Patriots' secondary, Bills' playoff hopes head Week 1 questions

In the seven months between his triumphant jaunt across the confetti-drenched University of Phoenix Stadium turf and the legal victory that secured his presence for Thursday's Kickoff Classic in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Tom Brady kept a lower profile than Salman Rushdie during the 1990s.

While the football-watching universe -- myself absolutely included -- broke down damning texts between Jonny Boy and The Deflator, processed conspiracy theories and grotesque courtroom sketches and vilified a legendary quarterback, an embattled commissioner and so many others caught in the crossfire, Brady stayed nearly as quiet as the sound of air leaving a football.

Though he has neither been exonerated nor permanently availed of the possibility that he'll eventually serve a suspension, Brady, pending a protracted appeal, is entitled to strut like a winner in the interim. And though I haven't been shy about criticizing the New England Patriots quarterback's behavior during this ball-deflation scandal, for everything from following his agent's dubious advice to what I believe was an obvious failure to cooperate with the NFL's investigation, I will grant him this: When he finally issued a statement about the deflated-ball scandal that dominated this past offseason, Brady was as accurate as one of his dramatic touchdown passes against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.

"While I am pleased to be eligible to play, I am sorry our league had to endure this," Brady posted on his Facebook page last Friday. "I don't think it has been good for our sport -- to a large degree, we have all lost."

Amen, Tommy. We certainly have.

Consequently, I have never been this excited for an NFL regular season to begin, and I know a lot of owners, general managers, coaches, players and fans who are right there with me. When the Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night, it will be a blessing to focus on the action that takes place between the lines rather than speculating upon what might have happened in a small bathroom near the end-zone tunnel at the same stadium before last January's AFC Championship Game.

With Brady attempting to become the first signal caller to hoist the Lombardi Trophy five times, and with 31 revved-up opponents pushing to deny him that opportunity, the competition between now and Feb. 7, 2016, when Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium will play host to Super Bowl 50, will be fierce and compelling.

Many mysteries will unfold over the next five months. It seems fitting to get things started by tackling some of the most interesting queries -- and doing our best to provide a bit of insight.

Here, then, are 12.5 questions -- yes, one for each PSI at the lower end of the legal ball-inflation limit -- as we gratefully head into the 2015 NFL season:

1) Will the Patriots miss Darrelle Revis? Duh. Of course they will. Look, I know Brady and Bill Belichick have spoiled us to the point where we believe New England can compete at the highest level no matter what weaknesses might present themselves, and it's certainly possible that this year's Pats will prosper despite the departure of one of the league's elite defenders. Yet to pretend that the team's one-year rental of Revis played only an incidental role in the Patriots' championship drive is silly, and the team's current cornerback situation (with Brandon Browner having bounced to the Saints) appears shaky. Belichick seems to be banking on a huge jump from young Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl XLIX hero whose absence from a voluntary offseason workout led Belichick to banish him from three additional weeks of voluntary workouts (only in the NFL), provoking a grievance from the NFL Players Association. Maybe it will all work out, but it's a fine line between having a true shutdown corner like Revis, who returned to the New York Jets via free agency, and having a guy you hope can be one. Remember how the Pats' secondary struggled against Peyton Manning and the Broncos after Aqib Talib (who would go on to sign with the Broncos after that season) went down in the 2013 AFC title match? That's one Pats fans would like to forget.

2) Will the league's longest postseason drought end? Damn straight it will. Back in January of 2000, as I stood on the Bills' sideline at Adelphia Coliseum in Nashville (that's what they called it back then) and watched the Music City Miracle unfold, I figured Buffalo's proud fans would be in for a long winter -- but that they'd eventually be granted the means to put that painful playoff loss behind them. Had any of us understood just how long eventually would be, the indelible defeat to the Titans would have been that much tougher to stomach. After 15 consecutive seasons of sitting out the postseason, the Bills are poised to get back in the ring and take another swing. Buffalo was already a good team in 2014, when it went 9-7 under Doug Marrone, and the Bills have gotten a lot better in the interim. Among the many key additions: new head coach Rex Ryan, who'll make an already formidable defense even better, and explosive running back LeSean McCoy, acquired in a celebrated trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. McCoy was hurt for most of the preseason, but when the real games begin, there won't be much suspense about who'll be the focal point of new offensive coordinator Greg Roman's attack. "I think we're more multiple in the running game than any team in the league, and it takes a lot of preparation to defend us," Ryan told me in August. "I think we're gonna get teams sending everything they've got down there to stop our run. If not, we will dehydrate our running back." If things play out the way I expect them to, Bills fans will quench a 16-year thirst come January.

