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Steelers-Broncos, 49ers-Packers stand out among Week 1 games

The optimism that permeates training camps is still going strong. It's that feeling that your team is just a little bit better than experts think.

No one has played a game yet. All 32 teams are even, and everyone has a chance. It won't last for long -- the season kicks off Wednesday night when the Dallas Cowboys visit the New York Giants -- but it's loud and clear now.

It is most certainly coach-speak, but teams are 0-0, which makes this week's slate all the more enticing. From the same-old, same-old Super Bowl champions to the New York Jets' circus/Tebowmania to Peyton Manning's new home in Denver to a New Orleans Saints team playing with an interim to the interim coach ... and on and on.

The offseason that wouldn't end is about to be over, and all that's left is an endless number of entertaining storylines. Oh, and there are six new head coaches debuting. It all adds up to a lot of time spent rededicating yourself to a sport that has finally returned. It's been too long.

Here is your Week 1 primer, with games ranked in order of intrigue, from 1 to 16:

    • Dallas at New York

      Wed 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 1:

      No one played a more consequential regular-season game last year, with the Giants abruptly ending the Cowboys' season in Week 17 before moonwalking to another Super Bowl title. The distinct paths of these two rivals were stunning. Now they meet again in a nationally televised divisional game, with both teams dying to make a smashing first impression. And hey, it means football is back!
    • What to watch:

      The Cowboys debut a new secondary featuring two of the top corners available this offseason: rookie Morris Claiborne and free agent Brandon Carr. They weren't added with the sole purpose of stopping the Giants' receivers, but they are exactly what Dallas needs to cover Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Co. As for the Giants, check out how much pressure they apply on quarterback Tony Romo. Of course, the G-Men always attack the passer, but will the added responsibility of having to stop the run-happy Cowboys slow them down?
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Pittsburgh at Denver

      Sun 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 2:

      Even without that new quarterback in Denver, this would be a great game, watching Ben Roethlisberger take on a rabid Broncos pass rush. But yes, it's Peyton Manning's Mile-High debut that really takes this contest to another stratosphere. The long-time Indianapolis Colts star is back after sitting out a season, and all those questions from the preseason -- Can he take a hit? Does he still have the necessary arm strength? -- will be answered. Finally, we can really see for ourselves. The training wheels come off.
    • What to watch:

      We already covered the biggest thing. How does Manning look in a new uniform, with a new offense, in a new reality? The fact that Peyton's debut comes against a vicious defense will only make it more telling. But Pittsburgh has plenty of storylines to follow, too. Do they run the ball 40 times under new offensive coordinator Todd Haley? Is Mike Wallace ready to roll after a lengthy contract dispute? His ability to stretch the field impacts the entire offense.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • San Francisco at Green Bay

      Sun 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 3:

      Two of the NFC's superpowers rumble in this opener, and one will lose. After that, it's tough to figure when either team will drop another game. The Packers bulldozed their way through the regular season last year, and nothing has changed. As for the Niners, they addressed their most glaring weakness by stocking up on receivers, and one of them only pays with straight cash (homey). Who wouldn't tune in for the return of Randy Moss?
    • What to watch:

      This clash of styles will completely seduce football nerds, a group that I'll admit I belong to. The tough-as-nails, nasty Niners vs. the high-flying, pass-heavy Packers. Can a defense built to stop the run clamp down on an offense that often seems disinterested in running? Not if Green Bay can block San Francisco up front. When the 49ers have the ball, it'll be our first chance to see how quickly quarterback Alex Smith can get acclimated with a whole new crop of receivers in what should be an improved offense.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Buffalo at New York

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 4:

      Tim Tebow. Is that not enough? The subject of countless New York tabloid back pages and the topic of nearly every press conference involving any member of the Jets, Tebow has owned this offseason. He's the Wildcat quarterback in a secretive scheme that Gang Green apparently created and won't share. Also, a bunch of other stuff. But mostly Tebow.
    • What to watch:

      Tim Tebow again. OK, you want more than Tebow? How about what should be a seriously stout Jets defense, one that reminds us why Rex Ryan was hired in the first place? And how about a Bills defensive line that could challenge the Giants and Eagles to be the game's best? The Patriots are the class of the AFC East, but who is No. 2?
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Washington at New Orleans

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 5:

      The Saints play their first game after an offseason filled with bounty-related drama, and every hit they make on defense will be scrutinized. New Orleans fans don't want to hear that, but it's true. It will take more than one game to push that scandal to the backs of our minds. For Redskins fans, though, this game would be noteworthy regardless of the opponent. All eyes will be on Robert Griffin III, who makes his highly anticipated regular-season debut.
    • What to watch:

