When Tom Bradydecided 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America report, which last week clearedClay Matthews, Julius Peppers and James Harrison -- but court dates finally have been replaced by game schedules.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.
THE MUST-SEE GAMES
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.
11)New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers, Oct. 23: This is a preview of my projected AFC Championship Game.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
33) Will we finally -- finally -- see the Jadeveon Clowney we were promised at the draft two years ago?
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 upon 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 Vollmerto 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?
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 cornerbackJosh 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.
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.
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.