NFL preview: So many questions, so few answers

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning warms up prior to a pre-season match against the Bears at...

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning warms up prior to a pre-season match against the Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill., Aug. 9, 2012. (JOHN GRESS/Reuters)

JOHN KRYK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:52 PM ET

Peyton. Concussions. Bounty-gate. Arrests. Suspensions. Luck. RG3. Lawsuits. Holdouts. Union strife. Mega-contracts for Megatron, Mario and Brees.

And Tebow. All the time, Tim Tebow.

The NFL's seven-month off-season was so jammed with news, isn't it a relief that games -- real games! -- finally are here again? Even if it means we ain't seen nothin' yet regarding the media monster the Jets created: Tebow-saurus Rex.

The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants play host to the Dallas Cowboys Wednesday night to kick things off.

The other 30 teams debut Sunday or Monday.

Here are 10 storylines that will garner as much attention any other, now that man's inhumanity to cowhide gloriously takes over our Sundays until Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3 in New Orleans:

1. Peyton Manning.

On our last episode of Peyton Manning Plays in the NFL, which aired Jan. 8, 2011, the future Hall of Fame quarterback had this stat line for the Indianapolis Colts, in a last-second 17-16 playoff loss to the Jets: 18-of-26, for 225 yards, one TD and zero interceptions against a stout New York defence.

Twenty months, four neck surgeries and a change of scenery later, Manning returns to the NFL Sunday night in a prime-time tilt with his new team, the Denver Broncos, against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.

Is Manning fully healed? Can he still make all the throws? Can his neck hold up to the hits? Can he be the Peyton of old, or just an old Peyton?

Nobody's sure. Probably not even him.

The TV networks are banking on him succeeding. The Broncos play only four of their 16 games in the earliest Sunday time slot, compared to five times in prime time -- twice on a Sunday, twice on a Monday and once on a Thursday.

2. The Saints.

Fate sure has a sense of humour. A team named the Saints was found guilty of engaging in quite unsaintly behaviour the past few seasons, if you believe the NFL's findings.

The dangling carrot of large cash bonuses if New Orleans defenders knocked out opposing stars brought unprecedentedly harsh punishments. For those still with the team: Head coach Sean Payton is suspended for the year; his interim replacement, assistant coach Joe Vitt, will miss the first six games; GM Mickey Loomis is gone until Nov. 11; LB Jonathan Vilma is banned for the year; and DE Will Smith sits out the first four games.

Vilma, Smith, Brees and other Saints principals have sworn under oath before a judge that no such pay-to-injure bounty program existed. And they're livid.

No one knows how all this will affect the Saints on the field in 2012.

Will Payton's absence hurt the offence more than many realize? Will the distractions prematurely exhaust the squad's focus and mental energies?

Perhaps fate's last laugh: New Orleans hosts the Super Bowl this year. From that city's perspective, how fitting would it be for the Saints to stick it to the commissioner by accepting the Lombardi Trophy from him and suspending it (get it?) high above their home turf?

3. Replacement refs.

Looks like the season will start with replacement officials temping for the league's full-time zebras, who are locked out.

Attempts on Labour Day weekend by the league and the officials' union to strike a deal provided hope, then walk-aways, then finger-pointing. Ugh.

By any measure, the replacements in preseason games were, at best, laughably awful and, at worst, infuriatingly incompetent.

Most coaches and players have bitten their tongues after all the game-affecting wrong and missed calls in the preseason.

Can you imagine the stink that would follow a blown game-deciding call, particularly for those teams opening against a division arch-rival this weekend? Especially involving a big-market team? Like New York?

The longer the lockout lingers, the bigger the mess the NFL will have on its hands.

4. Newbie QBs.

Almost a third of the league's starting quarterbacks just concluded their first off-season practice program.

Ten are either rookies or second-year men, the latter of whom never got the chance to work with their teams before training camp last year, because of the players lockout.

