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COLUMN

NFL returns with 32 fascinating tales to tell

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For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Even the marginal teams have something to watch

Thursday, September 5, 2013 - 3:15 am

During my unenlightened period, I liked college football better than the NFL.

I was covering Notre Dame, back when Notre Dame was NOTRE DAME with the likes of Lou Holtz, Jerome Bettis and Rocket Ismail. The atmosphere was so much better, so much purer, or so I thought. Plus, the Colts were still fairly new to Indianapolis and fairly mediocre.

Today, I'm solidly in the NFL camp.

I still enjoy college football, but I love the NFL. When it comes to football, the NFL is the best of the best. Any doubt that the game is played at a higher level than college should have been erased by the pro career of (choose one): Tony Rice, Rick Mirer, Jimmy Clausen.

The NFL kicks off with the Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos tonight. It doesn't matter what team you follow, there's nothing quite like the anticipation of what lies ahead.

Here are 32 teams and reasons to be ready for some football:

Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora bring in some outside reinforcements. Can these two keep the Falcons from underachieving again?

Arizona Cardinals: Bruce Arians takes over as coach after his brilliant interim job with the Colts last season. Can he resurrect Carson Palmer's career? It helps to have Larry Fitzgerald.

Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are gone, so it's Joe Flacco's team now. He's being well compensated not to have a drop-off after a Super Bowl season.

Buffalo Bills: C.J. Spiller better have a great season running the ball, which he's fully capable of doing, because the quarterback spot is – what's the word? – fragile.

Carolina Panthers: Remember when Cam Newton was the future of the NFL at quarterback? The Panthers think that's not necessarily yesterday's news. If he can win close games, they could be a surprise team.

Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler is ready to throw, and new coach Marc Trestman loves to air it out. It could be spectacular. Or a spectacular implosion.

Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Eifert has a real chance to be the next big thing in terms of NFL tight ends. You have to root for the hometown kid with the terrific hands. Bengals could surprise.

Cleveland Browns: Norv Turner is a much better offensive coordinator than head coach. With Brandon Weeden at quarterback, Turner might have to show why running backs (Trent Richardson) aren't completely out of vogue.

Dallas Cowboys: Tony Romo is a much better quarterback than many people give him credit for. Go deep, Dez.

Denver Broncos: Peyton Manning is still working on that legacy thing and he has a team that many pick to win the Super Bowl. Can Wes Welker push the Broncos into the biggest game?

Detroit Lions: Can the addition of Reggie Bush make it even easier for Calvin “Megatron” Johnson to get the ball? Lions' offense needs mega-points to survive in tough division.

Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers is back on offense, Clay Matthews on defense. So, yes, the Pack is a Super Bowl contender.

Houston Texans: Defensive end J.J. Watt is the type of player everyone despises if he's not on your team. The Texans need him to get to Andrew Luck if they're going to hold off the Colts in the AFC South.

Indianapolis Colts: Something tells me we're going to be tracking Luck's completion percentage under new coordinator Pep Hamilton. But the only thing that really matters is following up with another playoff team.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew isn't done yet, but the Jags hope to make their offense more dynamic in all phases this season. Not sure if QB Blaine Gabbert can make that happen.

Kansas City Chiefs: Andy Reid was no longer wanted in Philadelphia. Alex Smith was no longer wanted in San Francisco. They'd like to order a couple plates of revenge. Served cold, of course.

Miami Dolphins: Mike Wallace brings a deep threat to the Dolphins. Can Ryan Tannehill deliver the ball enough to keep Wallace from heavy sighing?

Minnesota Vikings: Did Adrian Peterson really say he guaranteed he'll break the NFL rushing record? I say good luck trying to stop him.

New England Patriots: Tom Brady has nobody to throw the ball to with Wes Welker in Denver, Rob Gronkowski in limbo and Aaron Hernandez off the roster. Brady has a knack for making nobodies into somebodies. Bet he does so again.

New Orleans Saints: Rob Ryan will attempt to improve the Saints' horrid defense. But expect Drew Brees to need big numbers (5,177 yards, 43 TDs last year) once again.

New York Giants: You're always in contention with a Manning at quarterback, but Eli can't do it alone. An improved defense is a necessity or the Giants will be 8-8 bound.

New York Jets: Rex Ryan is the lamest duck coach in the history of lame-duck coaches. Can he or Geno Smith survive the season?

Oakland Raiders: Is that really Terrelle Pryor at starting quarterback? Well, that's unexpected, and intriguing.

Philadelphia Eagles: Can Chip Kelly's innovative college offense thrive in the NFL? The Eagles' first half of the season – before defensive coordinators get a major look – could be fascinating.

Pittsburgh Steelers: It's weird to think the Steelers aren't one of the top teams in the league anymore. Ben Roethlisberger has to be wondering where all the weapons have gone.

San Diego Chargers: Dwight Freeney is not washed up. He's ready for a post-Colts revival like his old friend Peyton. He'll get the chance to sack former teammates Peyton and Luck this season.

San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick is back but he doesn't have many healthy, experienced receivers. Guess he'll be on the run more than ever.

Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson was an unknown last season. Now he's the target of every defensive coordinator's game plan. Can he avoid the sophomore slump?

St. Louis Rams: With Jackson gone, this is Sam Bradford's offense to control. He'll be flinging it to tight end Jared Cook and wideout Tavon Austin.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Not sure Josh Freeman is the long-term answer on offense, but the Bucs' D will be a menace to passing games with the addition of Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson.

Tennessee Titans: With all the quarterback hype elsewhere, Jake Locker might end up being the most improved, and he has some help with Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt.

Washington Redskins: I hear the Redskins have a quarterback coming back from surgery whom some people are talking about. Could be just a rumor.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.