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NFL: Football Returns As Packers Seek To Topple Seahawks

football

It’s back. That other kind of football. The American one, where they throw the ball, wear all those big pads and make tackles with the velocity of lorries in fourth gear. The NFL never really goes away, because the draft has developed into a huge event with build-up starting the morning after the Super Bowl, and then pre-season training starts months in advance of the regular season. It is remarkable how the NFL has managed to be a year-round sport even though they only play for four months of the year. Maybe that’s why it is such a relief to have regular competition back now.

Thursday night will see the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks, kick the year off with a home game against the Green Bay Packers. No team has won successive Super Bowl’s since the Patriots in 2004/05, but the Seahawks were clearly the dominant side in the NFL last season. Although they have lost some talented guys, they look well positioned to reign once more.

It certainly won’t be a one horse race though. The Seahawks play in the toughest division in football and, although the teams in the NFC West have suffered setbacks this off-season, none of those games will be easy for Seattle. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots have both been busy signing up key pieces for their run at the title, while the New Orleans Saints have gone for a huge personnel shake-up which could see them rise to the top. The Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts are going to have their say along the way, and certainly don’t rule out the Packers, who will be looking to lay down a marker on Thursday night.

For our weekly preview, we’re going to look ahead to six of the most tantalising fixtures of the week, while we’ll also do a full review of results and talking points once all the scores are settled.

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks

The champions have lost Red Bryant and Chris Clemons from their famed defensive line rotation, while Sidney Rice and the sure-handed Golden Tate have left the receiving core since the last time we saw them in action. Breno Giacomini has also departed from the offensive line, as well as a few other players here and there, but Seattle has managed to retain the vastly important spine of this side. Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Earl Thomas all signed new long-term contracts, and although Marshawn Lynch wasn’t able to secure a new deal for himself, he still remains part of the Seahawks set-up. The defense is a bona fide behemoth. The offensive problems last year stemmed from injury problems, so if the ‘hawks can get Percy Harvin on the field and avoid the series of injuries suffered by offensive linemen, then it will take a really good team to stop them.

Green Bay made some interesting moves in the off-season too. They re-signed BJ Raji and Sam Shields, and moved for defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Letroy Guion, weakening divisional rivals the Bears and Vikings respectively. Peppers is a fascinating addition, a superbly talented defensive end who is in a class of his own when at his best. It turns out Guion was a necessary addition too, as Raji has since gone done with a season-ending injury. That defensive line has to produce more than last year for Green Bay to progress, while doubts hover over their ability to protect Aaron Rodgers, with a suspect offensive line in place. The Packers have also lost dynamic tight-end Jermichael Finley after he suffered a spinal cord injury that may yet force him to retire. Green Bay has plenty of promise, and this might not be the last time these teams meet this year, but for now Seattle look too strong to go down at home.

Verdict: Seahawks

New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta approached the off-season very clinically: diagnose the areas of difficulty and address them quickly. They struggled badly up front last season, and have added significant bodies on both offensive and defensive lines. Jon Asamoah is in to play guard, while Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson have arrived to beef up the defensive line. Atlanta has had some top players in place for the last few years, and only narrowly missed out on a place in Super Bowl XLVII. Last year was an anomaly, so if the big guys they brought in can make an impact, and they protect Matt Ryan’s blindside, then there’s no reason they can’t be in the mix for the NFC title. One potential problem is that their divison, the NFC South, now looks loaded with contenders. Divisional games like this are vital.

It was a changing of the guard in New Orleans this year, as they released Roman Harper, Will Smith and Jabrari Greer, all veterans of the franchise’s only Super Bowl win. They signed and released Robert Meachem and Champ Bailey, while trading away Darren Sproles to Philadelphia for a fifth-round pick. One thing to note about all those guys is that they have been around for a while. Sean Payton thought they had been around too long. He has opted for revolution, getting rid of all those guys and bringing in Jairus Byrd, arguably the best safety available in free agency, while also trading up in the draft to get Brandin Cooks, a new deep threat for Payton to play with. The addition of Byrd is massive to the Saints secondary. Payton isn’t wasting time. He is going for the big wins now, while he still has Drew Brees in his prime.

Verdict: Saints

texans

Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens

Questions abound for the Ravens offense. Can Flacco raise his game to the level his contract demands? Can the run game get any success? Is the offensive line good enough? At least the addition of Steve Smith will help. The former Panthers receiver isn’t going to settle for less, and will be a driving force in the Ravens attempts to bounce back. The addition of Gary Kubiak at offensive co-ordinator should see a change in style, with more stretch zone-running and play-action style. As always, the defense in Baltimore will be stern, although the corners will need to tighten up a bit and the defensive line must make more impact. The Ravens could go either way and it will be interesting to see how their season unfolds.

