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Fifty things to watch in 2015: Must-see games, hot trends, more

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Deflategate swallowed the NFL offseason whole, pushing everything else -- Darrelle Revis' return to the Jets, the development of Jameis Winston, even Robert Griffin III's incredible plummet down Washington's quarterback depth chart -- to the margins of conversation. The league's appeal of the decision to vacate Tom Brady's suspension probably won't be decided until next year.

Until then, thankfully, the drama shifts away from the courtroom and onto the field for a season that will conclude in the Bay Area with the 50th installment of the Super Bowl. The end of off-field battles and a focus on football? That would, indeed, be golden.

Here are 50 things to watch as the league prepares to go back to Cali:

THE GAMES

1) Tennessee Titans at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sept. 13: History suggests either Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston will fail. Here's their first chance to buck the trend.

2) Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles, Sept. 20: The DeMarco Murray Bowl. Is the Cowboys' offensive line really so good that anybody can run behind it? Will Murray make everyone in Philadelphia forget LeSean McCoy? Is Chip Kelly or Jerry Jones the kookier character?

3) Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers, Sept. 20: Cover your eyes, Packers fans. The run-up to this game will include lots of excruciating replays.

4) New England Patriots at Indianapolis Colts, Oct. 18: Get your air-pressure valves ready! Imagine people will be keeping a close eye on the whereabouts of the footballs before this game.

5) New York Jets at New England Patriots, Oct. 25: Darrelle Revis made a pit stop in New England just long enough to win a Super Bowl. He returns to try to torment Tom Brady the way he did last season in practice.

6) Green Bay Packers at Denver Broncos, Nov. 1: There was a time when the NFL didn't play on a Sunday night opposite the World Series. Now, the league schedules a blockbuster game featuring two of the greatest quarterbacks in history.

7) New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, Nov. 29: Seen enough of the Brady-Manning rivalry? You won't feel that way when they're both gone.

8) New York Jets at New York Giants, Dec. 6: Darrelle Revis on Odell Beckham Jr. You're welcome.

9) Philadelphia Eagles at New England Patriots, Dec. 6: Rare is the game when the guys in headsets are the headliners. But when the two most innovative and compelling coaches in the NFL try to outthink each other, we'll watch.

10) Buffalo Bills at Philadelphia Eagles, Dec. 13: The LeSean McCoy Bowl. By this time, we should also have a good indication as to whether Kelly is a madman or a mad genius.

11) Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers, Dec. 13: Maybe, by this time, we'll understand what a catch is.

THE TRENDS

12) Do schedule inequalities show up in the won-loss record? A study by University at Buffalo engineers showed that teams that have more rest than the opponents they are facing -- if they are coming off a bye week or a Thursday night game -- have up to a 2.5-point advantage over their regular-rest opponents. That's potentially bad news for Washington, which has five games against opponents who will have extra rest this season, the most in the league.

13) Can the wave of big comebacks possibly continue -- and what does it say about how offense and defense are being played? Last year, there were five comeback victories of at least 21 points, the most in a single season in history. There were also 43 comeback wins of at least 10 points, tied for the most in history.

14) Which teams make the playoffs this season after being also-rans in 2014? Five teams made the playoffs last year after missing out in 2013. And since the 12-team playoff field was adopted in 1990, at least four teams have qualified every season that were not in the previous year. The smart money for one: the Philadelphia Eagles.

15) Will the golden age of quarterbacking show any sign of dimming? Last year, a record 807 touchdown passes were thrown. In 2011, the number was 745. An NFL-record nine quarterbacks had at least 30 touchdown passes last season, obliterating the previous high of five quarterbacks with that many scoring strikes.

16) Over the last four seasons, tight ends have rewritten the record book for the position, posting the four best years in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches. Last year, four tight ends -- Antonio Gates, Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas and Jimmy Graham -- caught at least 10 touchdown passes, the most tight ends with at least 10 TD grabs in a single season in history. Gates and Gronkowski became the first tight ends in history with 10 or more touchdown receptions in four different seasons, surpassing Tony Gonzalez, who had three such seasons.

17) Forget the dink-and-dunk game -- the big-play passing attack is in vogue again. Last season, the league-wide yards-per-pass-attempt was 7.21, the highest in the Super Bowl era. The result: games averaged 473.6 net passing yards, an all-time high.

THE MOST IMPORTANT OFF-FIELD STORY IN RECENT MEMORY

18) Before the Super Bowl kicks off, the NFL almost certainly will have decided which team (or teams) will move to Los Angeles in 2016 after a two-decade league absence in the city. The maneuvering in the meantime, though, will be fascinating, touching not just on the potential money-making abilities of the Rams, Raiders and Chargers, but on the personal relationships among owners that drive so many NFL decisions. For now, it appears the joint project between the Chargers and Raiders for Carson, California, has as much support as the Inglewood project proposed by Rams owner Stan Kroenke, but there's plenty of behind-closed-doors deal-making (and possible shotgun marriages) to be made. The league will hold a critical meeting in October, and the expectation is that a vote to approve relocation will be held in December or January.

THE RULES TO LEARN

19) Give your placekicker a hug. His job got a lot more treacherous with the NFL's attempt to make the extra point more interesting by making it a 33-yard kick (and with the defense now able to return a blocked kick, interception or fumble for two points). Yes, kickers have made 94 percent of 33-yard kicks over the last three seasons, and in the preseason, they made 93.3 percent of the extra points. But even Adam Vinatieri predicts at least a few games will be decided by a missed extra point this season, probably later in the season and in bad-weather situations.