3) Which other new teams will make the playoffs? In a league that, over the last quarter-century, habitually turns over half (or more) of its playoff teams each season, most prognosticators fall into the trap of choosing the usual suspects before any given campaign. Not this guy -- my playoff picks might fail spectacularly, but it won't be because I'm lazy. So who'll be the newcomers in the 12-team playoff field for 2015? The Rams, Vikings, Bucs (yeah, I said it), Texans and Bills. And don't sleep on the Rams once the postseason begins, either.

4) Which teams from last year's playoff field won't make it? Conversely, the inevitable equal and opposite reaction will leave five 2014 playoff teams out in the cold come January. That's bad news for the Cardinals, Lions, Panthers, Ravens and Steelers. That's my story and I'm sticking to it -- at least unless and until my bosses ask me to make midseason predictions.

5) Will Chip Kelly's third season be boom or bust? Or, put another way: Come Thanksgiving, will Kelly be steering the Eagles toward a first-round playoff bye or standing next to Pat Haden on a podium and donning a USC hat? During Kelly's extreme March makeover of the Eagles' offense, which included the trading of his starting quarterback (Nick Foles for Sam Bradford) and halfback (McCoy for linebacker Kiko Alonso) and the free-agent departure of top receiver Jeremy Maclin, I concluded that the former Oregon coach was all in for 2015. Having prevailed in a power struggle with former general manager Howie Roseman, who was since relocated to the business wing of the Eagles' training facility, Kelly is large and in charge -- but what, really, is his risk? If things don't work out this year in Philly and Kelly lets it be known that he's open to returning to the college ranks, many big-time schools will emerge as suitors. In that scenario, might he *pull a Petrino* and bolt during the heart of an NFL season? I'm not saying it will happen, but if the Eagles are mired in mediocrity, don't be shocked if it does. And either way, I'd bet on the Eagles falling short of expectations in 2015.

6) Will the NFC South be as sorry as advertised? Probably. Last year, the Panthers salvaged some semblance of respect for the embattled division by parlaying their 7-8-1 regular season into a first-round playoff victory over the Cardinals -- albeit against an opponent quarterbacked by the immortal Ryan Lindley. Carolina has since lost its only legitimate downfield receiving threat (Kelvin Benjamin, who tore his ACL in training camp) and, at least on paper, looks pretty damned far from championship-caliber. Granted, I can similarly find flaws with the Saints and Falcons, not to mention the Buccaneers, who are coming off a 2-14 debacle. So why am I reverting to my pre-2014 prediction that the Bucs will win this weakling division? Call it a hunch that a) Lovie Smith's defense will come around in Year 2, b) No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston will adapt quickly to quarterbacking an NFL team, c) the unfortunate absence of last year's offensive coordinator, Jeff Tedford, due to illness played a larger role in the team's struggles than most people know and d) the transition to Dirk Koetter will prove to be a productive one. Also, the bar is not that high in the NFC South.

7) Until Super Bowl 50, will things be pretty far from super on both sides of the Bay? As a proud Northern Californian, I'd love to suggest otherwise. But until the Raiders show me some real, rather than presumed, improvement -- and we're talking about a team that had its last winning season in 2002, when current quarterback Derek Carr was an 11-year-old Texans fanboy -- I'm not buying the notion that Year 4 of the Mark Davis/Reggie McKenzie era will be any more thrilling than Years 1-3. And the 49ers? Well, they just had one of the worst offseasons in NFL history, at least on paper, and their narrow defeat in Super Bowl XLVII seems like it happened about a decade ago. Unlike some members of my profession, I completely understand why San Francisco owner Jed York felt compelled to move on from high-maintenance coach Jim Harbaugh, and I'm open to the possibility that reports of the Niners' demise might be greatly exaggerated. Yet, in the brutally competitive NFC West, San Francisco and rookie coach Jim Tomsula will have to be really, really good to remain competitive, and without Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Chris Borland and so many other accomplished players, it's tough to envision the Niners staying afloat.

8) Will Andrew Luck overtake Aaron Rodgers as the NFL's best quarterback? Uh ... let's not go that far. First, Luck has to figure out a way to surpass living legends Brady and Peyton Manning (the AFC's last two Super Bowl quarterbacks) in his own conference. In an essay that will air on NFL Network's "GameDay Morning" on Sunday, I predict that Luck -- who had more giveaways (22) in 2014 than any quarterback not named Jay Cutler -- will do just that. I think he'll be so good in the regular season that he'll succeed Rodgers as the league's MVP, and I think he'll keep it rolling right through the playoffs. However, my projected Super Bowl matchup features Rodgers' Packers against Luck's Colts, a Cal vs. Stanford showdown for the ages. As much as I love the young man with the Civil War general's neckbeard, I see that playing out like this.

