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Fifty-three NFL things to watch on the road to Super Bowl LIII

As preseasons go, this was a relatively straightforward one, largely devoid of off-field drama and with few devastating injuries. When the most constant conversation is about a rules change, the NFL will take it -- even if nobody is exactly sure how the new edict against using the helmet to initiate contact will look when the season kicks off.

The 2018 season has quite a bit to live up to, though. It will end with the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest upsets in sports history -- and the game that, more than any other, launched the NFL into the popular consciousness. Super Bowl III remains the Jets' only championship, and Joe Namath one of American sports' most iconic figures. While guarantees now litter the sporting landscape, no one can quite match Namath's brio combined with his most important gift: the ability to deliver the goods. It seems fitting, though, that Gang Green is imagining a return to glory this season, with Namath's latest heir, rookie quarterback Sam Darnold, just one of 53 things to watch in the NFL on the way to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.


1)Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles | Week 1, Sept. 6 (Thursday night): The NFL Kickoff Game features the last two NFC champions and will give us an early look at whether the Falcons have righted their offense and whether the Eagles' preseason somnolence leaks into the regular season with Carson Wentz still unavailable.

2)San Francisco 49ers at Minnesota Vikings | Week 1, Sept. 9: Eventually, Jimmy Garoppolo has to lose a game as a starter, doesn't he? In the first game of his first full season as a starter, Jimmy G faces a defense that yielded the fewest yards and points in 2017.

4)Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Giants | Week 1, Sept. 9: The Jaguars' star-studded defense provides as good an early test as you could imagine for Saquon Barkley and the Giants' rebuilt offensive line.

5)Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers | Week 1, Sept. 9 (Sunday night): A late addition to the list, but when Khalil Mack introduces himself to new division mate Aaron Rodgers, it could set the stage for an eventual transfer of power.

6)Los Angeles Rams at Oakland Raiders | Week 1, Sept. 10 (Monday night): A very early litmus test for the title-contending Rams, and for Jon Gruden's Khalil Mack-less vision of the Raiders.

7)New England Patriots at Jacksonville Jaguars | Week 2, Sept. 16: The Jaguars might never hear the end of leading by 10 in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship Game before the Patriots roared back. How much differently will the Jaguars approach it if a similar situation arises in this game?

8)Indianapolis Colts at Philadelphia Eagles | Week 3, Sept. 23: A huge barometer game for Andrew Luck against Frank Reich's former team.

9)Minnesota Vikings at Philadelphia Eagles | Week 5, Oct. 7: Kirk Cousins was brought to Minneapolis to win this kind of game, a rematch of the drubbing the Vikings took in the NFC title bout last season.

10)Philadelphia Eagles at Jacksonville Jaguars | Week 8, Oct. 28 (London): Good midseason check-in game for teams that should be ramping up for a deep playoff run.

11)New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings | Week 8, Oct. 28 (Sunday night): It probably can't match last season's playoff dramatics, but -- again -- this is why they got Cousins in Minnesota, to try to stay with an offense that is built to play indoors.

12)Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots | Week 9, Nov. 4 (Sunday night): Brady vs. Rodgers for just the second (and, barring a Super Bowl meeting, likely last) time in their careers. Wish there had been many more.

14)New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers | Week 15, Dec. 16: They produced the best game of the 2017 regular season and, yes, Steelers tight end Jesse James would have had a touchdown catch if the rules were as they are now. Let's just assume the outcome here will play a big role in AFC home-field advantage.

15)Philadelphia Eagles at Los Angeles Rams | Week 15, Dec. 16 (Sunday night): A blockbuster between the defending champs and the team that has gone all-in to try to beat them. To say nothing of Jared Goff vs. Carson Wentz or the big-name defensive coordinators -- Wade Phillips and Jim Schwartz -- who will try to outwit them. All with potentially enormous NFC playoff implications.


16) We know the Raiders expect to move to Las Vegas in 2020. We don't yet know for certain where they'll be in 2019, though. The team has been negotiating to extend its lease for another year at the Oakland Coliseum. But with nothing finalized, there is the weird long-shot possibility that this could be the Raiders' farewell season at their home and we don't even know it.


17) Let's try this again: for a catch to count, the receiver doesn't have to go to the ground anymore. But he must have two feet or any other part of his body touching the ground inbounds and he must make a football move. Movement of the ball does not automatically mean loss of control. Yes, that would have been a catch for Dez.

18) The kickoff will look much different: no running start for the kicking team, no wedge blocking for the receiving team. Coaches believe they'll use smaller players, and this will lead to fewer big collisions and more long returns.

19) The biggest culture-change rule since defenseless player protections were put in is the helmet rule. No player anywhere on the field is allowed to lower his head and initiate contact with his helmet. Expect it to be called mostly on players out in space -- and, if the preseason is any indication, more on defensive than offensive players -- and very few calls to go against linemen because of how difficult it will be for officials to see it in such close quarters. But the preseason freak-out was overwrought. The Jaguars' Malik Jackson might have summed up the mixed reaction to the rule best.

