NFL season preview

The Patriots and Saints will both be looking to make repeat appearances in the NFL playoffs. Photo / AP
The Patriots and Saints will both be looking to make repeat appearances in the NFL playoffs. Photo / AP

The 93rd NFL season kicks off today when defending champions the New York Giants host division rivals Dallas Cowboys. nzherald.co.nz's Cameron McMillan looks at the key talking points this season.

Bounty bounce-back?
The New Orleans Saints head into the season handicapped by heavy sanctions following the bounty scandal that dominated the off-season headlines. How they perform without head coach Sean Payton and key members of their defence will make fascinating viewing.

The NFL cracked down hard on the franchise after receiving evidence that bonuses, aka bounties, were allegedly handed out during the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons for such acts as knocking out opposition quarterbacks. The Saints' players and coaches flatly deny the charges and are seeking an injunction but it looks like the suspensions will stand.

It means Payton has been suspended for the entire 2012 season, general manger Mickey Loomis is out for eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six.

Meanwhile players didn't escape punishment either with linebacker and three time Pro Bowler Jonathan Vilma also suspended for the entire season and defensive end Will Smith set to miss the opening four games*.

The sanctions don't hurt their offence however which will once again be led by quarterback Drew Brees who finished last year with the single-season passing yard record and 46 touchdowns. The Saints are still a chance to reach the playoffs for a fourth straight season - and doing so without a head coach would be remarkable.

It probably won't be the last you will hear of dangerous play sanctions this season. With continuing pressure on the NFL to deal with concussions and its links to brain damage the league will continue to crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits throughout the season.

Replacement referees
The NFL is a big money business. All 32 teams rank in Forbes Magazine's top 50 most valuable sporting clubs and the referees are currently wanting their piece of the money pie. After narrowly avoiding a loss of games last season due to a player lockout - the NFL looks set to begin the season with replacement referees with the regular officials on strike after failure to reach a new labour agreement with the league.

The replacement referees took charge of the pre-season matches and have been under a watchful eye from both teams and fans with some buckling under the pressure.

According to SI.com's Peter King the league and the referees are fighting over $4m a year. Chump change really when all the teams in the NFL generated a revenue of around $US8.3 billion combined in 2010.

So expect more dodgy calls than the Black Caps' test series in India if no deal is reached. It may be a matter of time before a mistake affects a result which will put more pressure on a deal to be completed.

Denver put their neck on the line
As a Colts fan who owns a Manning Indianapolis shirt it's going to be weird seeing the four-time MVP behind centre for another team. The Colts released Manning, who had played 13 seasons with the club, after he missed the entire 2011 season following his fourth neck surgery.

The Colts finished with a 2-14 record and cleaned up shop by ditching Manning, coach Jim Caldwell, general manager Bill Polian and almost every offensive skill position player after missing the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.

Denver have taken a punt on the 36-year-old, paying him a five-year contract worth $US96 million, but which Manning will turn up is the key question. On the surface it may seem he doesn't have the same weapons to throw to as he did at Indy such as Reggie Wayne but young wide receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas have potential and tight end Jacob Tamme, who was a second-string TE at the Colts, will provide familiarity.

In a weak AFC West Manning could find the form that has put him in conversations as the greatest quarterback ever - or equally fail to get back his arm strength and leave Broncos fans wishing they still had Tim Tebow.

Rookie watch
Same as every year in the NFL, there will be lots of pressure on men who were only in college last year to turn around a franchise within a matter of a few weeks.

This year look out for former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck whose job is to replace Manning's legacy at the Colts. There is similar pressure on former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III who the Washington Redskins traded up to get in the draft - giving up an unprecedented three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to the Rams. Both are promising quarterbacks who have the potential to become greats.

Other rookies to keep an eye on: Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden, who is old for a rookie at 28, after he tried his luck at baseball before heading to college, Browns running back Trent Richardson who impressed for NCAA champions Alabama (one of eight Crimson Tide players drafted this year), Ryan Tannehill who is set to be handed the poisoned chalice which is the Dolphins starting quarterback spot and New Zealander Rhett Ellison who was drafted in the fourth round by the Vikings - although unfortunately a knee injury suffered in the pre-season could hamper the tight-end's season.

