Gridiron season beckons

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Photo: Reuters
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Photo: Reuters
The biggest sports league in America — perhaps the globe — resumes this weekend. Sports editor Hayden Meikle casts his eye over the National Football League ahead of the opening game.

Five storylines

1. Covid-19

Yes, the NFL — like all sports that have resumed in the shadow of the pandemic — is very much concerned with keeping things humming. It managed to get through the 2020 campaign without a single cancelled game, but did cram them in and forced teams to play on with several players sidelined with the bug. The big issue this year is vaccination, and there seem to be a few "questioners" in the NFL ranks. Boot ’em out, I say.

2. Fans

Trump’s handling of Covid was laughably awful but the US has since moved quickly to get vaccinations rolling. All 32 NFL teams will be allowed full stadiums. For Rams fans, like this bloke, that means getting to see what the extraordinary SoFi stadium in Los Angeles looks like full for the first time.

3. Aaron Rodgers

The Green Bay Packers quarterback is a superstar, the reigning MVP. But he was in a state of open war with his team’s management for months over what he perceived to be a series of poor decisions. It will be interesting to see how the drama affects the team on the field.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Photo: Reuters
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Photo: Reuters
4. Belichick and Brady

Big questions for the architects of the (ugh) long New England Patriots dynasty.

Can coach Bill Belichick prevent the Pats sliding into oblivion as they enter a second season without the man some consider the greatest quarterback in NFL history?

Can Brady, obviously running on some special juice, lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a second straight Super Bowl win at the ridiculous age of 44?

5. No 17

More is better?

The NFL has introduced a 17th regular-season game. Great for the fans, but some fear it will lead to more injuries, as well as players being rested for dead games.

Five teams to watch

1. Buffalo Bills

Such a great name, and such a tortured past. The Bills famously made four straight Super Bowls and lost them all. They they missed the playoffs for a record 17 straight seasons. But the Bills pack more of a punch these days, and are led by rising superstar quarterback Josh Allen. Now is a great time to become a Buffalo fan.

2. Indianapolis Colts

A bit of a wildcard pick, this one. The Colts haven’t made much noise since the days of the legendary Peyton Manning but could be decent this season. And they have the player with the coolest name: cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.

3. Cleveland Browns

The Browns are a second-favourite team for a lot of people. Loveable losers for a long time, they now look stacked and capable of going far this season.

4. Dallas Cowboys

"America’s team", and economically the most valuable of all the professional franchises — estimated at $US5.7billion, according to Forbes magazine. You will always get drama with the Cowboys. They will have a decent season if quarterback Dak Prescott fires.

5. New Orleans Saints

The great Drew Brees has retired, and the Saints are having to temporarily relocate, thanks to Hurricane Ida. There will huge interest in how quarterback Jameis Winston, once labelled a bust, guides this team.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Photo: Getty Images
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Photo: Getty Images
Five players to watch

1. Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs)

The Kansas City QB is the best player in the league.

2. Davante Adams (Packers)

The brilliant wide receiver just keeps getting better.

3. Derrick Henry (Titans)

Jonah Lomu in a helmet. The running back is unstoppable at times.

4. Derwin James (Chargers)

The defensive star will be hoping to stay injury-free this season.

5. Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), Mac Jones (Patriots), Justin Fields (Bears) and Zach Wilson (Jets)

There is a lot of buzz around the crop of rookie quarterbacks. Lawrence was the No1 draft pick, who had an extraordinary college career, Jones is seen as the next Tom Brady, and part-Hawaiian Wilson looks a real talent. But the best of them all might turn out to be Fields.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Photo: Reuters
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Photo: Reuters
Who will win

The Bills, Bucs, Browns, 49ers and my beloved Rams will be in the mix.

But it will be a Chiefs-Packers Super Bowl.

The Chiefs will return to the big dance for a third straight year and avenge last year’s loss to the Bucs.

Or, if you want another prediction, look at ESPN’s grandly titled Football Power Index.

It ran 20,000 simulations of the season to determine the Bills would beat the Packers.

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