For months, we expected the Denver Broncos' regular-season opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday night to be a referendum on John Elway's offseason efforts to toughen up the Broncos as they try to become the first Super Bowl loser to return to the subsequent championship game since the 1993 Buffalo Bills.
And this game will still give us a look at Denver's overhauled defense (featuring seven starters who weren't in the lineup for Super Bowl XLVIII) against Indy's Andrew Luck, whose still-suspect offensive line must grapple with the first appearance of the Broncos' new Von Miller-DeMarcus Ware tandem.
But an equally urgent subtext developed Tuesday with the news of Denver receiver Wes Welker's stunning four-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. There had been no guarantee before the news broke that Welker, who suffered a concussion in preseason action, would have been cleared for Week 1 anyway, but the suspension locked Denver in for an extended glimpse of what life without the receiver would be like for Peyton Manning.
Welker's suspension means three of the five players who scored at least 10 touchdowns for the Broncos last season -- running back Knowshon Moreno (now with the Miami Dolphins), receiver Eric Decker (now with the New York Jets) and Welker -- will not be on the field against the Colts this week. Welker, in particular, has become Manning's security blanket (as the former Patriots pass catcher used to be for Tom Brady), thanks to the timing they've developed and Welker's willingness to go over the middle. It was no accident that Colts coach Chuck Pagano called Welker a "nightmare". The Colts (like the Seahawks, another Denver opponent this year) have physical defensive backs who will try to disrupt Manning's timing with his outside receivers. That's the kind of situation in which Manning needs Welker most.
But the thread that runs through everything the Broncos' offense does is Manning. And the results from 2013, during which Welker missed three games after suffering his second concussion of the season, tell you Welker's absence will not be nearly as crippling to Denver as, say, Rob Gronkowski's was to New England. When Welker was not on the field, Manning threw 16 touchdown passes and one interception -- and when Welker was on the field, Manning threw 39 touchdowns and nine picks. To point this out is not to negate Welker's importance; it's merely to put into perspective Manning's ability to adjust, especially because the Broncos have known for weeks that losing Welker was a distinct possibility.
With Decker heading for New York, the Broncos added Emmanuel Sanders, who caught 67 passes and six touchdowns last year in Pittsburgh, to vacuum up some of the throws Decker used to get. Sanders can play multiple receiver positions, and he could get time in Welker's spot now. The Broncos also drafted receiver Cody Latimer, who figures to get more playing time than initially imagined now that Welker is gone.
In the end, though, the absence that might be most significant for Manning on Sunday will be on the other side of the field. The Colts' Robert Mathis, who led the NFL with 19.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles last season, has also been suspended for the first four games of 2014. Remember that when Manning and the Broncos visited Indy last season, Mathis was a one-man wrecking crew. His strip-sack of Manning led to a safety and jump-started the Colts' upset -- and, for good measure, a Mathis hit aggravated an ankle sprain for Manning.
Manning was matter-of-fact about losing Welker. Of course, knowing that last year, the Broncos went 7-0 without Miller and landed home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs despite losing head coach John Fox in the middle of the season to emergency heart surgery, he has reason to be in early turn-the-page mode.
"You find out a little bit about your team, and can you handle it?" Manning said. "It's easy when everything is going smooth and you don't have any kind of adversity. Hopefully, last year will have prepared us for these types of situations. The third year running, we've had a starting player suspended. That's not something the Broncos want to brag about, but it's the reality. We have been able to win games despite that."
