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Fifty-one things to watch in 2016 on march to Super Bowl LI

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When Tom Brady decided this summer to stand down and accept his four-game suspension from the NFL for his role in the Deflategate saga, it brought to a conclusion one of the most divisive and inconclusive scandals in memory. After consuming most of two offseasons, Brady's decision finally gave the New England Patriots -- and everyone else, for that matter -- something they desperately needed: certainty over his fate and when he would be allowed to play again.

That means the 2016 season begins with a relatively clean slate. Bitter feelings undoubtedly will linger between players and the league -- see: the NFL's investigation into PED use alleged in a shaky Al Jazeera America report, which last week cleared Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and James Harrison -- but court dates finally have been replaced by game schedules. That won't be the last we hear from Brady, though. It's hard to imagine he won't play a prominent role on the road to Super Bowl LI in Houston.

In honor of the 51st Super Bowl, here are 51 things to watch along the way:

THE MUST-SEE GAMES

1) Carolina Panthers at Denver Broncos, Sept. 8: Incredibly, the first Super Bowl rematch in Week 1 of a season since 1970 -- and our first look at how replacing a legend with ... Trevor Siemian (??) will go.

2) Cleveland Browns at Philadelphia Eagles, Sept. 11: This features two teams in the middle of rebuilding -- but this is also the birth of the Carson Wentz era in Philly and, maybe, the rebirth of Robert Griffin III in Cleveland.

3) New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, Sept. 11: The Giants rebuilt their defense because of all the late-game meltdowns that torpedoed them in 2015. They won't miss seeing injured Cowboys QB Tony Romo (11-9 in his career with 41 touchdowns, 21 picks and a passer rating of 100.7 against the Giants), but rookie Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott and new Giants defensive lineman Damon Harrison will probably get well acquainted.

4) New England Patriots at Arizona Cardinals, Sept. 11: Just what are the Patriots without Tom Brady? We're about to find out, against a Super Bowl contender.

5) Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos, Sept. 18: The Colts have focused on improving their offensive line. What a way to find out if it will work: against the defense that just won Super Bowl 50.

6) Seattle Seahawks at Los Angeles Rams, Sept. 18: Football. IN LOS ANGELES.

7) Houston Texans at New England Patriots, Sept. 22: An early test for the radically made-over Texans offense, particularly new QB Brock Osweiler, who, as Denver's signal caller last season, helped the Broncos beat the Patriots in overtime.

8) Washington Redskins at New York Giants, Sept. 25: The first installment of this season's series of Josh Norman-Odell Beckham Jr. slap fights.

9) Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots, Oct. 2: If the Bills want to take advantage of the opening in the AFC East created by Brady's suspension, they have to strike a blow here.

10) New England Patriots at Cleveland Browns, Oct. 9: Brady is eligible to return from his four-game suspension. Good luck, Browns secondary.

11) New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers, Oct. 23: This is a preview of my projected AFC Championship Game.

12) Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers, Oct. 30: Redux of the 2015 NFC Championship Game -- and perhaps a preview of the 2016 edition, too.

13) Indianapolis Colts at Green Bay Packers, Nov. 6: A rare meeting and an important interconference matchup, sure, but let's enjoy Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers on the same field, too.

14) Seattle Seahawks at New England Patriots, Nov. 13: If it's even half as good as the last time they played -- which might have merely been one of the greatest Super Bowls ever -- this could be the game of the year.

15) Oakland Raiders vs. Houston Texans in Mexico City, Nov. 21: Yes, the NFL is trying to expand its international reach. But could this game also help establish the Raiders as a real playoff threat?

16) Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings, Dec. 1: A showdown of two wounded NFC teams that had much higher hopes before devastating preseason quarterback injuries. Both will have had a chance to adjust to their altered realities by the time this game rolls around -- Tony Romo should be back for the Cowboys, according to the 8-10 week projection, and Sam Bradford should be settled in after the Vikings traded for him last Saturday -- and we'll know if either or both have a playoff shot, anyway.

17) Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs, Dec. 8: The Raiders are a team on the rise, but to cause havoc in the AFC West, they have to win one of their two games against the Chiefs.

