Bob Glauber breaks down 10 story lines to keep an eye out for during the 2012 NFL season.
PEYTON MANNING’S RETURN WILL BE WORTH THE WAIT
After missing the entire 2011 season with a neck injury, Peyton Manning is back and in a new uniform in Denver. The former Colts’ great might not be all of what he once was, but he doesn’t have to be. With a defense that was as instrumental in last year’s division title run as Tim Tebow, there’s no telling how far Manning can get the Broncos this season. Good to see him back.
WILL ANYONE FIGURE OUT HOW TO STOP CAM NEWTON?
Not likely. The Panthers’ second-year quarterback accounted for a combined 35 touchdowns passing and rushing last season, and he has matured exponentially from Year 1 to Year 2. The kid’s not only talented, but he’s a terrific leader at the highest level of his sport. It’s going to be fun to watch him again.
THE SAINTS WILL RALLY AROUND BOUNTYGATE
The full-season suspensions of coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma have done plenty to galvanize this team for 2012. The players and coaches have channeled their anger over Roger Goodell’s unprecedented punishment into some intense preparations. With Drew Brees at the helm, the Saints have the talent to make their statement with a playoff run.
LOOK AT ALL THOSE YOUNG QUARTERBACKS
There will be five rookie quarterbacks starting in Week 1, the most in NFL history. And counting rookie and second-year quarterbacks, there will be 10 starters. That’s good for the long-term health of the game, but fans in most of those cities will need some patience. Success does not come overnight.
WORST TO FIRST MIGHT NOT HAPPEN AGAIN
The ultimate indication of NFL parity is that there have been nine straight seasons in which a team has finished last in its division one year and first the next. But will it happen again this year? Tough to see. The contenders: Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Washington, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and St. Louis.
JOE FLACCO WILL BE THIS YEAR’S BREAKOUT QUARTERBACK.
He has come under criticism — even from his own Ravens teammates — for not being good enough to get to the next level. Flacco himself said he believed he was the game’s No. 1 quarterback. And though we won’t go that far, we will say that he’s ready for a year in which he’ll be mentioned with the NFL elite.
THE PACKERS’ DEFENSE IS WORRISOME
Sure, Green Bay is plenty good enough to win the NFC North again, even if the Bears might make things interesting if Jay Cutler stays healthy. But the Packers’ Achilles’ heel is their defense, and they might not have done enough in the offseason to prevent that from being a problem again.
ANDREW LUCK WILL BE THE OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
OK, so that’s not a stretch, considering he was the first overall pick. But even Peyton Manning took his lumps as a rookie. Luck seems as if he’s ready for an excellent year, and with decent weapons around him, the Colts will no doubt surprise a few opponents.
LUKE KUECHLY WILL BE THE DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
The Panthers loved what they saw in this hard-hitting linebacker from Boston College, and he’ll be well worth the first-round investment. Kid already looks like he belongs.
THE GIANTS WILL AVOID THE SUPER BOWL HANGOVER
We haven’t seen repeat Super Bowl champs since the 2003-04 Patriots, but the Giants will give it a run. This is not a team that seems content to rest on last year’s unexpected playoff run. This year, they want to prove they belong once again. A strong regular season will be the best indication that they’ve got a decent shot at a repeat.