5 things to watch this NFL season

The NFL can be a strange place. Sometimes it's a league where alleged assault gets you suspended three games but insider trading gets you fired; where Nathan Peterman earns jobs as Colin Kaepernick earns trials; where the Browns can never seem to get out of their own way.

But it's also where we get some of sports' most unforgettable moments, where a Minneapolis Miracle gives way to a Philly Special.

For six days a week, football can seem like it's filled with injuries and controversy and bad tweets from the president. But on Sundays, it all goes away when some of the world's most exciting athletes take over.

As the 2018 NFL season kicks off Thursday night, let's take a look at the key storylines.

Can the Eagles repeat?

We'll begin at the end of 2017. Remember that time Nick Foles won Super Bowl MVP after catching a touchdown pass to help take down Tom Brady's New England Patriots? Yes, that really happened.

To recap the Eagles' season: QB Carson Wentz ascended in his second year, pushing himself into the MVP conversation and the Eagles into first in the NFC East. Then Week 13 arrived, and Wentz tore his ACL.

Philadelphia was locked into the playoffs, but stuck with Foles behind centre. After barely surviving a home playoff game against Atlanta, Foles and the Eagles hit their stride, crushing the home Super Bowl dreams of the Vikings before knocking off the powerful Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Now, as a rematch with the Falcons looms in the Thursday night season opener, Wentz's surgeon is still recommending a cautious approach and he will not be ready for Week 1. Foles, meanwhile, battled an injury of his own in training camp. It seems unlikely the Eagles can reclaim last season's magic.

But, hey, crazier things have happened.

Can the Patriots keep it going?

Those crazy things just haven't happened in the AFC East.

Since 2003, the Patriots have won every single division championship — except for the year Brady was knocked out in the first half of the first game of the season.

The easiest bet in the world is on the Patriots winning this division again. The Dolphins are returning Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, which seems promising until you remember he's a mediocre player coming off over a year's worth of knee injuries.

The Jets seem to have a future with third-overall pick Sam Darnold in the mix, but the problem with the future is it's not the present.

And then there's the Bills. The Bills made the playoffs last season! It's been a while since we could say that.

They didn't score a touchdown once they were there, though. And the folk hero of their playoff run is… Bengals QB Andy Dalton, whose TD pass on the season's final day knocked out Baltimore and got the Bills in through the back door. 

All of which is to say: be prepared for another Brady/Belichick playoff run.

QB carousel

The continuity and existing infrastructure in New England is strong. But most teams don't enjoy that and many will start the season in flux at the game's most important position.

In the off-season, Alex Smith went from the Chiefs to Washington, Kirk Cousins moved from Washington to the Vikings and Case Keenum headed west from the Vikings to the Broncos. Meanwhile, the Jets and Chiefs are handing over their QB jobs to first-round picks, the Bills to a fifth-round pick and the Packers, Texans and Colts return star passers from season-ending injuries.

Five quarterbacks were drafted in the first round of the 2018 draft. Only Darnold will start Week 1. But Baker Mayfield (Browns, 1st overall), Josh Allen (Bills, 7th), Josh Rosen (Cardinals, 10th) and Lamar Jackson (Ravens, 32nd) are all one injury or a spurt of under-performance away from becoming the starter.

As the old guard of quarterbacks begins to fade, it seems their replacements are already in the wings.

Helmet rule

Maybe the new QBs can avoid some of the head trauma that many of their elder peers have sustained.

The league made a new rule in the off-season that hands a 15-yard penalty to any offensive or defensive player that strikes an opponent with his helmet. Unsurprisingly, the penalty was called incessantly during the pre-season, prompting fan concern about the subjective call costing teams when the games begin to matter.

This is the paradox of the modern NFL — many fans are shying away from the sport due to its violence, but changes to make the game safer take away from the essence of the sport itself.

If you thought you were tired of talking about what constitutes a catch, get ready for 17 weeks of determining the helmet rule. This debate isn't ending any time soon.

Who's in and who's out?

Still, despite arguments over rules and uneasiness about concussions, football persists because it's a lot of fun to watch.

One of the reasons for that is parity. Patriots aside, we see new division winners and surprise teams every year — like the 2017 Eagles.

This year, the Chicago Bears could be that team. Comparisons to last season's Rams make sense — like that team did, the Bears have a new, offensive-minded head coach paired with a sophomore quarterback and some weapons surrounding him.

Then, on the eve of the season, the Bears brought in former defensive player of the year Khalil Mack from the Oakland Raiders. Oddsmakers have set the Bears' over/under for wins for the season at 6.5 and there's plenty of reason to think they can surpass that mark, even in a tough NFC North.

Another team listed at 6.5 wins is the New York Giants, coming off a dismal 3-13 showing. But despite returning the aging Eli Manning at quarterback, the Giants could make some noise in the mediocre NFC East. Odell Beckham Jr., back from injury, will be joined on offence by second-overall pick Saquon Barkley to give New York explosive scoring threats at both receiver and running back. The dismissal of former head coach Ben McAdoo should automatically make this team better.

Also in the NFC East, the Cowboys could take another step back as their biggest strength — the offensive line — battles injuries once again. The jury is still out on QB Dak Prescott, and their over/under of 8.5 wins seems too high.

Similarly, the shine has worn off on the Seattle Seahawks. Their Legion of Boom defence has been dismantled and the team still hasn't found anyone to block for QB Russell Wilson. Wilson will win some games on his own but it'll be tough sledding for Seattle to go over the line of 8.5 wins.

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CBC | Sports News