have to respect. With Peterson's nearly record-breaking campaign in mind, defensive coordinators will be stacking the box against him, forcing him to earn every single yard. Still, it will be incredibly exciting to watch one of the greatest running backs in modern history in the prime of his career.
2. Can Sean Payton's return lead the Saints back to the playoffs?
Most Saints fans would like to forget 2012. With head coach Sean Payton suspended for the year for New Orleans' bounty scandal, the Saints stumbled to a 7-9 record (their worst finish since 2007), and fielded a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in every major statistical category. Payton's return is good news for his quarterback, Drew Brees, who's looking for his third consecutive season of 5,000 yards or more. But New Orleans has a hard hill to climb for playoff contention. The team's receiving corps is arguably the worst it's been during Payton's tenure, and aside from swapping Steve Spagnuolo for professional werewolf impersonator Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator, the defense received few substantive upgrades in its personnel. Shoot-outs will be the name of the game in the Big Easy.
3. How will the Patriots' offense fare?
Tom Brady had an almost unfair array of pass-catching options last season: The sure-handed Wes Welker, the incredible tight-end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the able veteran Brandon Lloyd. Fast forward to New England's opener against Buffalo this year, and all four will be elsewhere: Welker is now in Denver catching passes from Peyton Manning, Gronkowski will be on the sidelines after offseason back surgery, Lloyd was released, and Hernandez… well, his offseason problems are well-documented. In their stead, Brady will have a pair of undrafted rookies in Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld, plus 2013 draftees Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, to go with ex-Ram Danny Amendola, who was added in free agency. It's a big downgrade from last year, and how Brady builds chemistry with his new options — and how the rookies adjust to the NFL — will go a long way toward determining whether the Patriots, the most consistently excellent team of the last decade, will once again be Super Bowl contenders.
4. Can last year's sensational rookie quarterbacks keep it going in year two?
The 2012 season saw four rookie quarterbacks — Washington's Robert Griffin III, Seattle's Russell Wilson, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick — wow the league by taking their teams to the postseason (not to mention a solid season from Miami rookie QB Ryan Tannehill). The quartet of Griffin, Wilson, Luck, and Kaepernick now face sky-high expectations, especially Kaepernick and Wilson, whose teams are in Super Bowl contention. The Redskins need Griffin to come back strong from a knee injury suffered in the team's playoff loss to Seattle; Kaepernick will have to work with a depleted receiving corps; Wilson will face defenses more keyed in to his running potential; and Luck will have to counterbalance a weak Colts defense to repeat last season's success. Even Tannehill will face increased scrutiny after the Dolphins' big offseason spending spree.
5. Will defenses figure out how to stop the read-option offense?
Speaking of Griffin, Kaepernick, and Wilson: Their success as mobile quarterbacks has pushed a number of teams toward employing a read-option offense, keeping defenses off-balance by employing more misdirection and quarterback runs. New Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who ran the read-option offense to frightening perfection at the University of Oregon, will try to do the same with Michael Vick in Philadelphia. Defensive coordinators spent the summer concocting new schemes and drilling players on stopping the read-option. If they can slow it down, it could severely impact the offenses of Washington, Seattle, San Francisco, and others.
6. How good will the NFC West be?
The NFC West, long derided as football's weakest division, turned brutally good last year, thanks to Seattle and San Francisco, which both became fearsome competitors by employing tenacious defenses and lightning-fast quarterbacks. The Seahawks and 49ers remain two of the league's best teams, but the division's other two squads, the Rams and Cardinals, have taken steps forward, too. St. Louis has bolstered its offense, particularly with its first-round pick, wide receiver Tavon Austin. Arizona, meanwhile, will boast a starting-caliber quarterback for the first time in what feels like ages, as Carson Palmer will line up under center in the desert.
7. Who will win the Jadeveon Clowney/Teddy Bridgewater sweepstakes?
Of course, not every team will feature fun players, playoff hopes, or even competent play. In particular, the Raiders, Jets, Jaguars, Lions, and Panthers will spend the season in a race to the bottom. But for the teams that land the first or second picks in next year's draft, the rewards are massive: University of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and University of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Bridgewater and Clowney are considered as can't-miss as college players get, and as of now, the favorites have to be Oakland and New York. The Raiders have arguably the league's worst offensive line, one of its worst starting quarterbacks, its weakest group of pass-catchers, and a defense that couldn't stop a college team last season. The Jets, meanwhile, will almost certainly finish at the bottom of the league in total offense. Which way either team goes depends on the play of its quarterback: In Oakland, Terrelle Pryor has likely just this season to show that he's still the top talent he was at Ohio State, and in New York, Geno Smith will face the fun task of winning over the Jets' fans and the New York media with almost no weapons at his disposal.