"As a player sitting at home hearing about it, you think it's BS," Jackson said. "It's just another rule to soften us up as defensive players, another rule for defense to be looked at negatively. But when you come out here and see guys getting hurt, it correlates. Guys are losing their careers over this. I think it's good for us. It's going to be hard because some guys have been taught since birth to hit like that. As long as teams don't start fining us, we'll be alright."

20) The officiating headquarters in New York can instruct on-field officials to eject a player for a flagrant non-football act -- but only when that act has already been flagged on the field. Think: egregious late hits after a play is dead.


21) Last season, scoring dropped to its lowest level since 2009 and the number of touchdowns scored was at its lowest since 2006. That is not the direction the league wants play going. Will the wave of young coaches and the influx of new quarterbacks reverse the trend or will their inexperience -- and, in the quarterbacks' case, lack of preparation -- feed into it?

22) Running back renaissance: In each of the last two seasons, a rookie has led the NFL in rushing yards: Dallas's Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 and Kansas City's Kareem Hunt in 2017. Three running backs -- Saquon Barkley (Giants), Rashaad Penny (Seattle) and Sony Michel (New England) -- were selected in the first round this year.

23) The dual-threat back: Six running backs rushed for at least 1,000 yards and had at least 50 receptions last season: Hunt, Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, LeSean McCoy, Mark Ingram and Melvin Gordon. Six running backs had at least 500 receiving yards: Alvin Kamara, Gurley, Duke Johnson Jr., Bell, Christian McCaffrey and Chris Thompson.

24) Have and have-nots on the offensive line: Five of the six teams that allowed fewer than 25 sacks finished with winning records and four of them went to the playoffs. The Raiders and Steelers, who each have three Pro Bowl offensive linemen, are the only two teams to allow fewer than 25 sacks in each of the last two seasons.

25) The golden age of kicking: Last season, 107 field goals of at least 50 yards were successful, the most in a season in NFL history.

26) And of quarterbacking: Drew Brees' 72.0 percent completion rate in 2017 was the best in league history. Russell Wilson had 19 fourth-quarter touchdown passes, also a historic high.


27)Oakland Raiders Coach Jon Gruden, The Sequel -- what, exactly, is your plan?

28) Getting right to the point: Which game will the Cleveland Browns finally win?

29) And should we be paying more attention to Myles Garrett than Baker Mayfield?

30) What is the state of the relationship between Tom Brady and Bill Belichick?

31) Can Brady still cover up for the departure of Danny Amendola, the suspension of Julian Edelman and a retooled offensive line? He needs 21 touchdown passes to move past Peyton Manning for the most career scoring strikes (regular season and postseason). Manning finished with 579.

32) Potentially huge year for Drew Brees: He needs 1,496 passing yards to pass Manning for most in history. And he needs 79 completions to pass Brett Favre for the all-time lead.

33) Does Le'Veon Bell's holdout -- whenever it ends -- lead to a repeat of last year's slow start, and will that change anything about his highly anticipated free agency?

34)Jalen Ramsey vs. Odell Beckham Jr. Ramsey vs. Antonio Brown. Ramsey vs. Josh Allen.

35) What is Teddy Bridgewater's future in New Orleans?

36) Is Sam Darnold finally -- finally -- the Jets' next great quarterback?

37) Will Saquon Barkley have such an impact that the Giants won't regret passing on a quarterback?

38) Will there be a more inspiring story than Shaquem Griffin?

39) How many highlight-reel throws will Patrick Mahomes make and will it be enough to keep the Chiefs atop the AFC West?

40) Is Alex Smith actually an upgrade in Washington over Kirk Cousins?

41) And does Cousins pay immediate dividends in Minnesota?

42) Was the Los Angeles Rams' spree to add Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters and Brandin Cooks enough to get to the top in a loaded NFC?

43) With Robert Griffin III to be the Ravens' backup, what will we see of Lamar Jackson?

44)J.J. Watt hasn't played a full season since 2015, when he had 17.5 sacks. After back surgeries and a broken leg, can he be that player again?

45) Without Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, can Dak Prescott bounce back from a down season? Or will a full season of Ezekiel Elliott make up for the attrition?

46) And whither Dez?

47) Is Case Keenumreally the answer to John Elway's post-Peyton blues?

48) With a struggling offensive line and a quarterback jumble, are the Buffalo Bills in for a big step back after finally breaking their postseason drought?

49) When can we stop cringing every time Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz get hit?

50) Can there be any question that Adam Vinatieri is the greatest kicker in NFL history? He needs 58 points to surpass Morten Andersen (2,544) for the most points scored in NFL history.

51) Is the Jaguars' Yannick Ngakoue the next Von Miller?

52) Does Jameis Winston's three-game suspension doom the Bucs' season and his long-term future in Tampa?

53) Where do player protests go from here? Is there a policy that will please both players and owners -- and get players out of the political crosshairs -- as the nation heads into the midterm elections?

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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