ETTINGER: What to watch for in the NFL this week

Football is back. Following a humbling lockout, a frenzied free-agency and a dramatic preseason, it feels like an eternity since Aaron Rodgers hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy back in February. Yet, here we are again. As the leaves turn gold and the summer air begins to chill, we start anew. Hope springs eternal in this the season’s first week.

None are more excited than the NFL’s devoted fans — the fans who sat patiently through petty collective bargaining squabbles, praying for pigskin come Sept. 8. The day has finally arrived. The NFL’s first week is packed with fascinating matchups and storylines, made all the more gripping by our desperate thirst for action.

With that in mind, it’s important to know what to look out for during this week’s slate of games. While no two fans share precisely the same passion and interest, here is what I will be watching as the season kicks off.

My week will kick off with the season opener tonight at 8:30 p.m. That’s when the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers take on the New Orleans Saints. What’s not to love about this game? The two most recent Super Bowl MVPs — Rodgers and Drew Brees — will square off in a matchup that is sure to be an aerial shootout. The Saints are looking to regroup after a disappointing season that saw Brees throw 22 interceptions and ended with a shocking first-round playoff upset to the Seattle Seahawks. After swapping Heisman-returning running back Reggie Bush for Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram, however, the Saints appear poised to return to the league’s elite. The Packers, meanwhile, will be battling emotion and excitement as they hoist their championship banner in front of the raucous Lambeau Field crowd. With the return to health of tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant, the Packers have only improved since winning it all.

After a two-day hiatus, the action will resume on Sunday with a slate of incredible 1:00 p.m. matchups. Picking one to focus on is a difficult exercise, but I’m most intrigued by the divisional clash of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. While both teams had relatively quiet offseasons, these defensive juggernauts never fail to entertain. These rivals play each other so frequently that there will be no surprises, no tricks, no lack of preparation — just good, hard-nosed football. What’s more, both teams have a considerable amount to prove. The Ravens, still feeling the string of a tough 24–31 loss to the Steelers in the AFC playoffs last season, need to establish themselves early by out-grinding their nemeses. The Steelers, meanwhile, are still nursing the wounds of a difficult Super Bowl loss. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be in the spotlight during this pivotal matchup.

While I keep one eye on the Steelers-Ravens game, I’ll be keeping the other on a number of other intriguing 1:00 p.m. matchups. Don’t underestimate the importance, for example, of the matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans. With Peyton Manning’s health still up in the air, the balance of power may finally be shifting in the AFC South. An early season divisional win by Matt Schaub and the Texans’ high-octane offense could spell disaster for the Colts’ postseason plans. The Texans, however, have their own health concerns in star running back Arian Foster, whose balky hamstring may limit him in Week One. Meanwhile, it’s worth following the “Dream Team” Philadelphia Eagles as they take on Sam Bradford and the rebuilt St. Louis Rams. The Eagles enjoyed an insane haul during an insane free-agency period, but face enough offensive line turnover that that Week One rust could lead to a shocking upset. Don’t sleep on the Rams and sophomore quarterback sensation Sam Bradford. Finally, the 1:00 p.m. games are rounded out by a fascinating showdown between the Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears. Following matching playoff losses to the eventual champion Packers, both teams are itching to return to NFC competition. It’s easy to forget that these talented clubs finished with the two best records in the conference last season.

Just as these games wrap up, a whole new set will begin. While the 4:15 p.m. games lack the luster of their 1:00 p.m. counterparts, there is one matchup that piques my interest — the Carolina Panthers versus the Arizona Cardinals. Both teams are coming off abysmal seasons and have little hope of competing seriously in 2011-2012. This game, however, won’t be about the teams. It will be about the quarterbacks. The Panthers will unveil top overall draft pick Cam Newton, whose raw athleticism earned him starting honors as a rookie. The Cardinals will fire back with acquisition Kevin Kolb, who holds the key to the team’s future. Lofty expectations rest on the shoulders of both players, but both possess the talent to answer in spades.

The afternoon games will give way to Sunday night’s 8:20 p.m. marquee matchup between the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys in New York. This is easily the most intriguing game of the week. In one corner sit the Jets, perhaps the most fascinating club in the NFL. Brazen promises from outspoken head coach Rex Ryan have rendered back-to-back AFC Championship game losses disappointing. However, the team has reason to be hopeful. Their defense, now fully healthy, ranks among the most terrifying in the NFL. Free agent Plaxico Burress, fresh out of prison, has the size to give quarterback Mark Sanchez a second legitimate end zone target. The Dallas Cowboys, meanwhile, are looking to recover after a complete collapse in 2010-2011. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brings a package of schemes that could make the Dallas defense a scary opponent, but the shortened offseason may make the transition bumpy for the Cowboys. Did I mention that Rex and Rob Ryan are brothers that enjoy trading playful barbs through the media? All of this intrigue, however, pales in comparison to the emotion the Jets will feel playing in New York on the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Despite an overdose of NFL on Sunday, I’ll be itching for more when I wake up Monday morning. Fortunately, our friends at ESPN have devised a brilliant relapse device in Monday Night Football, and the Week One doubleheader shouldn’t disappoint. First, we will be treated to a 7:00 p.m. divisional showdown between the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots. For the Patriots, business as usual will be complemented by imported misfits Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco. For the Dolphins, the opener will be a chance for new running back Reggie Bush to prove himself after an embarrassing exit from New Orleans.

Immediately following Dolphins-Pats, the week will wrap up with yet another divisional matchup, this one between the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders at 10:15 p.m. The Broncos have been plagued with quarterback drama all offseason, as former college phenom Tim Tebow went public with his displeasure over lack of playing time. Starting quarterback Kyle Orton, however, was one of the league’s most unsung starters last season, finishing with a whopping 281 passing yards per game. The arrival of new head coach John Fox could make the Broncos a surprise contender. The Raiders, meanwhile, are coming off of a historically odd 2010-2011 in which they managed to sweep all six division games but finish with just an 8–8 record. It remains to be seen whether electric running back Darren McFadden and the Raiders can maintain enough consistency to finally return to the playoffs.

When Monday’s final game concludes, I’ll go back to my calendar and begin counting down the days (six) until Week Two.

John Ettinger is a senior in Saybrook College.

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