The Bengals have been flat-track bullies for the last number of seasons. They crushed the Jets 49-9 in the regular season, but then they froze when they got to the post-season yet again.  Andy Dalton has been given a new contract, but he has got to cut down on the mistakes. Too many times towards the end of last year did he throw boneheaded picks. Fortunately for him, he is surrounded by a very talented unit. Giovani Bernard is now joined by Jeremy Hill in the backfield for what will be an exciting running back tandem, while AJ Green is still an outstanding weapon on the outside. The defense is ferocious at all levels, and the return of Geno Atkins will make them even more so. The Bengals will be expecting post-season football again, and the pressure will be on Dalton to deliver.

Verdict: Bengals

New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

Miami, as ever, is a work in progress. They spent big before last season, bringing in the likes of Mike Wallace and Dannell Ellerbe, only for the offensive line to fall apart over the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal. That has seen the line be almost entirely rebuilt, although Branden Albert would have been targeted regardless. If he can secure Ryan Tannehill’s blindside, the promising young quarterback will have a chance to shine. Mike Wallace needs to do a lot more to earn his money, and it will be interesting to see Knowshon Moreno’s impact in an offense not led by Peyton Manning. They have several promising defensive players, but it remains to be seen if Miami can get all their ducks in a row.

The Patriots have been busy. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner are part of a rebuilt secondary, while Brandon LaFell has joined the wide receiver corps. The Pats have been throwing serious bodies at wide out and defensive linemen for the last twelve months or so, and the comings and goings are hard to keep track of, but it now looks like they have good depth at those positions. They also have serious depth at cornerback, and may even look to try some ambitious three-safety packages. The offensive line will be short of Logan Mankins after his trade to the Bucs, and that will likely hurt for a while. But there are very few reasons to think New England won’t be successful in the season ahead.

Verdict: Patriots

San Francisco at Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys struggled to an 8-8 record last year, largely due to a historically bad defense. That dreadful unit has since lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher to Denver and Washington respectively, while Sean Lee is already on injured reserve for the season. Rookie DeMarcus Lawrence is also now on injured reserve, but he will likely return for part of the season. But the defensive effort will surely continue to drag the Cowboys down. Offensively, Tony Romo is returning after major back surgery, while Miles Austin was another high profile departure. Admittedly Austin has struggled to stay healthy, but it does put further pressure on Dez Bryant to make big plays regularly. It may well be a long year in Dallas.

San Francisco are not exactly coming into this season all guns blazing themselves. It has been a very disruptive off-season, following Alex Boone’s holdout and Aldon Smith’s nine game suspension, while they also await NaVorro Bowman’s return after a horrific leg injury. Boone’s holdout has finally ended, and Bowman is expected to be available midway through the season, but they are all serious setbacks. The Niners have yet again made big changes to the secondary, with Antoine Bethea signing up to take Donte Whitner’s place. Stevie Johnson was acquired to add real depth to a receiver set that was very weak twelve months ago. The Niners will be solid but likely take a step back this year. They need to beat the likes of Dallas if they are to continue their streak of making it to the playoffs.

Verdict: Forty-Niners

Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos were last seen being mauled in the Super Bowl, but General Manager John Elway has done as much as he possibly could to make sure there’s no repeat of that game. In have come DeMarcus Ware, TJ Ward and Aqib Talib to seriously beef up the defense, while Emmanuel Sanders has also joined, ostensibly as a replacement for the departed Eric Decker. Sanders versatility will be beneficial, especially given Wes Welker’s concussion and suspension combination, which rules him out for at least the first four games. The Broncos offense improved significantly after the acquisition of Welker, and there will be big pressure on Sanders to replicate his high performances when he’s gone. Really though, the squad’s departures have mostly been superficial types, either big names or players where there was already depth, so Denver look good to go right now.

Not too much change in Indianapolis. D’Qwell Jackson is a badly needed upgrade at linebacker, and Hakeem Nicks is potentially a very shrewd punt. This Colts team has been good enough to get to the playoffs in both of Andrew Luck’s seasons so far, and an increasingly weak division suggests little will change in that regard this season. But Denver at home so early on should be a bit too much.

Verdict: Broncos

Other fixtures:

Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears

Washington Redskins at Houston Texans

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs

Oakland Raiders at New York Jets

Jacksonville Jaguars at Philadelphia Eagles

Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers

Minnesota Vikings at Saint Louis Rams

Carolina Panthers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers

New York Giants at Detroit Lions

San Diego Chargers at Arizona Cardinals

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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