Now that the season has officially begun, here are 10 more things to watch as the rest of the Week 1 slate plays out:
1) Who had a worse offseason: the San Francisco 49ers in general or the Dallas Cowboys' defense in particular? The 49ers' vaunted defense will be without NaVorro Bowman (recovering from knee surgery), Glenn Dorsey (torn biceps) and Aldon Smith (suspended nine games) -- and possibly Ray McDonald (arrested last weekend for a domestic violence complaint), too. Smith's absence, at least, will be good news for Tony Romo's surgically repaired back. Yes, the Niners were the only NFL team that didn't allow a 100-yard rusher in 2013 and are the only squad to have ranked in the top five defensively each of the past three seasons, but those injuries are a lot to overcome -- especially considering San Francisco's first-team offense generated just six points in the preseason (although that was before star guard Alex Booneended his holdout). If Colin Kaepernick can't get going against these Cowboys, of course, that'll suggest he has issues far deeper than Boone's participation level. Dallas' defense was easily the NFL's worst last year -- giving up almost 18 yards more per game than the 31st-ranked Vikings -- and it appears to have fallen even further, thanks to a combination of salary-cap-fueled departures (DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher), injuries (Sean Lee, Anthony Spencer, rookie Demarcus Lawrence) and suspensions (Orlando Scandrick). Those players accounted for 19 sacks, 244 tackles, seven interceptions and 31 quarterback hits in 2013. Keep an eye on third downs when these teams face off Sunday; last season, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin combined to catch 53 third-down passes for 786 yards, the most by any duo in the NFL.
2) The first installment of what could be Brian Hoyer's very limited engagement as the Browns' starting quarterback. Hoyer will kick off his tenure against a Steelers defense that got younger and faster in the offseason. While the year-long suspension of receiver Josh Gordon means Cleveland probably won't try to go deep anyway, we should point out Hoyer has struggled on throws of at least 10 yards -- he was 3-of-13 (23.1 percent) on such tosses in the preseason, the third-worst mark among quarterbacks with at least 10 attempts. Tight end Jordan Cameron is the only member of the Browns playing in Week 1 who caught more than 15 passes for the team in 2013. More bad news for Hoyer: Linebacker Ryan Shazier is expected to be the first Steelers defender to start the opener as a rookie in 13 years.
3) Can the Giants get their new offense together and stay in what could be a shootout with the Lions?Eli Manning led 17 Giants drives this preseason -- eight of which were three-and-outs -- accounting for just 21 points while completing 48.8 percent of his passes. Something to watch for with respect to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford: No team threw more passes of 20-plus yards last season than the Ravens, for whom new Detroit coach Jim Caldwell was serving as offensive coordinator. Stafford might have to do a lot of that, considering seven of the nine losses the Lions suffered in 2013 came after the team blew a fourth-quarter lead -- that's the highest such mark in the NFL.
4) Welcome to the starting lineup, Derek Carr.Now meet Rex Ryan, who is 7-3 against rookie quarterbacks as the Jets' head coach. Ryan's defense has slipped in the past few years -- it ranked 11th in 2013 -- but New York's front remains the strength of this team, and Ryan is crafty when it comes to disguising coverages and designing blitzes to cause confusion. If Carr can figure out what he's looking at on Sunday, though, he'll have a chance to complete some passes for the Raiders against a secondary in disarray. The corners who are expected to start for the Jets are Darrin Walls and converted safety Antonio Allen, who have four career starts at the position between them, all by Walls. Carr won the Oakland job by leading the team to scores on seven of his 13 preseason drives (excluding kneel-downs). Still, the odds are against the Raiders, who have lost their last 13 1 p.m. starts in the Eastern time zone.
5) Can Robert Griffin III regain his rookie form while getting the first glimpse of the terrifying tandem of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney?RGIII struggled in the preseason after a putting together a miserable sophomore campaign (12 interceptions in 2013 compared to five as a rookie in 2012). Washington wants Griffin -- another year removed from knee surgery -- to stay in the pocket more. The presence of deep threat DeSean Jackson, signed after being released by the Eagles, should be a boost (and will help open up the running game). Griffin's instinct to run under pressure could be tested by Texans defensive linemen Watt (who has 31 sacks in the past two years) and Clowney (three tackles for loss and one sack in the preseason). Washington tackle Trent Williams will probably face Clowney, but remember that Watt can rush from outside or inside -- and Washington has struggled to protect in the interior.