Green Bay ahead of the Pack?
The Green Bay Packers, who won a fourth Super Bowl title two years ago, head into the season as strong favourites to take out the NFC title. Four of the nine experts at SI.com are picking Green Bay to make the Super Bowl while four of seven experts at ESPN.com are predicting the same.

They lost just one game during the regular season last year before being stunned by eventual Super Bowl winners New York in the divisional playoffs. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is expected to have another strong year with a handful of options down field in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and last year's standout Jordy Nelson. They remain weak on defense however with hopes on first-round pick Nick Perry to help pick up the slack alongside Clay Matthews after the side gave up the most yards per game in the league in 2011.

Other candidates to take out the NFC title are last year's surprise package the 49ers (opposite to the Packers with strong defence over offense), the Lions (who will battle the Packers for the NFC North division title) the Saints and all four teams in the NFC East.

The Eagles were favoured last year with the impressive Michael Vick and a strong corner back duo of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie but finished 8-8 to miss the playoff. The addition of DeMeco Ryans from the Texans at middle linebacker boosts the defense even more and if Vick stays healthy they are my pick to give the Packers a run for the NFC title.

If the Saints fail to fire look for the Falcons to benefit the most from the bounty sanctions with some serious downfield threats for Matt Ryan in Julio Jones and Roddy White.

Same old AFC
The usual suspects are expected to dominate in the AFC with the Patriots, Steelers and Ravens all set for repeat trips to the playoffs. All three have made the playoffs at least seven times since 2000 and in that time have been the AFC's Super Bowl representitive on nine occassions winning six titles between them. There aren't any major changes across the three franchises and are admittingly getting older but they should all be there or thereabouts come January.

The Texans claimed the AFC South last year from the Colts and could have made their Super Bowl debut if it hadn't been for injuries towards the end of the season that saw them start third string quarterback TJ Yates in the playoffs. They have lost former number one draft pick Mario Williams to the Bills but should still top a weak division that features the Jaguars, Titans and Colts.

The AFC West is anyone's guess. Neither of the Broncos, Chargers, Raiders or Chiefs won more than eight games last year with Denver progressing to the playoffs despite having a for and against of -81.

Surprise package
Every season 4-5 teams make the playoffs that didn't the previous season so it's time to go out on a limb a pick some teams to make the leap this year.

Eagles: Just missed out last year. Should reach the potential promised in 2011.
Panthers: Cam Newton led them to six wins during his impressive rookie season last year. Should get even better.
Seahawks: Another weak division where 9-7 could claim a playoff spot. Yes it was only the pre-season but rookie QB Russell Wilson looked capable of leading the Seahawks on the back of some solid defense.
Redskins: Sticking with the rookie QB theme - RGIII. Like the AFC North last year three teams could make the playoffs in the NFC East if other divisions are so one-sided.
Bears: If any team is to take a backward step from last year It's the Lions which would open up an NFC wildcard spot for the division rival Chicago to sneak in and take.

Superbowl pick

Ravens over Eagles.

Defense wins championships which should be more true since the league has become so reliant on quarterbacks. The Ravens defense is looking old (Ray Lewis 37, Ed Reed 33) but Lardarius Webb had a breakthrough season in 2011 and the inclusion of Alabama's Courtney Upshaw could be the pick of the draft considering he fell to the late second round and could slot in for the injured Terrell Suggs if he can beat Albert McClellan for a starting role.

I would like to pick the Packers but that would be too easy so I'm saying they suffer another upset in the playoffs - this time at the hands of Michael Vick and the Eagles.

*Linebacker Scott Fujita was also suspended for three games but that won't hurt the Saints as he joined the Cleveland Browns in 2010, so will have to miss the start of the season for a side already expecting to struggle. Former defensive end Anthony Hargrove has also been suspended for eight games but he has failed to get a regular starting role since leaving the Saints in 2010.

- HERALD ONLINE

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