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.
The games to see
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
31) With player protests not going away, will a quarterback-needy team finally sign Colin Kaepernick?
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.
52) And everybody will be watching as Tony Romo takes his first steps away from the field and into the broadcast booth.