      One look to the sidelines will tell us a big story: The Saints are playing without a head coach ... or an interim coach. A season-long suspension forces Sean Payton to watch the Saints on TV every week, while Joe Vitt must do the same for the first six games. Will we be able to see a difference? New Orleans worked hard to make the transition seamless -- with offensive line coach Aaron Kromer taking on head-coaching duties for the first six contests -- but is that possible? For Washington, the coolest thing will be seeing the team employ designed QB runs like those that RG3 used at Baylor. Mike Shanahan, suddenly flexible.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • New England at Tennessee

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 6:

      Jake Locker won a highly publicized quarterback battle with Matt Hasselbeck, just edging out the veteran. Now the Titans are his team. But can the athletic passer keep it that way? He'll be tested immediately by last year's AFC Super Bowl representatives, who boast a retooled defense that has been shored up on the back end. It'll be interesting to see how quickly the Pats can make us forget about the leaky unit from last year.
    • What to watch:

      Bill Belichick has made a living toying with the confidence of young quarterbacks, and it will be no surprise when he pulls something out of his bag of tricks for Locker. The second-year Titans signal-caller will be a bundle of nerves, and Belichick will likely disguise defenses to prevent him from settling in. However, the fact that Locker can rely on the speedy Chris Johnson should give him some comfort.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Cincinnati at Baltimore

      Mon 7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 7:

      As with the Giants-Cowboys matchup, the level of emotion should make this game hard-hitting and fun. It's like that when Baltimore plays anyone, but it will be even more so against Cincinnati. The Bengals were a playoff team last year, and they are young and talented. But are they real enough to take down the Ravens? This kind of win would make the world stand up and notice.
    • What to watch:

      Two things stand out in this one. Pass-rusher extraordinaire Terrell Suggs is out indefinitely, and it's still unclear where Baltimore's quarterback pressure will come from. Rookie Courtney Upshaw is learning, and few would be able to replicate Suggs' production, anyway. How will the Ravens attack? And if they aren't in quarterback Andy Dalton's lap, can they cover receiver A.J. Green? That's a tall task for anyone.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Atlanta at Kansas City

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 8:

      There's nothing very sexy about this game. It's not a matchup of rivals, and there isn't a ton of overwhelming star power (though there might be, after Julio Jones is done). Instead, this will just be a really good contest. A tough, fundamentally sound defense will take on Matt Ryan's well-rounded offense, which is still searching for just a little bit more. Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel has a big opportunity to start his official tenure off right.
    • What to watch:

      The receivers. With all due respect to Matt Cassel and Ryan, this one is all about the dudes who catch the football. Jones and Roddy White comprise one of the NFL's best tag teams, while Jon Baldwin and Dwayne Bowe are K.C.'s odd couple. Both teams can run the ball, but an interested observer might hope they don't. That will give us more time to see if these receivers can go get it.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Jacksonville at Minnesota

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 9:

      This one should come with an asterisk. Because if longtime Jaguars holdout Maurice Jones-Drew and rehabbing Vikings star Adrian Peterson touch the ball fewer than 10 times each, this could be quite a pedestrian game. If they do figure prominently, however, it will be worth zooming in on. Jones-Drew says he's in shape and ready, but he could be a glorified third-down back this week. Peterson is trying to make a triumphant return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, but his true status won't be determined until game time.
    • What to watch:

      Coaches have been noticing how hesitant Peterson's been on that knee, and they hope he lets loose eventually. As for the overarching Jaguars storyline, the development of quarterback Blaine Gabbert is worth checking out. He looked timid and lost as a rookie. But as a sophomore in the preseason, he's looked like a new and confident man. Did coach Mike Mularkey really work some magic?
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Indianapolis at Chicago

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 10:

      The preseason gave us a scary-good look at Andrew Luck, as the first overall pick of the 2012 NFL Draft was doing a spot-on Peyton Manning impersonation. The way he played in the preseason opener was just stunning. But opposing defenses only play about two coverages in preseason games, so let's not prepare Luck's bust in Canton quite yet. It will be fun to watch his debut, but if Luck's picking Julius Peppers off his back, he might not see it the same way.
    • What to watch:

      Indianapolis' offensive cohesiveness will be evident early, unless there isn't any. If that's the case, things will come apart quickly for Luck and an under-talented Colts roster. We should know early on how ready Luck is. But the Bears' offense should be more than capable of matching any fireworks Luck presents. Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall are staging their grand reunion, hoping to rekindle the fires they set in Denver. If they connect like they did in old times, look out. As far as Chicago's defense goes, will Brian Urlacher play, and can he be his old self?
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • San Diego at Oakland

