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Fifty-four NFL things to watch on the road to Super Bowl LIV

This is the NFL's 100th season, and while there will be no shortage of nostalgia threaded through the celebration, a current player's thunderclap rocked the season before it even began. Andrew Luck's stunning retirement at age 29 robbed the game of one of its most gifted stars and immediately recast the playoff picture in the AFC. It was also a sobering reminder that even as the league completes its first century, there is only a fleeting time to enjoy the magnificence of the players on whom the game's popularity is built.

The league has come a long way from the 1920 meetings in Canton, Ohio, that launched what would become the first professional football conference. From the Hail Mary to the Immaculate Reception, the 2019 season will have an NFL Films-sized vault of memories to live up to. Then again, the men who gathered for those first meetings -- or even the ones who executed those two transformative plays -- could certainly not have imagined Patrick Mahomes' no-look passes or instant replay being used to challenge pass interference penalties. Or Antonio Brown missing most of training camp for reasons that stretched -- literally -- from head to toe.

Those are all sure to be among the most scrutinized and discussed features of the season, although it is hard to imagine there will be a bigger story than the exit of a star quarterback in the prime of his career. They are all among the 54 things to watch on the way to Super Bowl LIV in Miami.


1) What does Andrew Luck's retirement tell us about the game today, and is he an outlier or a trend-setter among players?


2) This season will be spent debating whether allowing replay review of pass interference to avoid another catastrophically bad missed call is worth what could be maddeningly frequent stoppages of play. Reminder: The goal of the new rule is to correct egregious mistakes, and it is supposed to take clear and obvious evidence to change a call, although the decision to overturn a non-call in the Jets-Giants preseason game certainly made the "obvious" standard a little fuzzier. The rule is currently in place for this season only, so this debate isn't ending soon.

3) Expect the use of the helmet rule -- which caused a brief firestorm when it was heavily applied early last season before officials backed off -- to be called more closely this season.

4) And don't be surprised by an uptick in offensive holding calls. It's a point of emphasis for officials.


5) This is the Raiders' final season in Oakland before their move to Las Vegas. The final home game -- in Week 15 against the Jaguars, unless the Raiders win the AFC West and host a playoff game -- figures to be an emotional and colorful farewell to the Black Hole.

6) This is also the last season before the Rams and Chargers move to the new showstopper of a stadium in Los Angeles, which means this is the final season before the NFL puts a lot of its premier events there.


7)Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears | Week 1, Sept. 5 (Kickoff Game): The season opener gives us an early look at Aaron Rodgers in Matt LaFleur's offense versus Khalil Mack.

8)Kansas City Chiefs at Jacksonville Jaguars | Week 1, Sept. 8: What Nick Foles is able to do against the Chiefs' rebuilt defense could be an early indicator of how both teams will fare in the race to try to topple the Patriots.

9)Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots | Week 1, Sept. 8 (Sunday night): How the post-Antonio Brown/Le'Veon BellSteelers offense performs against what is expected to be an improved Patriots defense could be a good indicator of how Pittsburgh's season will go.

10)New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams | Week 2, Sept. 15: The pass interference bowl features the NFC's top two contenders and means officials better be on their toes.

11)Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs | Week 5, Oct. 6 (Sunday night): A very good test to tell us if the post-Luck Colts really can be contenders.

12)Baltimore Ravens at Seattle Seahawks | Week 7, Oct. 20: Whatever the Ravens' newfangled offense built around Lamar Jackson will be, will it be more electrifying than Russell Wilson?

13)Cleveland Browns at New England Patriots | Week 8, Oct. 27: The only litmus test that matters for the sky-high Browns expectations.

14)Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs | Week 8, Oct. 27 (Sunday night): The marquee quarterback matchup of the season: Rodgers vs. Mahomes.

16)Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots | Week 14, Dec. 8: Home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs could hang in the balance.

17)Los Angeles Rams at Dallas Cowboys | Week 15, Dec. 15: NFC playoff seeding could be in play here. If the Cowboys are finally to fulfill Jerry Jones' Super Bowl prayers, they'll have to get through games like this.


18) Which of last year's last-place teams will win its division this year? It's happened in 15 of the past 16 seasons -- the Texans and Bears did it last year.

19) Seven teams that missed the playoffs in 2017 made it in '18 -- more than half of the 12-team playoff field. Since that format was adopted in 1990, at least four teams each season have made it a year after falling short.