6) Just how much of a difference can Darrelle Revis make in New England?On Sunday, the Dolphins will be spared having to face him andBrandon Browner (who is out with a suspension). But consider this: The Patriots allowed 36 pass plays of at least 25 yards last season, ninth-most in the NFL. Over the past three seasons, the team has given up 118 such plays, the most in the NFL. Revis has never been on a team that allowed as many pass plays of at least 25 yards as the Patriots did in any of the past three seasons. Revis has five career interceptions against Miami (tied for most against any team), but he might not be very busy, anyway. Ryan Tannehill will stand behind an entirely reconstructed Dolphins offensive line after getting sacked 58 times last season. No wonder his completion percentage on passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air was just 22.4.
7) Has the Atlanta pass rush figured out how to slow the Saints' offense? If not, Drew Brees will torch the Falconsin the Georgia Dome. Since 2006, Brees has completed 44.7 percent of his pass attempts that have traveled at least 20 yards in the air, the highest such percentage in the NFL. Last year, the Saints were the first team ever to have four players with 70-plus receptions in a season. Keep an eye on Brandin Cooks, the electrifying rookie in New Orleans who caught nine passes for 101 yards and a touchdown in the preseason. As for the aforementioned Falcons pass rush, the team ranked 29th in sacks last year and still lacks a premier pass rusher. A bad omen for Atlanta: In 2013, the squad allowed points on 45.1 percent of drives, the third-highest percentage since tracking began in 1993. The Falcons' scoring defense ranked 27th last year.
8) Is anybody going to complete a pass or score when the Bucs face the Panthers? After posting the NFL's worst total and passing offense in 2013, the Bucs used all six of their draft picks on offense and signed Josh McCown to be their starting quarterback -- but didn't exactly see improved results in the preseason, in which they were last in total offense again. Furthermore, Tampa Bay could be without new offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford, who underwent an undisclosed surgical procedure last month, for the opener. The Panthers, meanwhile, aren't in much better shape. Their offense ranked 26th overall and 29th in passing, and they had the fewest plays of at least 20 yards in the league. No receiver who caught a pass for Carolina last year remains on the team, and quarterback Cam Newton is suddenly a game-time decision, recovering from offseason ankle surgery and preseason cracked ribs. Of course, if you like defensive slugfests -- Panthers coach Rivera was Lovie Smith's defensive coordinator in Chicago -- this is the best game of the week. Carolina was second in scoring defense and total defense in 2013, leading the NFL with 60 sacks and allowing 20 points or fewer in 13 of 16 games. The Bucs finished tied for the third most takeaways; it's worth noting Smith's teams have been in the top 10 in takeaways in nine of his 12 seasons as a head coach/defensive coordinator.
Harrison: Power Rankings, Week 1
9) Can Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith continue his upward trend against the Titans' defense? Smith's numbers improved in the second half of 2013, even though the Chiefs struggled as a team during that stretch. His completion percent from Week 8 through the end of the regular season was 63.2, and he threw 16 touchdowns and three interceptions. Just 8.3 percent of his passes went at least 20 yards in the air, the fourth-lowest percentage in the league. Against the Titans last season, Smith was 20-of-39 passing for 245 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. He will have to do it without Dwayne Bowe, who is suspended for the game, but the Tennessee defense, which ranked 14th last year, is transitioning to a 3-4 -- and is attempting to do so without standout cornerback Alterraun Verner, who signed with Tampa Bay.
10) How quickly will players and officials adjust to the point of emphasis on rules regarding defensive contact? Throughout August, flags flew for defensive holding and illegal contact at a mind-numbing -- and game-slowing -- rate: This preseason, 172 defensive holding and 98 illegal contact penalties were called, compared to 36 and 18, respectively, last year. The numbers declined as the preseason wore on, though, raising hopes that the first few regular-season games will not be three-and-a-half-hour slogs.