Pivotal times for NFL

Peyton Manning looks on against the Oakland Raiders during an NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County...

Peyton Manning looks on against the Oakland Raiders during an NFL game at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 26, 2010 in Oakland, California. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images/AFP)

MIKE RUTSEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:44 PM ET

The curtain opens on the National Football League season Thursday night at the home of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.

Despite all the hype and pomp that the NFL will bring to the game against the New Orleans Saints, the focus of attention has already shifted to Sunday’s game in Houston where the Texans will be playing host to the Indianapolis Colts.

The question on everybody’s mind today, and to the days leading up to the Colts game, is will Peyton Manning be in uniform and be starting for Indianapolis?

Neck surgery performed in May is still on the mend, putting Manning’s starting date in severe jeopardy.

The Colts are lighting candles and crossing their fingers, but all reports are leaning heavily towards the fact that Manning will miss his first game since he opened the 1998 season — a run of 208 consecutive starts.

If Manning can’t go, veteran Kerry Collins will be in charge and the drop in talent from the one to the other is such a chasm that it need not be explained.

Without Manning, the Colts go from being a playoff contender to just another team — and perhaps a bad one at that.

Cliches, such as the following, are already rolling out of the Colts locker room.

“If anything, we want to go out there and step it up,” veteran Colts safety Antoine Bethea said of what the loss of Manning would mean. “Of course, it will be different (without Manning), but it’s one of those things that if it happens, everybody else has to step up. It’s next man up.”

Actually, it’s more like over and out.

Manning’s loss would not only throw a wrench into the AFC South, but it would have playoff implications for any number of teams that are potentially wild-card bound.

The opening of the season usually signals whiffs of hope and promise from a significant number of locales, beginning of course with the defending champion Green Bay Packers.

There hasn’t been a repeat Super Bowl winner since the New England Patriots accomplished the trick in the 2004 and ’05 seasons, but this year the Packers have as good a chance as any of the recent defending champs.

To begin with, in no way was last season a career year for any of their premier players, nor was it one of those flukes where everything rolled their way.

In fact, thanks to the large number of injuries they sustained, the Packers faced an uphill climb all season long and squeaked into the playoffs by their chinny-chin-chin thanks to a 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears in the final game of the regular season.

From there, they had to win out on the road, beating the Eagles, Atlanta and the Bears again before they outlasted the Steelers 31-25 in Dallas.

This season, they have their health and are the heavy favourites to win their division, be in the running for a top seed and force other teams to play in the frigid weather that Green Bay embraces in January.

That’s as good a road as any that will lead to Indianapolis where the Colts won’t be playing come Feb. 5 in Super Bowl XLVI.

Of course, there are some NFC teams that will be more than willing to kick the Packers to the curb and place the crown atop their heads.

There is the ‘Dream Team’ in Philadelphia and we’re not talking about the Phillies and their marvelous pitching staff here, folks.

Thanks to knucklehead backup quarterback Vince Young, who moved over to Philly from the starting job at Tennessee and, upon his arrival, deemed his new employers the ‘Dream Team’, the Eagles will have an added layer of pressure mounted atop what may be the most talented team in the land.

Led by Michael Vick and his new $100-million US contract, plus all-world cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, the top prize among all free agents, the Eagles would seem to be a formidable foe, indeed.

The Eagles this season have gone ‘all in’ and, if they don’t at least make it to Indianapolis in January, much less win the Super Bowl, their season will be looked at as a failure.

While Manning will be nursing his injured neck, a host of young quarterbacks will be thrust into roles they most likely will not be ready for.

It wasn’t that long ago that a team would draft a hot-shot QB and then have him carry a clipboard and learn at the feet of a grizzled vet for a few years before taking control of the reins.

But those days seem to be as dead and out of fashion as discos.

Cam Newton was the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft, a big strapping lad from Auburn who orchestrated a spread offence and ran with the ball more than he threw it.

The sad-sack Carolina Panthers, who were 2-14 last year amid dwindling attendance and interest, have decided to make Newton their starting quarterback, despite the fact that he’s about as capable of doing the job at this point in time as he is performing a brain operation.

The Panthers may ruin the kid but in Carolina, there’s no time like the present.

Same holds true in Cincinnati where the Bengals have handed the job to Andy Dalton of Texas Christian due largely to Carson Palmer’s decision to be a no-show after the Bungles refused to trade him.

Dalton also looks like he’ll be thrown to the wolves.

Other rookie quarterbacks who could take over in the not-too-distant future include Blaine Gabbert in Jacksonville and Christian Ponder in Minnesota.

Part of the reason for this new trend to go with the young and untested is the dearth of quality quarterbacks in the league.

Why settle for mediocrity when the fans want to see their local production of A Star is Born.

In St. Louis, Sam Bradford pulled off the feat last year to much applause while, in Cleveland, Colt McCoy got the job halfway through the season and is now being looked at like the second coming of Bernie Kosar.

Each year brings with it a shocking surprise or two and last year that happened to be the Kansas City Chiefs, who went from the dumpster to the penthouse.

This year’s phoenix-like rise figures to occur in Detroit where the lowly Lions are on the cusp of respectability and have an outside shot of making the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. Make no mistake, they will be tough.

On the other side of the coin, there are teams that were perennial powers that flamed out last season for one reason or another and now figure to be back in the picture. The poster boys for this group can be found in both Dallas and San Diego.

But, perhaps the best news of the day, with the season just hours away, is the fact there is no Brett Favre sighting.

And for that, we can all be thankful. We’ve been there, done that and got the T-shirt.


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