      Mon 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 11:

      This one features the two AFC West teams nobody seems very interested in. They aren't Manning and the Broncos. And they aren't everyone's sleeper pick, the Chiefs. These are just two teams trying to emerge from the depths of mediocrity to regain their once-proud status. Is that melodramatic enough? Two teams trying to win again.
    • What to watch:

      You could do worse than watching Darren McFadden run the heck out of the football for the Raiders. When he's healthy -- and he is at the moment -- there are few players more exciting. The Chargers, on the other hand, had a rough offseason, complete with injuries and more injuries. Ryan Mathews had a stellar, sunshine-filled offseason showing ... right until his first preseason carry, when he broke his clavicle. Follow that up with Vincent Brown, San Diego's impressive second-year receiver, breaking his ankle, and you begin to ponder the obvious: Can Philip Rivers do it all by himself?
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Carolina at Tampa Bay

      Sun 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 12:

      This game really should be more highly ranked, but the other two teams in the NFC South are still relegated to B-side status. For now. We'll watch with interest to see whether Cam Newton can avoid a sophomore slump. He'll begin that challenge against an intriguing Bucs team that could be a surprise success in 2012. They have restocked with talent, like free agent Vincent Jackson, and new coach Greg Schiano has brought fundamentals to the forefront. Tampa Bay has come a long way in a short time.
    • What to watch:

      Newton is always great to watch, primarily because he does things most passers aren't capable of. But all eyes will also be on the Panthers D. Assuming Jon Beason is healthy, how much improvement can defensive-minded coach Ron Rivera coax out of this unit? Carolina's defenders don't face an easy task, and not just because no one can really cover Jackson. It's also because Bucs rookie running back Doug Martin has drawn rave reviews.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Philadelphia at Cleveland

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 13:

      This game bears watching, just because the Eagles are something to behold. But the contest might not be competitive. Trent Richardson could hobble onto the field and tote the rock, but if Cleveland falls behind by two touchdowns, how important will the rookie running back be? This one could be over in a hurry if Philly is as intense as it seemed in the preseason.
    • What to watch:

      Keep an eye on that Michael Vick dude. If he's healthy, this won't be close. Vick is a magnet for eyeballs even while he seems to repel defenders. This also marks the debut of Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. Good luck against the Eagles' pass-rush, rook. You'll need it.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • St. Louis at Detroit

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 14:

      From a football standpoint, this is another matchup that should be ranked higher. The Lions' receivers matching up against a completely redone St. Louis secondary could be interesting. But the Rams simply don't have enough star power to push this contest up the list. Not to mention the fact that if Detroit jumps out to a big lead, the Rams will have to climb a mountain to come back.
    • What to watch:

      An under-the-radar storyline out of St. Louis is how different quarterback Sam Bradford looks these days. Gone are the lengthy, loopy seven-step drops. Instead, Bradford is unloading the ball quickly, threatening to return to the form he showed as a promising rookie. It's just unclear if he has the supporting cast at receiver. On the other side, just watch Megatron. He'll entertain you.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Seattle at Arizona

      Sun 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 15:

      This contest could come down to the wire, but it might not be pretty. Arizona starter John Skelton won his job by being the lesser of two evils. And while Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson was infinitely more impressive than Skelton in the preseason, he doesn't have the firmest grasp on his starting spot, either. Both quarterbacks will have backups waiting in the wings should they falter.
    • What to watch:

      The quarterbacks. Watch and see if they can lead an offense. It's not just about throwing for Skelton and Wilson, but keeping their units on the field. With Marshawn Lynch reportedly battling back spasms, that task might get tougher for Wilson. On the Cardinals side, it's about more than trying to get Larry Fitzgerald the ball. Budding star running back Ryan Williams looks healthy again.
    • Watch: Game Preview
    • Miami at Houston

      Sun 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS Get Tickets
    • Why this game is No. 16:

      It might get ugly for Miami. And it might get ugly for Miami in a hurry. Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill is making his first start, and the poor dude has to do it against Houston's pass rush. Considering how efficient and productive Matt Schaub is, Tannehill might find himself having to throw and throw some more, which will only hurt his chances of escaping unscathed.
    • What to watch:

      Lost in Houston's magical 2011 season was the fact that Schaub didn't take the Texans home. He's back after a foot injury that ended his season in Week 10, and that's a significant boost for a playoff-caliber team. Schaub hopes to be his ol' self, and that means finding Andre Johnson when he's open. He's usually open. Oh yeah, and Houston also boasts one of the NFL's best backfield duos in Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Which facet of the Texans' offense will Miami try to stop?
    • Watch: Game Preview

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