Sunday 18 February 2018 / 12:36 PM

Top 10 things to know before the season begins

I fully realize that the vast majority of my readers don’t eat, breathe and sleep football like I do. In fact, for many of you, the last time you gave much thought to the NFL was right before you turned off Super Bowl XLVIII and logged into Facebook to play Candy Crush.

So for you, the casual fan, I’ve put together this list of 10 things you absolutely need to get up to speed on prior to the kickoff of the 2014 NFL campaign.

But don’t worry, you American football nutters out there, there’s plenty of good stuff in here for you, too.

So with just only a few more sleeps to endure before Green Bay travels to Seattle to avenge the now infamous ‘Fail Mary’ game of 2012, let’s get ’er started.

10. Watch out for Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars

So far it looks like Jacksonville won the rookie QB lottery when they selected Blake Bortles out of Central Florida with the third pick in the 2014 NFL draft. There was plenty of conjecture as to who was the most pro-ready signal caller coming out of the NCAA this year and for once the Jags seem to have got it right.

In three preseason games Bortles has shown incredible poise and confidence for a rookie and his overall stat line is equally impressive. He’s thrown for 435 yards on 28 of 45 passing with one touchdown, but more importantly he hasn’t tossed a single interception.

Gus Bradley’s team made incredible strides in the latter half of the 2013 season and it’s not as though they play in the toughest division, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team double their win total in 2014. Eight wins, however, won’t quite be good enough for postseason play. The Jags aren’t quite there, but in a season or two they could be.

Either way, Bortles is the rookie quarterback to keep your eye on.

9. You’ll have to wait to see Johnny Football

Head Coach Mike Pettine of the Cleveland Browns recently dropped the not-so-bombshell news that indeed Brian Hoyer would be dressing as the starter under center in week one.

We’ve known for a while now that the team wanted to make it clear to Johnny Manziel that he’d have to earn his stripes before being handed the keys to the franchise, but unfortunately for the Dawg Pound it seems that Hoyer has been given the job by default, rather than having earned the starting nod.

Both quarterbacks have been underwhelming in the preseason, with Hoyer throwing passes all over the place and Manziel looking to be over his head against NFL caliber defenses. Manziel, however, has shown flashes of brilliance, particularly with his legs, so it’s far too soon to judge what the future might bring. Hopefully starting off with a bit of a challenge will be just the fire under his ass that he needs.

I’d be shocked if we don’t see Johnny Football get his opportunity to dazzle before week eight, but – especially with star receiver Josh Gordon staring down a suspension – it could be yet another long year in Cleveland.

8. Don’t expect Manning to break his own records

Last season Peyton Manning threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns with just 10 INTs. While the Denver Broncos are once again the favorites to represent the AFC in the big game, don’t expect Peyton to put up similar numbers this season.

Drew Brees is the only quarterback to ever throw for 5,000 yards two years in a row, and while Manning’s got a decent shot at becoming the second, most QBs experience a big drop-off season after throwing 40-plus touchdowns the previous year.

Look for John Fox to take a balanced approach in 2014, running the ball more with Montee Ball and relying more on their much-improved defense.

I’m not saying to pass on #18 as your fantasy QB, just don’t expect him to necessarily win your league singlehanded like he did for many in 2013.

7. More flags and higher scoring

Depending on the level to which the league implements the “Seattle Seahawks” rule, we can expect to see a lot more flags thrown for defensive holding and pass interference in 2014.

With quite a few front offices complaining in the off-season about the ‘Legion of Boom’s’ physical style of pass coverage, the NFL announced that they’d be cracking down on illegal contact once the receiver has reached five yards past the line of scrimmage.

But make no bones about it – the new interpretation of the rule will affect all 32 teams’ secondaries and not just the defending champs’.

6. Philip Rivers is set for a huge season

The San Diego Chargers made a huge run in the latter half of the 2013 campaign to eke into the playoffs. They then went on to upset the Bengals in Cincinnati before falling in the Divisional Round to Denver.

While the Bolts looked like the No.3 team in the AFC West record wise, it was clear to see that KC’s success was formed on the back of a last-place schedule. Look for Rivers to have a big year and keep the Chargers neck-and-neck with Manning and the Broncos all the way to the end.

I don’t see them successfully knocking off the champs just yet, but they ought to secure the first Wild Card slot and at the very least keep Denver sweating.

5. Back-up quarterbacks really do matter

Sam Bradford is once again down and out in St. Louis and what once looked like a potentially promising season for the Rams could wind up being a disaster. Bradford has, at times, looked like a true star in the making, but injuries have kept him off the field for much of his career. His latest setback, a tear in the same ACL that caused him to miss half of last season, might spell the end of his days in St. Louis.

Coach Jeff Fischer says he stands behind new starter Shaun Hill, but rumors are flying that the Rams’ front office is scrambling to make a deal for either Mark Sanchez or Ryan Mallet.

Whether it’s Hill, one of the aforementioned signal callers, or some other player that’s yet to be named, asking a back-up to play a full 16 games rarely pans out with super-positive results.

If they do decide to roll with Hill, they’ll be handing the reins to a player who didn’t complete a pass in 2013 and threw for 172 total yards in 2012 … hmm, perhaps giving Sanchez a second shot doesn’t look like such a bad option after all. Then again, he’s been looking good in Philly and so they won’t be giving up their own safety net for nothing.

4. Two teams and then the rest in the AFC

The two best teams in the AFC only got better over the off-season. While “any given Sunday” is as true now as it ever was, there’s a very good chance we’ll see a rematch of last season’s AFC Championship.

Why are the Broncos and Patriots so far ahead of the pack? Primarily because they’re headed by two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks playing at the top of their game. But both clubs also added a big-time star on defense. Darrelle Revis joined the Pats and DeMarcus Ware moved over from Dallas to Denver.

Until Manning and Brady decide to call it quits, any other QB making it to the big dance in the AFC will only do so via an upset.

3. Speaking of teams getting better …

Generally, when a team wins the Super Bowl they experience all kinds of roster attrition and struggle to play at the same level in the subsequent campaign. The Seahawks, however, might actually be even better in 2014.

The team did lose a couple solid run defenders and their top receiver, but the core of the championship squad is intact and Russell Wilson and the offense are on a mission to prove that the Hawks don’t need to rely on their defense to win games.

After a slow start at Denver, the first unit on offense steamrolled both the Chargers and the Bears, scoring at will. If Percy Harvin stays healthy and Wilson continues to improve, the Seattle offense will give the Hawks a legitimate shot at being the first team to repeat in a decade.

2. Aaron Rodgers will be back with a vengeance

The Packers are looking like clear-cut favorites to not only win their division, but to return to NFC North dominance. With Aaron Rodgers fully recovered and healthy and Eddie Lacy pounding the rock, the Pack will be a force to be reckoned with.

Losing NT B.J. Raji with a torn bicep is a blow to their defensive unit, but the former star has seen his production decline in recent years so his absence shouldn’t spell too much doom and gloom in Green Bay.

1. It’s a whole new season

The beauty of sports is that for all the time we pour into analyzing what will or won’t happen, the real results are what take place in the stadium on Sunday.

Forget about what happened last year and forget about who looked good (or didn’t) in the preseason.

On September 4th every team starts over from scratch and nobody is guaranteed anything.

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Michael Airhart

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