9) What kind of year will Adrian Peterson have? Let's see ... an angry, well-rested Adrian Peterson who believes (rightfully or otherwise) that he was wronged by the world in 2014? Do I really have to spell this out? Second-year pro Teddy Bridgewater is an emerging star at quarterback -- sorry, Raiders fans, but so far, I think Bridgewater is the most promising member of the QB class of 2014, with Carr a close second -- and I expect the Vikings to make a huge jump in Year 2 of coordinator Norv Turner's offense. Most glaringly, I expect "AD" to run wild All Day.

10) How many weeks until Jay Gruden declares, "Colt is our quarterback -- period ..."? Look, I'm trying not to be overly skeptical when it comes to the NFL team affiliated with Washington, D.C., but the squad with the controversial nickname makes it so damned hard sometimes. Quietly, new GM Scot McCloughan made some shrewd moves to improve the team's flagging talent base, and Washington should be more competitive than it was in 2014. However, if new starter Kirk Cousins falters (as he did when he had a chance to start last year), there are 16.2 million reasons not to roll with Robert Griffin III. With second-year coach Gruden presumably under pressure not to produce another dismal season, that would leave veteran Colt McCoy as the next man up -- and it would leave Washington to resume its long, painful search for a true franchise quarterback next offseason.

11) Why will the Packers -- and not the Seahawks -- be the ones to complete their Revenge Tour by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy? This is a question with which I've really struggled. In the immediate aftermath of Seattle's painful Super Bowl XLIX defeat, I was convinced the Seahawks would respond to their brutally disappointing failure to finish the job by crushing everyone in 2015. I remain convinced that, in terms of overall talent, the 'Hawks are the best team in football, and my faith in Pete Carroll's strategic and motivational magic is immense.

And yet ... the Packers have their own painful ending to avenge, and Green Bay's meltdown in Seattle two weeks before the Super Bowl didn't strike me as that of a team playing over its head squandering an unlikely shot at glory. Rather, I'm still blown away at the way the Packers' defense played during the first 55 minutes of that game, and the experience opened my mind to the possibility that coordinator Dom Capers' unit might truly be that good. I give Mike McCarthy a ton of credit for shaking up the job responsibilities of his offensive assistants and ceding his play-calling duties to Tom Clements. And while I think the Seahawks are better top to bottom, the Pack has the edge over Seattle -- and everyone else -- at the sport's most important position. I like Rodgers and friends to prevail over Seattle, both in Week 2 at Lambeau Field and in an NFC Championship Game rematch. And if that happens, I don't see the Colts or anyone else preventing Green Bay from bringing another Lombardi Trophy home to Titletown.

12) Hey, Michael Silver -- why do you hate my favorite team? Glad you asked: I hate your team because I am part of a vast conspiracy to sully the entity that you love and deny you the affirmation that you richly deserve. I do this in a number of ways, including, but not limited to: refraining from picking your team to win every single game it plays; declining unfailingly to rank it first out of 32 teams; expressing opinions that you perceive as negative or unflattering toward the team in question, usually in the wake of a poor performance; and reporting facts that you regard as unpleasant, even when those facts are universally accepted as true (i.e., the quarterback throws too many interceptions and will lose his job if this practice continues).

12.5) Are you serious? Uh ... no. For those of you who don't easily recognize sarcasm, here's the sincere version of the previous reply: Stop being paranoid and understand that I truly don't care who wins any NFL game. Realize, please, that I win every year -- and if you don't believe me, you can watch me take the field next Super Sunday with a giant smile on my face, given that I'll once again be paid to write and talk about football, which truly is a blessing. It doesn't matter who I rooted for growing up or where I live or who I picked to win or what color shirt I'm wearing. I have 32 babies, and I love them equally (though some give me more trouble than others). When the team you love plays well and avoids scandal, I will probably say and write things you regard as positive and nice, and vice-versa. Unless one of my kids is playing on a team, or a team in another pro sport that I grew up loving is now coached by one of my childhood friends, or a team is representing the University of California, a game's outcome has zero impact on my state of mind. It certainly doesn't make me a hater. As some noted Bay Area philosophers whose band also turned 50 this year stated a few months ago in the rainbow-draped stadium where next February's Super Bowl will take place: *Ain't no time to hate, barely time to wait.* And understandably, after seven months of deflated-ball drama, a whole lot of us can't wait for Thursday.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.

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