Five rookies will start on Sunday: Andrew Luck (Colts), Robert Griffin III (Redskins), Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins), Brandon Weeden (Browns) and Russell Wilson (Seahawks). Five second-year QBs will start too, including Cam Newton (Panthers).

As well, at least five rookies or second-year QBs are second-stringers.

Expect some low-scoring games to start the season.

5. Tebow-saurus Rex

It's a monsta! And it's going to eat us all alive! Run for the hills!

The power has been disconnected to the electronic protective fence at the New York Jets' version of Jurassic Park. Unwittingly or not, owner Woody Johnson, GM Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan have unleashed quite the giant, media-chewing reptile onto the sports world.

Tebow-saurus Rex.

If anyone believes the Jets quarterback situation this season is going to end up in anything other than disaster, sooner than later, you can be the first to raise your hand.

We're talking about the NFL's version of He Who Shall Always Be Named, Tim Tebow.

Ryan insists Tebow can help the Jets win. And he might well be right, when they reveal against the visiting Bills on Sunday precisely what second offensive package they've been cooking up for him, and how often we'll see it.

The disaster will come when starting QM Mark Sanchez inevitably screws up to the point where frustrated New Yorkers would rather see Tebow start.

In a traditional NFL offence, Tebow would fail miserably. In some form of wildcat or zone-read, then? He could perhaps reprise his unlikely string of heroics from last year with Denver. But we doubt it.

6. Can the Giants repeat against that schedule?

Head coach Tom Coughlin knows what it takes to follow up a Giants Super Bowl win with a gangbuster start the following season, having led one in 2008.

His defence is even better this time, and QB Eli Manning has more weapons at his disposal on offence.

But that schedule. As we've written before, have you ever seen a more daunting 11-game stretch than the one the Giants end the year with: at San Francisco, vs. Washington, at Dallas, vs. Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati, vs. Green Bay, at Washington on Monday night, vs. New Orleans, at Atlanta, at Baltimore, vs. Philadelphia?

Didn't think so.

7. As the NFC East turns.

Which team will implode first? The Eagles or the Cowboys?

Eagles chairman/CEO Jeffrey Lurie said last week that another 8-8 season won't cut it for longtime head coach Andy Reid. Nor should it. Also, this season might be 32-year-old QB Michael Vick's last chance at holding the reins on a good NFL team. Like Reid, he cannot afford another 2011.

And then there's Dallas. The Cowboys offence could be woeful if the line doesn't improve. At least on the other side of the ball the pass rush seems ferocious, and behind them now are two good corners, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.

The 2012 definition of uncomfortable could well be sitting in owner Jerry Jones' box at games this year.

8. Taking to the air up (NFC) North.

The Detroit Lions might feature the game's most scintillating passing combo in years, with QB Matthew Stafford chuckin' and WR Calvin "Megatron" Johnson catchin'. Near the end zone, they're almost unstoppable on slants and posts. And, really, on any pass route.

Not far behind in aerial-circus wonderment is Green Bay's QB Aaron Rodgers, who has WR Greg Jennings, WR Jordy Nelson and TE Jermichael Finley at his disposal.

Don't sleep on the Bears' reunited duo of QB Jay Cutler and WR Brandon Marshall.

Pity the DBs in that division.

9. Later start for late afternoon games.

Instead of kicking off at 4 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. CT / 2 p.m. MT / 1 p.m. PT, the late-afternoon Sunday games won't kick off until 15 minutes after the hour. All the passing is lengthening games, y'see. Guess that means even more Jim Nantz promos for 60 Minutes.

10. Is excitement about the Bills legit?

Buffalo Bills GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have hitched their wagon to QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR Stevie Johnson, RB Fred Jackson and, especially, to DE Mario Williams, the $100-million free-agent signee.

Most observers remain unconvinced the Bills will contend with the Patriots for the AFC East title. Some remain skeptical the team will even remain in the playoff hunt.

And that's just Bills fans.

john.kryk@sunmedia.ca

@JohnKryk

blogs.canoe.ca/krykslants/


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