When the 2012 NFL season kicks off next week, 32 teams will begin fighting for the right to play in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans. As a way to pay homage to their pursuit of football's ultimate prize, I've picked XLVII things that I'm looking forward to seeing when the games start.
I. Tebowmania. Running that mysterious Wildcat, serving as the personal protector on punts, jogging in the rain without a shirt on ... There's no telling where the game's most polarizing player will end up. I, for one, can't wait to find out how the New York Jets are going to use him. Anything for more Tebow coverage!
II. Postgame Belichick. There might not be a more underrated pleasure than listening to a Bill Belichick postgame news conference. The subtle messages, the monosyllabic answers that are occasionally followed by a random deep explanation of football; listening to the New England Patriots coach is always an experience of the unexpected.
III. Lewis' speeches. Is there a better pregame moment than when Baltimore Ravens veteran Ray Lewis gathers his teammates for a motivating yell session, complete with close-talking inspiration and shouts of acknowledgment? Lewis might be getting older, but those speeches are timeless. (It's just funny that the cameras always happen to be there.)
VII. Pirate ships. Or, more specifically, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pirate ship. It's just awesome. Weekly loser is forced to walk the plank?
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XI. Woodson the safety. For years, ball-hawking Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson dabbled at safety. He worked inside in packages and thrived as a do-it-all slot corner. The only difference now? He's there full-time. Woodson is rolling with the challenge and eyeing a career rejuvenation.
XII. Cam's pearly whites.Cam Newton's smile was criticized before the 2011 NFL Draft, held up as evidence that his apparently joyous approach to the game was a ruse. By now, of course, we know the Carolina Panthers quarterback wasn't putting one over on us; his love of football is real. We should see many more grin-worthy moments as Newton avoids a sophomore slump and continues to rise with one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses.
XIII. Fitz getting the ball. It'd be tough to give more than Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald does, both as a humanitarian and on the field. So can someone please return the favor and give the Pro Bowl receiver the football? Hopefully, Fitz won't spend 2012 in three-and-out purgatory, regardless of who's under center.
XIV. McCoy coming back. The fast-playing, faster-talking Gerald McCoy ended last season on the sidelines with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, watching his train wreck of a team flounder. He has a new, more diligent routine, and his return to the field should be intriguing. It's easy to forget he was once considered a big-time rising star.
XVII. Freeney running free. Call me old-fashioned, but there's still something special about Indianapolis Colts veteran Dwight Freeney putting his hand on the turf and racing around the edge to get to a quarterback. New system, new look, new two-point stance; here's hoping he still spends most of his time harassing passers.
XVIII. A.P. playing again. Hey, Minnesota Vikings teammates are now allowed to have contact with running back Adrian Peterson in practice. So that's something. But the physical freak will only be happy when he gets back to game action. Good thing it's still looking like we won't have to wait too long.
XIX. Julio rising. There will be a time when Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones climbs an imaginary wall to out-leap his defender and make a ridiculous catch. Actually, that will probably happen many times. This is the year when Jones comes into his own and becomes the all-world star he's threatening to be.
XX. The wrath of Willis. They're over quickly, but those moments when San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis spots an opening in the line and darts through are truly special. The poor running backs on the other side of the collisions that follow probably don't share this sentiment, though. Willis' recognition skills and a well-tooled closing ability turn him into a missile on the field.
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XXII. When Megatron attacks. Rising young receiver A.J. Green spent time in the offseason working with Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson, and he got a lesson in how Megatron attacks the ball in mid-air, closing in like it's his prey. (Never mind that the football looks like a piece of Pez candy in his hands.) So much fun to watch.
XXV. The development of DJax. Armed with a new contract and speaking like he has renewed confidence, Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson is ready for the next chapter of his career. Thus far, he's had moments of brilliance and others that have ended with him being benched. The big question this year: Will he go over the middle and show his toughness? That remains to be seen.
XXVII. RG3 rescuing the Redskins. As the most marketable, likeable, dynamic rookie quarterback since Michael Vick, all Robert Griffin III carries on his shoulders are the expectations of a fan base that's tired of waiting to win. Ho hum. No biggie. Just watch the region-wide love fest that erupts after RG3 pulls off his first upset victory with the Washington Redskins.
