You have to hand it to the NFL for managing to produce so much drama in what is laughably called "the offseason." Aaron Rodgers was traded to the New York Jets. Damar Hamlin returned, triumphantly, to the field. The Washington Commanders were finally -- thankfully -- sold. Even the more routine football news featured headliners. Sean Payton joined the Denver Broncos. Saquon Barkley did not get a long-term contract, but Lamar Jackson finally did. And the Detroit Lions became NFL darlings.
Whatever happens in the next five months, the NFL is assured of having a unique spectacle for Super Bowl LVIII -- it will be the first (and undoubtedly not the last) played at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. The intersection of the gridiron and the Strip is ironic, considering that the offseason was marred by player suspensions for violations of the NFL’s gambling policy.
With an incredible 14 2022 playoff rematches on the '23 schedule, the most in a season in NFL history (that includes rematches of the Super Bowl, both conference championship games, all four Divisional Round contests and three of the wild-card tilts), the season should be extraordinarily competitive. And it will give us plenty of measuring sticks along the way for who will be most dangerous when the playoffs start in January.
Here, as we begin the trek to Vegas, are 58 stories, trends, rules, people and games to watch on the way to Super Bowl LVIII.
THE TRENDS TO MONITOR
1) Scoring down: Scoring averaged 43.8 points per game in 2022, a five-year low -- which is definitely not the direction the NFL prefers. Not coincidentally, roughing the passer and defensive pass interference -- the two calls that make the biggest impact on offense -- were also at five-year lows in 2022, with roughing down 40 percent and defensive pass interference down 30 percent. There were a few controversial roughing calls early last season; this year, it is a point of emphasis for officials to call it correctly and with uniformity across all the crews.
2) Quarterback concussions: A new quarterback-specific helmet, designed to offer greater protection when a quarterback's head hits the ground (which accounts for about half of all quarterback concussions, according to the league) is available for the first time this season. A spike in concussions suffered by quarterbacks last season accounted for much of the 18 percent increase in reported concussions in 2022. Among those expected to wear it: Miami's Tua Tagovailoa, who had two diagnosed concussions last season.
3) Running hot: It was a brutal offseason for running backs seeking new contracts, and it followed a year in which the running game was more productive than it has been in decades. Last season, teams averaged 121.6 rushing yards per game, the most since 1987. And they averaged 27.3 rushing attempts per game, the most since 2011. A one-time blip or the start of a trend?
4) The number zero: For the first time since 1972, the NFL is allowing most players to wear the number zero. At last count, 22 players are expected to wear it, including Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith and Giants receiver Parris Campbell.
5) International intrigue: The NFL will play five games in Europe this season -- three in London, two in Frankfurt, Germany. The Jacksonville Jaguars will play back-to-back weeks in London -- one as the home team, one as the visitor -- the first time in NFL history a team has played two regular-season games in the same year outside of the United States. Could this become a more regular occurrence for the Jags?
6) Friday follies: For the first time, the NFL will play on Black Friday -- Nov. 24, the unofficial holiday after Thanksgiving -- in a game between the Dolphins and Jets that will be shown on Prime Video. Does this open the door to eventually playing more games on Fridays, especially after high school football season ends?
RULES TO REMEMBER
7) Farewell, kickoff returns? A one-year rule change says if a kickoff is kicked anywhere inside the 25-yard line, the receiving team can signal for a fair catch and the ball will be placed at the 25-yard line for the start of the next possession (previously, the next possession began at the spot of the player who called for the fair catch). Because of the speed of the collisions, a disproportionate number of concussions are suffered on kickoffs. The league expects the rate of kickoff returns to drop from 38 percent to 31 percent, and as a result, it anticipates a 15 percent drop in concussions on the play. This is just a stop-gap measure. More changes -- perhaps including adopting the dramatically different kickoff used in the XFL -- are undoubtedly coming.
8) More restriction of hitting with the helmet: A player will be penalized if he uses any part of his helmet or face mask to butt or make forcible contact to an opponent's head or neck area -- not just if he lowers his head to make contact. Expect flags thrown and especially fines delivered.
9) Whither the hip-drop tackle? The league is worried about how many high ankle sprains (about one a week) result from the hip-drop tackle. It wasn't banned for this season, but the Competition Committee and health and safety officials are monitoring its use. This conversation is probably not over.
10) Push play stays: Despite conversations around the league, especially by the Competition Committee, about banning the play for safety reasons, the quarterback push sneak -- run extremely successfully, most notably, by the Philadelphia Eagles -- is still here. Denver Broncos coach Sean Payton said he would design more plays out of that formation, and defenses have undoubtedly spent the offseason figuring out how to stop the sneak.