18) New England Patriots at Denver Broncos, Dec. 18: No more showdowns between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, but this will be a crucial test, particularly to see if the Patriots' offensive line can hold up against a top pass rush (a weakness that foiled their bid for another Super Bowl last season).

19) Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals, Dec. 18: The start of three straight divisional games for the Steelers, a stretch that will not just determine the division championship, but impact home-field in the AFC playoffs.

20) Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks, Dec. 24: May determine who wins the NFC West.

21) Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers, Dec. 25: A Christmas Day installment of this slugfest of a rivalry is unlikely to showcase goodwill toward man.

THE RELOCATION(S?)

22) The NFL's sometimes quixotic quest to return to Los Angeles after a two-decade absence has finally ended, with the Rams settling (for a few years, while their Inglewood complex is built) at the L.A. Coliseum, which was filled by rapturous fans for preseason games. Before this season ends, we probably will have a much clearer picture of whether the Rams will have company that they surely do not want.

In November, San Diego voters will consider a ballot initiative calling for an increase in hotel taxes to raise $350 million toward the building of a new stadium for the Chargers. The measure needs (as of now) two-thirds of the vote for approval -- a high, high bar. If it fails, it would take an extraordinary development, probably something that would have to be brokered by the NFL, to keep the Chargers in San Diego, where the team certainly would prefer to be. And don't forget the Oakland Raiders, whose open flirtation with Las Vegas has been met by surprising acceptance from some owners.

The decision to allow the Rams to move to Los Angeles was one of the biggest business developments in the NFL in years. There are several more to come.

THE PEOPLE TO WATCH

23) The Buffalo Bills' Kathryn Smith is the first female full-time assistant coach in NFL history. It should not take that long to get the second.

24) Arian Foster is 30 and hasn't played a full season since 2012, but he put a defender on skates with a cut-back touchdown run during his limited preseason action for the Dolphins.

25) It will be difficult to watch former Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler with the Texans and Siemian in Denver this season and not wonder whether John Elway made the right decisions.

26) Jimmy Garoppolo's four-game audition while Tom Brady is out could send his trade value soaring and create an interesting decision for the Patriots after this season: hold on to him for another year as a backup, with Brady approaching 40, or get a good draft pick in a trade.

27) New coach Hue Jackson says the Browns can't just live by the long ball. But can he get Robert Griffin III to run a more efficient offense?

28) Sam Bradford got what he wanted this offseason: a trade to a legitimate contender. So what can he do with the Vikings?

29) We have Week 9 in the pool for when Paxton Lynch becomes the Broncos' next starting quarterback.

30) With the pairing of trade acquisition Martellus Bennett and Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots have the most amusing -- and the most frightening to defensive coordinators -- tandem of tight ends in the NFL.

31) "If you're not in the same jersey as me, I plan to rip you to shreds." Steve Smith Sr. is back from an Achilles tear, and he can never retire.

32) Now ... can Joey Bosa play?

33) Will we finally -- finally -- see the Jadeveon Clowney we were promised at the draft two years ago?

34) After almost two years away, Victor Cruz is back on the field again. Can he stay there long enough to regain the magic he once brought to the Giants' offense?

35) That he played at all last year seems a miracle. Now, Jason Pierre-Paul, who had offseason surgery to improve his grip, has to prove he can be something like the disruptive force he was before a fireworks accident mangled his hand and jeopardized his career -- and that he deserves a long-term contract.

36) On and off the field, Colin Kaepernick will be one of the league's most compelling and unpredictable players. His play is not where it was in the 49ers' Super Bowl year, but more interesting will be how he follows up on his protest against police brutality and racial inequality.

37) The Patriots' offensive line might have cost them another trip to the Super Bowl last season. Dante Scarnecchia, their legendary offensive line coach, is out of retirement to fix it. Losing Sebastian Vollmer to a hip injury will not make it any easier.

38) If things don't work out in Buffalo, Rex and Rob Ryan seem like affable candidates to star in a buddy movie. But the chuckles and weight jokes can't hide the very real pressure on the coaching brothers to finally deliver a playoff appearance by the Bills. If they fall short, the calls for Rex's job will grow even louder.

