NFL Week 1 storylines: Peyton Manning returns, Andrew Luck debuts, more
Technically, Week 1 of the 2012 NFL season began on Wednesday, when the Cowboys knocked off the defending champion Giants. It won't feel like the season is fully underway, though, until Sunday afternoon.
That's when most of the rest of the league gets to fire its opening salvo for 2012. The first weekend of the year concludes with a thrilling Sunday night matchup and a pair of intriguing Monday night games.
The Week 1 storylines ...
• In case you hadn't heard ... Peyton's back
All eyes will be on Denver Sunday night, as Peyton Manning makes his long-awaited regular-season debut for the Broncos. But he does not exactly have a cake walk in Week 1 -- the blitzing, attacking Pittsburgh defense will put Manning to the test right out of the gate.
Pittsburgh's season ended in Denver last year, on a playoff OT touchdown pass by Tim Tebow. Even though Tebow has taken his talents to the Big Apple, the Steelers, coming off an offseason that saw them say farewell to several longtime teammates, would love to earn some revenge.
• Showdown at Lambeau
A potential NFC championship game preview is set for Green Bay, pitting the 49ers and Packers in a clash of styles. The 49ers made it to last year's conference title game by unleashing a dominating defense to compensate a so-so offense; Green Bay finished 15-1 with Aaron Rodgers winging the ball all over the field, while the defense merely tried to hang on.
The winner here will get the early upper edge in the season-long battle for playoff home-field advantage.
• Andrew Luck and RGIII make their debuts
The schedule-makers were not kind to the top two picks from the 2012 draft. Both players, Andrew Luck with the Colts and Robert Griffin III with the Redskins, have to head on the road in Week 1 to take on legit Super Bowl contenders.
Griffin's Redskins draw the New Orleans Saints, who will be itching to prove themselves without Sean Payton patrolling the sideline; Luck's Colts head into Chicago, where a talented offense led by Jay Cutler and an aggressive defense awaits.
If either Luck or Griffin can come away with an upset win, it could signal big things for his team this season. Just keeping it close and finding some things to build on might be more realistic.
• Is the week's best game in Kansas City?
So you want a real dark horse Super Bowl pick? One that really pushes the limits?
Well ... how about Atlanta vs. Kansas City?
The Falcons made the playoffs last year, of course, only to be smoked early by the New York Giants. They could be back better than ever in 2012, thanks to a new commitment to Matt Ryan and an up-tempo, no-huddle offense. The Chiefs, meanwhile, may have made the playoffs out of the mediocre AFC West if not for some disastrous injuries early. Kansas City features a potentially potent RB duo of Peyton Hillis and Jamaal Charles this year, plus coach Romeo Crennel has shed the "interim" tag and taken over full-time.
Both teams have a ton of potential. Only one will be 1-0 on Sunday night.
• Mismatches, mismatches everywhere
The aforementioned Colts-Bears and Redskins-Saints matchups fall under this category too -- on paper, there are a few potential blowouts on Sunday's slate.
Philadelphia at Cleveland is one, though it also stands as an opportunity for Browns rookies Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson (assuming he's healthy) to excite the home fans. St. Louis' trip to Detroit also might get ugly -- the Rams last visit to the Motor City, in 2010, ended with a 44-6 loss. And the worst game of the day might take place in Houston, as the AFC South favorite Texans welcome in a rebuilding Miami team. Another rookie QB, the Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill, makes his debut in that one.
• Titans' chance to make an early statement
If any team is going to challenge the Texans in the AFC south, it looks like it will be the Titans. With Chris Johnson in camp early this season -- as opposed to 2011, when he held out and then suffered the ramifications during a disappointing regular season -- and the offense turned over to Jake Locker, Tennessee has its eyes on a playoff berth.
Knocking off the defending AFC champs would be a nice start. Tennessee welcomes New England in during Sunday's early time slot, and the Patriots will no doubt test the Titans' defense early and often. Can Locker respond and keep pace if Brady finds an early groove?
• Waiting on "Tebow Time"
A lot of people have tabbed the Buffalo Bills as a possible surprise team in the AFC, mostly due to their defensive potential with the arrival of defensive end Mario Williams. On the flip side, just about everyone has written off the Jets as a sideshow in the AFC East. The lingering question there: How much will New York use Tim Tebow?
If things are going well for Rex Ryan's group, the answer might be not much. The Jets have a wildcat package in place for Tebow that they have yet to unveil to the NFL world, but this is still Mark Sanchez's team ... for now.
Still, if the Jets are going to win the game, they will have to do it with defense. They slowed down Buffalo enough to sweep their AFC East foes last year. Buffalo would love nothing more than to turn the tables, starting with a Week 1 road win.
• Any sleeper teams in here?
The Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings are not all that different from each other. Both teams are expected to finish at or near the bottom of their divisions, the Jags in the AFC South and Minnesota in the NFC North; both have second-year quarterbacks (Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder, respectively) with high ceilings but low production thus far; and both feature a strong running game -- Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson may be the NFL's top two backs, and both could be coming off the bench Sunday.
Does either team have enough to sneak up and surprise people in 2012?
A few more under-the-radar clubs take the field in the late slot on Sunday: Carolina at Tampa Bay and Seattle at Arizona.
The Panthers, thanks to Cam Newton, are always dangerous. Can the same be said for Tampa Bay under new head coach Greg Schiano? Rookie QB No. 5, Russell Wilson, will be at the helm for the Seahawks as they visit the desert. Arizona had a tough preseason, but any team with Larry Fitzgerald is a dangerous one.
• An important Monday doubleheader
The traditional Week 1 Monday night doubleheader features a pair of important games that could go a long way toward deciding a couple of division races. In the early game, Cincinnati heads on the road to take on Baltimore in an AFC North clash. Both teams (plus Pittsburgh) made the playoffs out of the division last year. The later contest sees San Diego visit Oakland. Denver has stolen the headlines in the AFC West this offseason, with the Chiefs entering the playoff discussion, too. The Chargers or Raiders could wind up spoiling the party.