Fifty-two NFL things to watch on the road to Super Bowl LII

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A year ago, the question that loomed over the NFL season was if the New England Patriots could weather the suspension of their star player to remain in Super Bowl contention. With the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history -- after Tom Brady engineered a comeback of his own from his four-game banishment -- the Pats gave their competitors a resounding answer.

Do the Dallas Cowboys have the same depth and fortitude to withstand Ezekiel Elliott's suspension this year, if he is not successful in getting it vacated on appeal or receiving an injunction from the court? His six-game layoff, following a year-long league investigation into domestic violence allegations, currently overlaps with only one NFC East game, a relatively lucky break for a team that has real Super Bowl aspirations of its own. Brady made sure he had a say in the Super Bowl after a trying season. Elliott would have to do the same to assure the Cowboys get the same result. But an arbitrator and the federal court system will have an impact on the Cowboys' aspirations first, just days before the season begins.

(UPDATE: Arbitrator Harold Henderson upheld the six-game suspension on Tuesday, but Elliott will be allowed to play Week 1 vs. the Giants, due to the timing of the decision, while a judge weighs whether to grant a temporary restraining order blocking the suspension.)

On the way to Minneapolis for the 52nd Super Bowl, here are 52 things to watch this season:

The games to see

1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Miami Dolphins, Sept. 10: Our first look at the Jay Cutler experiment.

(UPDATE: Due to the potential impact of Hurricane Irma on the area, this game has been postponed to Week 11, when it will be played in Miami.)

2) New York Jets at Buffalo Bills, Sept. 10: A race to the bottom? For two rebuilding teams, the biggest impact of this game might not be felt until the 2018 NFL Draft.

3) Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers, Sept. 10: Michael vs. Martellus, Wilson vs. Rodgers. What a treat to get an NFC blockbuster right out of the gate.

4) New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, Sept. 10 (Sunday Night Football): The Giants swept the Cowboys last year, handing them two of their three losses in the regular season. If Elliott's suspension goes into effect immediately, this is the first look at how the Cowboys will manage while he's out.

(UPDATE: While his six-game suspension was upheld by the arbitrator, Elliott will be allowed to play Sunday.)

5) Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons, Sept. 17 (Sunday Night Football): It's hard to imagine the NFC Championship Game rematch will be as bad a blowout as the first go-around. Watch to see how Green Bay's pass defense holds up, how Atlanta's offense looks without Kyle Shanahan, and if the Falcons have honed a killer instinct.

6) New England Patriots at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oct. 5 (Thursday Night Football): Want to know if the Bucs, darlings of the preseason picks, are legitimate contenders? This is the best gauge imaginable.

7) San Francisco 49ers at Washington Redskins, Oct. 15: The Kirk Cousins Bowl!

8) Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs, Oct. 15: Is Patrick Mahomes starting by this time? And does that give a possible AFC playoff game preview a much different look?

9) Atlanta Falcons at New England Patriots, Oct. 22 (Sunday Night Football): The Super Bowl rematch is the best chance to answer the question of whether the Falcons are still haunted by the Super Bowl -- and if they've remembered to run in order to slow down the Patriots.

10) Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons, Nov. 12: A possible NFC Championship Game preview, this will also be a real test of the Cowboys' pass defense.

11) New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, Nov. 19: Remember that the Raiders were pushing the Patriots for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs for a good part of last season. If this is a preview of this year's playoffs, we're in for a good season.

12) New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers, Dec. 17: A Patriots game against one of the few AFC teams that could give them a real run -- and the place in the schedule also means this could have real playoff seeding implications.

13) Dallas Cowboys at Oakland Raiders, Dec. 17 (Sunday Night Football): A throwback game with renewed relevance. Two young star quarterbacks ... Marshawn Lynch vs. Ezekiel Elliott ... Sit back and enjoy this.

14) Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles, Dec. 31: Probably the best of the all-intra-division final weekend. And a really good look at how two of the league's best young quarterbacks perform under pressure.

The relocation subplots to keep taps on

15) The Los Angeles Chargers are now a thing, and so is a 30,000-seat soccer stadium as a home field -- intimate or idiotic? We're about to find out.

16) The Oakland Raiders will be just that for at least two more seasons before heading to Las Vegas, making this a very protracted breakup and a test of the love of some of the NFL's most loyal fans. Three words of advice: Just win, baby.

The rules to know

17) Overtime will last just 10 minutes instead of 15. Does that result in more ties or more aggressive play calling to avoid them?

18) Will centralizing replay review at the league office lead to greater consistency on calls?

19) Does the loosening of celebration penalties lead to a celebration that can beat the snow angel?

20) Does the league's attention to eliminating or reducing interruptions shorten the length of games and avoid those annoying breaks around kickoffs?