Every game, all season

20) The intended receiver of a pass following an interception or potential interception is now viewed as a defenseless player, and hits to his head or neck area -- or hits that use the crown or hairline parts of the helmet -- will draw a 15-yard penalty that will be enforced after the change of possession.

21) After all the skirmishes during joint practices this summer, keep an eye on the league's point of emphasis on fighting. Even aggressive behavior when pulling opponents out of the scrum surrounding a loose ball can be penalized 15 yards.

THE PEOPLE TO WATCH

22) In a new offense, in the twilight of his career, Peyton Manning is poised to set the mark for all-time passing yards sometime in the first half of the season. Manning needs 2,148 yards to eclipse Brett Favre, who holds the current record at 71,838.

23) Johnny Manziel's recent bout with elbow tendinitis has stalled a comeback that got interesting when he completed 10 of 18 passes for 118 yards and a touchdown against the Bills in the preseason. Josh McCown is the Browns' starter for Week 1, but with no money sign and no inflatable swan, Manziel's career reboot might not be far off.

24) Speaking of career reboots, Houston pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney also gets one -- with J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork beside him -- after an injury-plagued rookie season.

25) Will the departure of coordinator Dan Quinn to Atlanta or the contract holdout of safety Kam Chancellor end Seattle's extraordinary defensive run? The Seahawks are one of only three teams in NFL history to lead the league in points allowed in three consecutive seasons -- and the first since the Minnesota Vikings did it from 1969 to 1971.

26) The post-Jim Harbaugh era in San Francisco began with perhaps the most turbulent offseason in NFL history, replete with surprise retirements, run-ins with the law, veteran departures and suspensions. And it's not going to get any easier for new head coach Jim Tomsula. The 49ers have the third-hardest strength of schedule this season, with nine games against teams that made the playoffs in 2014. They also will travel more than any other team -- 27,912 miles, nearly 1,300 miles more than anyone else.

27) Does the elevator video of his domestic-violence incident, combined with his advancing age, make Ray Rice too radioactive even for teams desperate for a running back?

28) And does Adrian Peterson, off the field for almost all of last season in the wake of child-abuse charges, regain his form in Minnesota even without right tackle Phil Loadholt (torn Achilles' tendon) to block for him?

29) Peterson didn't go to Dallas -- as many speculated he would -- but the Cowboys' offensive line is so good it might be able to make Darren McFadden, Christine Michael and Joseph Randle look like Peterson. Or DeMarco Murray.

30) There are lots of questions about the Colts' offensive line, but not about the ageless Frank Gore, who, at 32, will finally give Andrew Luck some run support.

31) Once Geno Smith's jaw is in one piece again, can he get the Jets' starting quarterback job back -- and can he get any locker-room respect?

32) A backfield with Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson? Darrell Bevell should never call a goal-line pass again.

33) Enjoy Ravens receiver Steve Smith Sr. -- his play, his mouth, his chip-bearing shoulder -- as long as you can. He has announced that this will be his last season, and we're going to have to ice up to recover.

34) Can either Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett get enough points out of Houston's offense without Arian Foster (at the beginning of the season) or Andre Johnson (the entire season)?

35) When will Jason Pierre-Paul return to the field for the Giants -- and will his play ever be the same after he lost his finger in a fireworks accident?

36) Chip Kelly didn't think Tim Tebow was good enough to be the third quarterback, two years after Bill Belichick couldn't find a role for him. So will Tebow play football again in any league?

37) Kelly didn't think Nick Foles provided Super Bowl-level quarterback play. Now Foles has to flourish without Kelly's system, but with the support of St. Louis' staggering defensive line.

38) Is there already trouble in Buffalo, where the surprising release of running back Fred Jackson might strain the relationship between general manager Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan?

39) Belichick has had six months to reconfigure his secondary since losing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner in free agency. Can his defense be as good without them?

40) Philip Rivers got a huge contract extension, but a possible move to Los Angeles could create instability for the Chargers anyway.

41) The post-Dick LeBeau, post-Troy Polamalu era begins in Pittsburgh with a new-look defense that struggled in the preseason but will get plenty of help from the Steelers' explosive offense.

42) Is Derek Carr-to-Amari Cooper the next great quarterback-to-receiver hookup in the Bay Area?

43) What will Odell Beckham Jr. do for an encore when he has Victor Cruz to take away some of the attention of the Giants' opponents?

44) Whither Robert Griffin III, so great as a rookie, so lost three years later. Will he ever start in Washington again? Will he ever start anywhere again?

45) Now that the Chiefs and Alex Smith have Jeremy Maclin, we can resurrect a little-used stat category for them: receiver touchdowns.

46) Can Adam Gase salvage Jay Cutler in Chicago?

47) How much will the loss of Kelvin Benjamin affect Cam Newton and damage the Carolina Panthers' chances of winning the NFC South for a third straight year?

48) Ndamukong Suh got a mammoth contract from the Miami Dolphins. Is the push he gives the defensive line enough to push the Dolphins over .500 for the first time since 2008?

49) Sarah Thomas is the first woman to be a full-time game official in the NFL, as a line judge in referee Pete Morelli's crew. Take a moment to notice how you're not going to notice at all.

50) The next victims of Deflategate? The defensive backs who will try to contain Tom Brady. Something tells me he has a lot of frustration to unleash.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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