20) The Patriots will try for a rare double. Only eight teams have repeated as champions since the first Super Bowl after the 1966 season. (Well, actually, only seven teams have accomplished this feat, as the Steelers have done it twice.) It hasn't been done since 2004, though -- when the Patriots repeated.

21) Four rookie head coaches (Matt Nagy, Frank Reich, Sean McVay and Sean McDermott) have led their respective teams to the playoffs over the last two seasons. Will Kliff Kingsbury, Zac Taylor, Freddie Kitchens, Vic Fangio, Matt LaFleur or Brian Flores join the group?

22) Pay attention to who gets out to a fast start. Over the last 10 years, seven teams -- the Broncos, Patriots, Ravens, Packers, Falcons, Bengals and Cowboys -- have a winning percentage of at least 60 percent through the season's first month. Those teams have combined for 44 playoff berths, 10 Super Bowl appearances, and six championships. In 2018, the four teams to play in the conference championship games --- the Chiefs, Patriots, Rams and Saints -- combined for a 13-3 record in the first quarter of the season.

23) A decline in quarterback injuries? Quarterbacks missed a total of 60 games due to injury in 2018, a 46 percent drop from 2017 and about 50 percent fewer than the average over the previous three seasons. Sixteen teams had the same quarterback start every game of the regular season.

24) A Raiders turnaround won't be easy. Their opponents had the best winning percentage last year, making the Raiders' schedule the hardest this season. And the Raiders also will travel 40,188 miles in 2019, 4,000 more than any other team and more than 32,000 miles more than the Jets -- a possible wild-card rival.


25) The good: If Antonio Brown has 100 receptions for the Raiders, he will become the only player in history with seven 100-catch seasons. The bad: From frostbitten feet to a grievance over his helmet, Brown has to have the Raiders wondering what else is going to happen.

26) Can Saquon Barkley get 1,972 scrimmage yards to become just the third player ever -- after Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James -- to reach 4,000 scrimmage yards in his first two seasons?

27) And will the Jets' Le'Veon Bell, who needs just 2,004 scrimmage yards to reach 10,000 for his career, look like a player with a year of rust or one with a year of rest?

28) Does A.J. Green's injury torpedo the Bengals' season before it even begins?

29) Will Tom Brady (517) or Drew Brees (520) -- or both -- break Peyton Manning's all-time touchdown passes record of 539?

30)Aaron Donald could become the first player in history to win three straight Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year awards.

31) Ageless wonder Frank Gore, now with the Buffalo Bills, needs 522 rushing yards to pass Barry Sanders for third place on the all-time list.

32) When will Dwayne Haskins be ready to start in Washington?

33) Will Rob Gronkowski remain retired?

34) Can Josh Rosen be the Dolphins' quarterback of the future or will we spend most of the season talking about the Dolphins' draft position?

35) Will we ever know what happened to Todd Gurley's knee?

36) Is Jacoby Brissett the Colts' long-term answer to life without Luck?

37) Is Cam Newton's foot OK? Shoulder? Can we keep him in one piece, please?

38) Can Carson Wentz stay healthy the entire season?

39) Is the Falcons' defense good enough and deep enough to give Atlanta another Super Bowl shot?

40) Is Bruce Arians the coach who can finally get the best out of Jameis Winston?

41) Does coaching continuity help Marcus Mariota have the kind of season in Tennessee to earn him a lucrative second contract?

42) The unique offense the Ravens built around Lamar Jackson will finally be unveiled. Can it score enough to make up for all the defensive firepower the team lost?

43) For that matter, what will Kliff Kingsbury's offense for Kyler Murray look like?

44) How will Ezekiel Elliott's holdout affect his season?

45) And what can Jason Witten still give to the Dallas Cowboys?

46) Can Jimmy Garoppolo regain the promising start to his career he had before he missed 13 games last season with a knee injury?

47) Will Daniel Jones take Eli Manning's job this year?

48) Will there be a better offensive line this season than the Colts' quintet, which allowed a league-low 18 sacks in 2018?

49) And is the offensive line the only real question mark for the Houston Texans? Laremy Tunsil sure helps.

50) Can Joe Flacco get the Broncos back to the playoffs while the defense is still dominant?

51) When will Bill Belichick get his eighth win of the season, which will be his 300th career victory (playoffs included) as a head coach? Only Don Shula and George Halas have reached the 300 mark.

52) Is rookie linebacker Devin Bush the player to turn the Steelers' defense around?

53) Whither Melvin Gordon?

54) Imagine a free agency with ... Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. Dream big.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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