The trends to follow

21) Can anybody close out a victory? The Falcons weren't the only team to lose a late lead last season. In 2016, there were 72 games in which the winning team trailed at some point in the fourth quarter, the most in league history. The Lions won eight games after trailing in the fourth quarter, the most ever in a single season.

22) Will games continue to get closer? Last season, 57 percent of games were decided by eight or fewer points, the highest figure ever in an NFL season. The average margin of victory was 10.23 points, the lowest mark since 1935.

23) What toll does travel take on the five teams -- the Rams (32,600 miles), Raiders (30,899), Cardinals (30,035), Dolphins (27,520) and Chargers (26,134) -- that will travel so many miles they could circumnavigate the Earth (that's 25,000 miles)?

24) Pity the defense. The interception rate continues to decline -- last season, it was 2.3 percent league-wide, the lowest of any season in NFL history.

25) Will we see more of a running back renaissance? Last season, teams with a 100-yard rusher posted a 71.4 winning percentage. That's far better than teams with a 100-yard receiver (56.2 percent) or a 300-yard passer (48.3 percent).

The people to watch

26) Jay Cutler unretired to return to the Miami Dolphins -- can Adam Gase coax another career season out of him to get the Dolphins back to the playoffs?

27) Andrew Luck's recovery from shoulder surgery has been shrouded in mystery, though we do now know the QB, who was recently removed from the PUP list, won't play in Week 1. And now the Colts' starting center, Ryan Kelly, is expected to miss a chunk of time after foot surgery. Whenever Luck returns, can the Colts' offensive line keep him intact?

28) The Seahawks have to survive an early part of the schedule that puts them on the road for four of their first six games, including stops at the Packers and Giants. Last season, four of their five losses -- plus their tie with Arizona -- came on the road.

29) J.J. Watt is back.

30) And his brother, T.J. Watt, looks like he will be an immediate pass-rushing force for the Steelers.

31) With player protests not going away, will a quarterback-needy team finally sign Colin Kaepernick?

32) Will Robert Griffin III ever get another look?

33) Here's a quote from Derek Carr: "He's strong. He's fast. And he's running angry." Marshawn Lynch is back, in the hometown he loves. At 31, how much does he have left to give the Raiders?

34) And what kind of Adrian Peterson will we see in New Orleans.

35) The psychodrama surrounding Kirk Cousins and his relationships in Washington figures to engulf the Redskins' season. Can he play his best -- and also force his way out at the end?

36) Tom Brady hasn't had a fast, big-play target like Brandin Cooks since Randy Moss was in Foxborough. That is bad, bad news for the rest of the AFC.

37) At some point, the Jets have to take a look at Christian Hackenberg as the starting quarterback. Will they want to see more?

38) Is Leonard Fournette the next Ezekiel Elliott, and can he do for the Jaguars what Elliott did for the Cowboys?

39) Does Joe Haden help solve the Steelers' secondary issues?

40) Le'Veon Bell might very well be rusty after skipping training camp and the preseason. The bigger question is: Can he stay healthy for a late-season run when the Steelers will need him to slow down the likes of the Patriots?

41) Get to know Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer, because we're going to see those rookie quarterbacks sooner than the pre-draft scouting reports predicted.

42) And does Patrick Mahomes take over from Alex Smith in Kansas City, too?

43) Odell Beckham Jr. is the biggest don't-take-your-eyes-off-him player in the NFL. What can he do now that Brandon Marshall ... and Sterling Shepard ... and Evan Engram ... are there to force defenses to look at them, too?

44) Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are rookies in San Francisco, but because of them, no rebuild will be more fascinating to watch.

45) With Shanahan gone, how successful will the Falcons be at excising the agony of their Super Bowl collapse?

46) The youngest head coach in the NFL, Sean McVay, has one of the biggest tasks: molding Jared Goff into a franchise quarterback and bringing some excitement to the Los Angeles Rams. Sammy Watkins should help; the potential absence of Aaron Donald certainly wouldn't.

47) With Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, does Jameis Winston become one of the league's most prolific passers and give the NFC South the best QB quartet of any division?

48) Martellus Bennett goes from Tom Brady to Aaron Rodgers. Not bad.

49) Can kicker Roberto Aguayo -- a highly polarizing second-round pick from 2016 -- find a job and save his career after being released by both the Bucs and Bears this summer?

50) Following an offseason of trade talk, can Richard Sherman and the rest of the Seattle Seahawks happily coexist again?

51) The Cowboys and Eagles are counting on Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz, respectively, to take the next steps in their development to keep them in the thick of the NFC East.

52) And everybody will be watching as Tony Romo takes his first steps away from the field and into the broadcast booth.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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