There are several intriguing storylines to follow during the first Sunday of the 2012 campaign. Much of the attention will focus on Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, but those aren't the only players worth monitoring this weekend.
Here are five key matchups to follow in Week 1:
1) Brandon Weeden vs. Eagles' pass rush
The Cleveland Browns have developed one of the NFL's better offensive lines, keyed by left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. However, this unit will be facing an enormous challenge against the explosive pass rushers of the Philadelphia Eagles. These two teams met in the third preseason game, and the Eagles were able to generate a lot of pressure on Weeden.
The Eagles' front didn't just get to the Browns' rookie signal-caller, they knocked the ball out of his hands on two different occasions. For Cleveland to have a chance this Sunday, Weeden must protect the football when defenders bear down on him. I guarantee the Eagles will be instructed to slap, pull or punch the ball out of Weeden's hands every single time they get within arm's reach of the Browns' green QB.
2) Jake Locker vs. Bill Belichick
Locker will make his first NFL regular-season start against arguably the most brilliant defensive mind in NFL history. How's that for a challenge? Facing Belichick, Locker can expect to see a multitude of different looks and pressures in this contest.
The New England Patriots likely will put a lot of bodies near the line of scrimmage to slow down Chris Johnson and the Tennessee Titans' running game. I also anticipate New England's defensive ends rushing wide to keep Locker from getting outside and creating plays with his legs. Early on in this game, Locker must prove he can make accurate throws down the field from inside the pocket. If not, the Patriots will smother the Titans at the line of scrimmage.
The Buffalo Bills aggressively addressed their pass-rush issues in the offseason by signing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. Those two join one of the top defensive tackle tandems in the NFL; Kyle Williams has been one of the most underrated players in the league, while Marcell Dareus has superstar potential.
This talented front four will be going up against a New York Jets offensive line that has come under increasing scrutiny during the preseason. After seeing their quarterbacks consistently harassed, the Jets decided to make a change at right tackle. They traded Wayne Hunter to the St. Louis Rams and inserted Austin Howard into the starting lineup. He will definitely have his hands full in this contest.
4) Doug Martin vs. Luke Kuechly
The five rookie quarterbacks who will start this weekend will grab a lot of attention, but this game might feature the best rookie matchup of the weekend. Doug Martin won the starting running back job for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after an excellent preseason. He is a very similar player to Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice. Martin is quick, powerful and decisive as a runner, while also excelling as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Kuechly is my preseason pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The ninth overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft has the speed, toughness and instincts to consistently get to the football and make plays. Kuechly is an outstanding coverage linebacker and also a very good open-field tackler for the Carolina Panthers. The winner of this individual matchup will be instrumental in deciding which team pulls out a victory in this NFC South battle.
5) Larry Fitzgerald vs. Seahawks' cornerbacks
Fitzgerald is the Arizona Cardinals' offense. In order for them to win this divisional game, he will need to get the better of two of the NFL's biggest and most physical cornerbacks. Both Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman are tall, long and aggressive press corners for the Seattle Seahawks.
Browner and Sherman can maul most wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, but Fitzgerald is nearly impossible to disrupt in his release. His combination of foot quickness and upper-body strength allows him to cleanly escape press coverage on a consistent basis. The Cardinals will give Fitzgerald at least a half dozen chances on deep balls in this game. He must corral three or four of them for this Arizona offense to generate enough points to win the game.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.