39) Whither Tony Romo, the brilliant but brittle Cowboys quarterback? With Romo on the shelf until at least the middle of the season, is it conceivable that he never starts for the Cowboys again if rookie Dak Prescott continues to impress with the legs, strong arm and composure he showed in the preseason? Dallas will face interesting decisions when Romo is healthy -- and Romo will, too. How much longer does he want to push his body at age 36?

40) The Rams' Aaron Donald has a lower profile than J.J. Watt or Von Miller, but he has been no less impressive (Donald had 11 sacks last season as a defensive tackle). He will contend for Defensive Player of the Year honors.

41) The Eagles ripped up their Carson Wentz blueprint a week before the season opens, so we'll watch him develop sooner -- starting Sunday -- rather than later.

42) Vikings coach Mike Zimmer won admirers for his raw candor and emotion after Teddy Bridgewater suffered his season-ending knee injury. Can he steer Minnesota through the season with Bradford at the helm?

THE RULES YOU NEED TO KNOW

43) The new rule that places the ball at the 25-yard line (up from the 20) following a touchback should be a help for offenses, which last year scored touchdowns on 20.8 percent of the drives that started on the 25, compared to just 17.9 percent of drives that started on the 20. But coaches have threatened to unleash short, high kicks to try to pin opponents deep in their own territory, which would thwart the NFL's intent to reduce the number of kickoff returns. This is a one-year experiment, so the results will be important.

44) Keep your fingers crossed for your preferred hothead, and remember that Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and new Redskins cornerback Josh Norman -- who sparked fireworks when Norman was with the Panthers last season -- will now face each other in the NFC East twice a year. The NFL's ejection rule calls for a player hit with two penalties from a short list of unsportsmanlike conduct infractions -- including throwing a punch or kicking an opponent, taunting and using abusive language -- to be ejected immediately. The hope, officials say, is this acts as a deterrent and ejections will be rare. One note: The league monitors social media, among other forms of communication, and will inform officiating crews before games of comments by players that could lead to on-field outbursts.

45) In an attempt to eliminate administrative gaffes, games officials will be in greater contact with the officiating command center in New York, a rule that was first put in place for last year's postseason after a mistake-riddled regular season. That means, the league hopes, more consultation -- and fewer errors -- on penalty enforcement, clock management and down-and-distance issues and fewer Monday-morning explanations for what went wrong.

THE TRENDS

46) Are we seeing an under-the-radar mini-revival of the running game? Last season, 13 teams had two running backs who had at least 400 rushing yards each, including eight of the 12 playoff teams. And teams that had a 100-yard rusher in a game had a 73-23 record, better than the record for teams with a 100-yard receiver (120-96) or a 300-yard passer (69-63).

47) This is the golden age of the tight end, and not just in New England, which this season has an embarrassment of riches with Gronkowski and Bennett. Last season, tight ends had the most catches (2,518) and most receiving yards (27,553) in a single season for the position. Four of them -- Gronkowski, Carolina's Greg Olsen, Tennessee's Delanie Walker and Cleveland's Gary Barnidge -- had more than 1,000 receiving yards, the most tight ends to hit that mark in a season in history.

48) Will the Oakland Raiders ever fail on fourth down? Last season, the Raiders converted all five of their fourth-and-1 chances, the only team with a perfect mark after at least five attempts in the league for the second straight season.

49) Nail-biters are more common than ever. Last season, 131 of 256 games (51.2 percent) were decided by seven points or fewer, the most of any season in history; 54.7 percent were decided by eight or fewer, the most since the two-point conversion was adopted in 1994.

50) The Los Angeles Rams should have kept their bags packed from their move -- they will travel an astounding 35,952 miles this season, the most of any team, 4,330 miles more than the Oakland Raiders and nearly seven times as many miles as the Steelers, who travel the least of all teams this season.

51) Bill Belichick needs four wins -- he should be there by some time in October -- to reach 250 career victories (including playoffs). Love him, hate him or wear a cut-off hoodie in his honor, but he will be in some rarefied air: Don Shula (347), George Halas (324) and Tom Landry (270) are the only coaches to have reached 250.

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