Favre brings interest, but will drama overshadow 20th season?

The 2010 season is loaded with intriguing storylines, beginning with the fact that this could very well be the final NFL schedule played without interruption.

A lack of progress in negotiations (when they actually occur) between the league and the NFL Players Association creates a legitimate threat that the 2011 season might not start on time and could possibly be suspended if no collective bargaining agreement is reached after the current one expires in March.

The uncertainty already has impacted the way player, coaching, and front-office contracts have been structured while also affecting sponsorship deals.

But it isn't the only topic that will bear close watching. Here are 10 I will be keeping a close eye on this season:

1. Brett Favre

Like it or not -- and the nots probably hold an overwhelming lead -- everything he does or doesn't do for the Minnesota Vikings will generate headlines. That's what happens when a player with his ticket long punched for Canton has a career year in his 19th season, makes his team and the rest of the NFL twist in the wind before deciding to play a 20th, and is capable of doing or saying anything at any time that will cause controversy.

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2. New York Jets

Trying to live up to Super Bowl expectations that coach Rex Ryan constantly inflates with his brash talk is enough reason to put this team under an ultra-powerful microscope. But then there is the added scrutiny that Mark Sanchez is going to draw after a discouraging preseason … and that will be directed toward the performance of high-profile newcomers LaDainian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor, Antonio Cromartie, and Santonio Holmes (after he serves a four-game suspension).

3. Ben Roethlisberger

The Pittsburgh Steelers' season could very well be decided during the first four weeks, while Roethlisberger serves a four-game suspension. His future as an NFL quarterback could very well be decided by how he behaves after he returns to action.

4. Labor

At the very least, the chance that there will be a work stoppage in 2011 could prove to be a significant distraction for players and coaches.

5. New England Patriots

Is their dynasty truly over, as seemed the case with their ugly playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens last January? Can Tom Brady and the Patriots' explosive offense overcome what looks like a defense that appears anything but ready to help this team go the distance once again?

6. Green Bay Packers

Their status as a leading Super Bowl contender is going to put them at the center of all sorts of discussion -- especially if they fall short.

7. Tim Tebow

Although he's expected to spend most of his rookie season with the Denver Broncos on the bench, the incredible following that Tebow has will no doubt result in calls for him to be on the field -- particularly if starter Kyle Orton struggles even a little bit.

8. Pete Carroll

A huge contract, the scandal that he left behind at USC, and his failed NFL head-coaching stints with the Jets and Patriots create pressure for him to make an immediate impact on the Seattle Seahawks.

9. Kevin Kolb

As the saying goes, you never want to be the guy who replaces the legend. But Kolb, with only two starts in three seasons, is trying to do exactly that as the successor to Donovan McNabb.

10. The T.O. & Chad Show

The question isn't so much whether Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco can coexist as receivers but whether Carson Palmer can throw enough passes to each of them to avoid the season going up in the flames of a controversy.

They've got answers

» The New York Giants, because they were able to land a solid backup quarterback, Sage Rosenfels, from the Minnesota Vikings to replace injured Jim Sorgi. If, as some critics have suggested, the Vikings made a mistake by getting rid of Rosenfels, the Giants might very well have made a much-better-than-expected deal for an insurance policy.

» The Atlanta Falcons, because nose tackle Peria Jerry appears to have fully recovered from knee surgery. They need Jerry to be the dominant force that he was expected to be before suffering a knee injury that ended his rookie season after only two games. Given the way he played during the preseason, Jerry looks as if he's ready to consistently tie up multiple blockers and generate inside pressure.

» The Jacksonville Jaguars, because running back Maurice Jones-Drew is returning to action after missing the last two weeks of practice and the final two preseason games, and he insists he'll be ready against the Broncos on Sunday. If the Broncos are as bad at stopping the run as they were last season, and Jones-Drew is fully recovered from an injury the Jaguars haven't disclosed, he could open the season fast.