XXIX. Finding out about Mathews. The Ryan Mathews Express was ready to board when a broken collarbone derailed the young running back's preseason. Can Mathews finally, really, seriously, this-time-we-mean-it carry the load the way he was supposed to when the San Diego Chargers drafted him with the 12th overall pick in 2010? The way his rehab is going, we could find out in Week 1.
XXX. The Browns ... actually, there's not much to look forward to here. Poor Cleveland. A new owner points the way to a light at the end of the tunnel. But this season figures to be a long one.
XXXI. The Ravens getting their T-Sizzle back. The Baltimore Ravens are hoping that one of their dominant players, Terrell Suggs, can make it back to the field at some point this season. If they struggle to rush the passer -- and they sure might -- expect the drumbeat for the injured star's return to start early.
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XXXIII. Wallace going long. Now that Mike Wallace is back with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the focus shifts to the receiver's on-field behavior. There is probably no player who can better accommodate Big Ben's desire to fire the ball downfield when he's under pressure; Wallace's re-acclimation process will likely be fast.
XXXIV. A vegan revolution? If Houston Texans running back Arian Foster leads the NFL in rushing, will it be a boon for the vegan movement? Maybe. The reality is, Foster was already eating little red meat when he first started tooling on defenders. Now he's just gone all-in, officially cutting out all animal products.
XXXV. Football weather. Quarterbacks bundle up in the cold, guarding against the elements with hand warmers, scarves and sometimes even SCUBA suits. Linemen, by contrast, wear short sleeves. There's just something that's right about that.
XXXVI. Seeing Gang Green's true colors. We've all spent so much time in the grips of Tebowmania this offseason, it's easy to forget that there's more to the Jets. Criticize the franchise for creating a potential mess on offense, but also recognize that the defense could be nasty, maybe even the best in the NFL. This season will showcase Rex Ryan, defensive mastermind, at his best.
XXXVIII. Buffalo breaking through. The biggest splash of the offseason was made by one of the NFL's littlest teams. The Buffalo Bills reeled in star defender Mario Williams, hosting him for a visit then finding a way to keep him from leaving. The Bills' fruitful, expensive foray into free agency has them in position to challenge the New England Patriots in the AFC East.
XXXIX."Hard Knocks" re-runs. A rookie quarterback, no receivers, all-new coaches, a tough division and depth issues everywhere? This could be a loooooong year for the Miami Dolphins.
XL. The Jake Locker experience. It has a chance to be wildly successful, assuming the athletic second-year starter fixes his accuracy issues, which might be caused by nerves. The Tennessee Titans know that they have the best backup in football in Matt Hasselbeck, but they surely don't want to see him have to take the field.
XLI. Watching the MJD drama play out. Think the Jacksonville Jaguars are looking forward to the end of running back Maurice Jones-Drew's holdout? Of course. They just won't say it. In the meantime, another back has emerged in his absence. No, Rashad Jennings won't be another MJD. But he showed he can be a suitable backup, helping Jacksonville put pressure on Jones-Drew.
XLII. Gates being great again. Cross your fingers, knock on wood, but it looked like San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates was back to his old, fast, electric self in camp. San Diego will be without a key weapon in Vincent Brown for a while, but a resurgent Gates can make everything all better. Only quarterback Philip Rivers affects the offense more than the perennial Pro Bowler.
XLIII. Reid getting a break. Even the Eagles haters in the world -- and there are many -- have to be rooting just a little bit for Philly to win. Coach Andy Reid deserves some happiness after a tragic preseason that saw him bury his son. Notching a quick win to open an easy, carefree season would be fitting.
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XLV. That old A-Rod magic. The Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers makes playing quarterback look so easy -- passing the ball, finding a rhythm early and turning ordinary receivers into supermen. But I love when it all breaks down. That's when everyone can see what an athlete he is. Rodgers thrives against man coverage when no one is open, because then he can pull the ball down, run and make defenders feel the shock that comes with eating his dust.
XLVI. The Rams making noise. With so much youth and so many new faces, it might take time, but Jeff Fisher's St. Louis Rams will eventually surprise someone. They will jump up and scare the heck out of an opponent. Whether they can do so frequently enough to bring the playoffs within reach is another matter, though that would be impressive.
XLVII. Kickoff. Let's go.