Are you ready for some football? The National Football League returns tonight in Seattle as the Green Bay Packers take on the defending Super Bowl Champions, the Seattle Seahawks (we’ll have a prediction later on). Let’s take a look at some of the biggest storylines entering this season.
Major NFL suspensions have been in the news in recent months, suspensions for key, star players to be specific. First of all, Ray Rice will be missing the first two games of the season for Baltimore (against both the Bengals and Steelers at home) to serve a suspension for domestic violence. There was major public outcry for the suspension only being two games (even though in this specific, unusual case there was a lot that went into that decision), so much outcry in fact that Commissioner Roger Goodell came out and said he made a mistake by handing out just a two game ban. Subsequently, the NFL instituted a new policy for domestic violence cases, with a first offense being a six game suspension and a second offense being an indefinite one. We already have someone who has fallen into this program, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who is currently appealing the suspension. Ray Rice, in the wake of a bad 2013 season and a horrible off-season, has become the catalyst for major policy reform in the NFL.
Drug suspensions have also been in the news lately, specifically suspensions for Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon and Denver Broncos wide out Wes Welker. Gordon was suspended for a year for yet another failed drug test. It has been argued to death whether or not the league should suspend players for testing positive for marijuana, but the fact of the matter is that Gordon broke the rules and is getting suspended, it’s as simple as that (however, the NFL is now considering raising the limit for the amount of marijuana in a player’s system counting as a failed test.) The biggest problem with the Gordon suspension is the fact that his positive test was known of in December, yet the result of the appeal was not announced until right before the start of the season. This is a major issue that cannot be continued in the NFL; leaving a team and a player in the lurch like that is not a responsible practice whatsoever. The Welker suspension is a somewhat stranger one, as his came as a surprise to many. Welker tested positive for amphetamines (landing him a four game suspension), allegedly from taking Molly while at the Kentucky Derby. Welker has vehemently denied that he took ecstasy or any drug, but the suspension stands. Interestingly enough, in a turn of events similar to the Gordon case, the league is discussing the removal of amphetamines from the list of performance enhancing drugs.
There are a few rookies around the league who are going to be making an impact immediately as the season starts off. Johnny Manziel of course has been all over the sports media this off-season, but he is not starting week one this season; in fact, no quarterbacks drafted in the first round will be starting the opener this season. There will be a rookie starting though, in Oakland: second round pick Derek Carr (brother of former #1 overall pick David Carr). Carr beat out Matt Schaub for the starting job in Oakland, a team that is looking for a spark this year. For the Packers, with the loss of last year’s center (Evan Dietrich-Smith) to free agency and likely starter JC Tretter going down with an injury, rookie Corey Linsley, a fifth rounder, will be snapping the ball to Aaron Rodgers. A fun fact about Linsley and Rodgers: tonight will be the first time that the rookie ever snaps a ball to Rodgers. Don’t forget about the #1 overall pick this year, Jadeveon Clowney, who will debut this weekend for the Houston Texans, on the same defensive line as arguably the best defensive player in the league, JJ Watt. Clowney was under the microscope all season at South Carolina in 2013, and he will be for his performance again this year. But people need to realize something: if Clowney has just mediocre statistics but eats up blockers and allows JJ Watt and the rest of the line to perform better, he will have had a very successful season.
The Seahawks are defending champions, but in the era of free agency it is very difficult to repeat as Super Bowl Champions (the last team to do it was the Patriots in the 2003 and 2004 seasons). One thing that does benefit the Seahawks is the fact that they lost very few key players, the most notable player being Golden Tate, who is now with Detroit. The Legion of Boom is still together, lead by their loud-mouthed and well-paid corner back Richard Sherman. As good as Seattle is, however, other teams really improved over this off-season, including the team they blew out in the Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos. They still have Peyton Manning at the helm, and even though the lost Eric Decker, the receiving corps still has Demaryius and Julius Thomas, as well as Wes Welker (eventually), and they added Emmanuel Sanders and rookie Cody Latimer from Indiana, who had a very solid preseason. Denver stacked up on defense as well, adding DeMarcus Ware as another pass rusher opposite Von Miller, and the secondary has also been strengthened thanks to the additions of TJ Ward, Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby. The Packers aren’t out of the mix, they still have the best QB in the game and a high-powered offense, as well as a seemingly improved defense. The Patriots can never be counted out as long as they still have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Drew Brees and the Saints, along with their underrated defense, have a shot to make it. In the NFC, you can make an argument for any of the 16 teams to make the playoffs, and we all know that once you reach the playoffs anything can happen. The gist of this is not to simply list off all of the good teams in the NFL, but rather to say that as good as Seattle is, and while they’re the favorites at this point, it is highly unlikely that they will repeat. The parity is too strong in the NFL for a repeat to happen in today’s game, barring extreme circumstances. The Seahawks are very good, but there are enough teams in the league that they will have to overcome all odds to repeat as champions.
But the Seahawks are still a contender, that is for sure. They have arguably the best defense in the league, a top-tier running back and a good quarterback who knows how to win games. They are kicking off the season tonight against another team that has a legitimate shot at the Super Bowl, the Green Bay Packers. The Packers defense is going to be the X-factor in this game. The stellar defense of Seattle and the tenacious offense of Green Bay will be fairly evenly matched throughout the night, however the Packers have to be able to stop the Seattle offense. The Packers defense should be improved, what with the addition of Haha Clinton-Dix through the draft to strengthen the secondary and of Julius Peppers to add a second pass rushing threat (in addition to Clay Matthews), but they need to put it in action. All of this being said, I am taking the Packers. I believe in the defense, that the secondary will play better, aided by an improved pass rush. Plus, I will never pick against Aaron Rodgers as long as he is starting. He is the best quarterback in the league (read into my personal bias as much as you want, but right now I’ll take Rodgers over Manning or Brady), and in fact his career stats for Thursday night games are better than his career averages (Rodgers averages approximately 274 passing yards per game for his career, with a completion percentage of 65.8 and passer rating of 104.9). Seattle’s defense is going to have their hands full with the Packers. Yes, Denver had a record-breaking offense and they were stifled by Seattle, but this is an entirely different animal. It’s going to be close, but I will not pick against Rodgers. Packers win 31-27.
The wait has been long an arduous, but football is finally back.