They've got questions

» The Giants, until they get comfortable with running the read-and-react defense of new coordinator Perry Fewell. The scheme is a radical departure from the more aggressive approach the Giants previously ran, because it emphasizes bending but not breaking rather than taking it to the opposing offense.

» The Washington Redskins, because the rift between defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and coach Mike Shanahan just keeps growing. This has real potential to seriously threaten the positive impact of the Shanahan regime.

» The Cowboys, because in releasing nose tackle Junior Siavii, they've got to find another solid replacement for Jay Ratliff, whom they like to spell so that he can be as fresh as possible for the role he fills exceptionally well: third-down pass rushing. One possibility is rookie Josh Price-Brent. Another is moving end Marcus Spears to nose tackle.

The race is on

For the NFL.com season preview package, writers and analysts were asked to choose their offensive and defensive players of the year. My offensive choice: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. My defensive pick: San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.

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Now here's my top five in each category:

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
He has evolved into one of the absolute best quarterbacks in the game, and the fact he has had to emerge from the shadows of Brett Favre to do so says even more about his abundance of talent.

2. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts
He could very well be headed to a fifth MVP award. Put it this way, if he doesn't have that kind of year, the Colts are not returning to the Super Bowl.

3. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
Another season, another prolific year for the reigning Super Bowl MVP.

4. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans
It's hard to imagine him duplicating the magical season from a year ago, but his explosiveness should result in a great deal of production ... especially if Vince Young can consistently perform at a higher level.

5. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
For all of the questions the Patriots have on defense, one constant remains: They can contend because they have Brady.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Hard-hitting playmaker who figures to do the most to allow the 49ers to capitalize on the fact the NFC West looks to be theirs for the taking.

2. Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
He has his money and the Jets have one of the very best defensive players in the league back in the fold.

3. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
He's the most dominant pass-rusher in the game.

4. Troy Polamalu, S, Pittsburgh Steelers
Now that he's healthy, he should bring immediate improvement to the defense.

5. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas Cowboys
He is a pass-rushing terror who will be a major reason why the Cowboys should make a serious run to the Super Bowl in their back yard.

Observation points

» Give Vikings coach Brad Childress credit for his preemptive delivery of a message to the officials working Thursday night's opener in New Orleans by telling reporters over the weekend that he hated to see "late hits or attempts to hurt anybody. I don't think there's a place for that in the game." Translation: "Officials, beware! The Saints used those tactics to beat up Brett Favre in the NFC title game, so don't let them get away with it this time."

» The Falcons experimented with some 3-3-5 defensive looks during the preseason aimed at helping to solve a major problem: Allowing the highest percentage (45) of third-down conversions in the league last season. In that configuration, the Falcons use the nickel back as a linebacker who blitzes from the outside. A defensive assistant coach from the AFC said the tactic is likely to have mixed results and might not allow the Falcons to achieve the goal of improving their third-down defense.

"You do that against a smart, veteran quarterback, and he'll eat you alive," the coach said. "Whenever you incorporate a corner into a blitz package, you're taking a big chance because you have left an uncovered area that can be easily exploited by a quarterback who makes the right read. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady ... you can't do that against those guys. A younger quarterback who is slower with his reads might have some problems, but you're not going to face someone like that every week."

» A big shout out to the three Gronkowski brothers (second-year tight end Dan, Denver; rookie tight end Rob, New England, and rookie fullback Chris, Dallas) for becoming the first trio of brothers active in the NFL in 20 years. The last three brothers to play in the league simultaneously were the Baldingers (Brian, Gary, and Rich). But the main reason for my shout out is because the Gronkowskis grew up near my home in Western New York, and went to school with my kids. I watched them play for Williamsville North High School, and once had a conversation in my kitchen with Rob, early in his high-school career, where he predicted to me that one day I would be writing about him as an NFL player. Given his exceptional preseason with the Patriots, I have a feeling this will be one of many times I'll do just that.

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