It has been 186 days since the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, putting to bed the 2010 NFL season. A long 186 days filled with labor strife, boring press conferences and, occasionally, a random CFL game on the NFL Network.
The summer nightmare ends Thursday night with a quintet of games kicking off the preseason schedule. So, without further ado, a quick primer for the first set of 2011 games:
Ravens at Eagles: This is going to be your first test, as a fan of the NFL, to avoid putting too much stock into what happens in the preseason. If the Eagles' defense, debuting Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie among others on Thursday night, stops the Ravens on their first possession or two, it does not mean Philadelphia will pitch a season-long shutout.
And likewise, if Baltimore scores early, try to avoid assuming the Eagles are doomed.
Beyond all that, though, keep an eye on the Ravens' offense -- namely who's going to catch passes with Derrick Mason gone and how the offensive line looks. The O-line's an issue for Philly too, which has questions at right tackle and right guard.
Jaguars at Patriots: Jacksonville brings the most intriguing issue into this one, as rookie QB Blaine Gabbert gets the starting nod. It'll be interesting to see how long the Jaguars allow their prized prospect to play -- and also how much they turn him loose in his first NFL action.
We may not see the New England debut of Albert Haynesworth, who's been in and out of practice this week. But we should get a first look at Chad Ochocinco in a Patriots uniform. Neither he nor Tom Brady figure to be on the field for that long, but don't be surprised if Brady tries to find his new receiver at least once.
Pete Carroll's already named Tarvaris Jackson his Week 1 starter. It'll still be interesting to see how Jackson's adjusting to Seattle after running out of chances in Minnesota. One factor helping his transition is the presence of ex-Vikings teammate Sidney Rice at wide receiver.
On the other side of the ball, the focus is on defense. San Diego wants to see how first-round pick Corey Liuget fits in at defensive end, and at least one starting spot at linebacker is up for grabs.
No one's really sure exactly where Tebow stands in Denver at the moment, but it's looking like Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn could start the year as the team's top two QBs. Tebow needs to take advantage of his preseason chances to prove himself, either to the Broncos or another team that might try to pry him loose.
Dallas has flown under the radar in the NFC East this offseason, but Tony Romo's return Thursday is worth watching. The Cowboys need a healthy Romo to compete in the NFC East.
This time, it's new Arizona QB Kevin Kolb, who cost the Cardinals Rodgers-Cromartie, a draft pick and about $64 million dollars. Behind him and the rest of Arizona's quarterbacks, the running back battle between Ryan Williams and Beanie Wells will certainly be a point of focus in this one. Hue Jackson makes his debut as Oakland's head coach, taking over for Tom Cable after one season as offensive coordinator. The long-downtrodden franchise finally showed signs of life under Cable last season, finishing 8-8, so Raider Nation won't happily accept a step back.