11) Detroit Lions at Kansas City Chiefs | Week 1, Sept. 7 (Thursday night): Are the Lions really contenders? Is there any reason to think the Chiefs are not a dynasty? After an offseason of build-up, there's no better way to find out.
12) Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears | Week 1, Sept. 10: The Jordan Love era finally begins and it faces an ascending Justin Fields, in a show of the next generation of NFC North quarterbacks.
13) Miami Dolphins at Los Angeles Chargers | Week 1, Sept. 10: Two of the most exciting quarterbacks in the game in Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. Two AFC teams hoping for a playoff breakthrough. This game might tell us which has the better chance.
14) Buffalo Bills at New York Jets | Week 1, Sept. 11 (Monday night): The NFL is all in on Aaron Rodgers with the Jets, and the schedulers gave everyone what they wanted -- a first look at whether Rodgers can upend the AFC East. Or if the Bills, with Sean McDermott calling defensive plays, are finally ready to make a Super Bowl run.
15) Baltimore Ravens at Cincinnati Bengals | Week 2, Sept. 17: Lamar Jackson is back to good health with the best group of receivers he has ever played with and a new offensive coordinator (Todd Monken) he seems to be meshing with. Is that enough to threaten the current kings of the AFC North?
16) New England Patriots at New York Jets | Week 3, Sept. 24: The Jets last beat the Patriots in December of 2015 -- that's 14 straight losses. If the Jets are going anywhere this season, they have to finally slay their personal Goliath.
17) New York Jets at Denver Broncos | Week 5, Oct. 8: Admittedly, we did not initially anticipate caring quite this much about this game. But then Sean Payton talked trash about Nathaniel Hackett and the Jets. And Aaron Rodgers fired back in defense of a coach he loves. Now, even the pregame warmups will be must-see.
18) Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers | Week 5, Oct. 8 (Sunday night): Is that 49ers defense still suffocating? Is Brock Purdy still the man? Is Dak Prescott going to clean up the mistakes from last season? This blockbuster may answer some of those questions.
19) New England Patriots and Las Vegas Raiders | Week 6, Oct. 15: There are serious questions about the long-term viability of both Mac Jones and Jimmy Garoppolo. But we'll just focus on Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels matching wits.
20) Houston Texans at Carolina Panthers | Week 8, Oct. 29: By the time this game is played, C.J. Stroud (the No. 2 overall pick this year) and Bryce Young (the No. 1 overall pick) may have worked through some of their rookie growing pains. That could give us a glimpse into the future.
21) Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers | Week 8, Oct. 29: The Packers are finally Jordan Love's team. What better test for him than the defending division champions?
22) Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals | Week 9, Nov. 5 (Sunday night): A showdown of AFC contenders, in what will surely be an emotional night for Damar Hamlin and everyone else.
23) Philadelphia Eagles at Kansas City Chiefs | Week 11, Nov. 20 (Monday night): The Super Bowl rematch.
24) San Francisco 49ers at Philadelphia Eagles | Week 13, Dec. 3: Perhaps the two best teams in the NFC stage a late-season preview to a possible rematch of last season's conference title bout.
25) Cincinnati Bengals at Kansas City Chiefs | Week 17, Dec. 31: We'll watch another installment of this rivalry anytime it's played. But this New Year's Eve showdown could have massive implications for AFC playoff seeding.
THE QUESTIONS WE WANT ANSWERED
28) And where does rapidly ascending Philly quarterback Jalen Hurts grow next?
29) What does Lamar Jackson do in Todd Monken's offense and with the best receivers he's ever had in Baltimore?
30) How close can the Ravens' Odell Beckham Jr. get to his pre-injuries form?
31) With his first normal offseason since 2020, will Deshaun Watson look more like the top-five quarterback the Cleveland Browns hoped they were getting when they traded for him?
32) Can Baker Mayfield play his way into being the long-term answer for the Bucs' post-Brady era?
34) Will Patriots quarterback Mac Jones carry a strong training camp performance into the season and look like the franchise's future again?
35) What is Trey Lance's future in Dallas and, perhaps, beyond?
36) What will Kyle Shanahan get out of Brock Purdy now that he has him as the 49ers' starter for a full season?
37) With a roster in transition, is this also Kirk Cousins' final season in Minnesota?
39) Tua Tagovailoa has changed helmets, practiced jiu-jitsu and gained weight to try to stay healthy for the Dolphins this season -- does it work?
40) Can Sean Payton change the culture and resurrect Russell Wilson enough to get the Broncos back into the playoffs?
41) Can Mike McCarthy's play-calling help Dak Prescott limit interceptions and carry the Cowboys on a deep playoff run?
42) How much does the presence of D.J. Moore help Justin Fields and the Bears make the jump from being the league's lowest-ranked passing attack?
43) Can Desmond Ridder take advantage of all his weapons to make the Falcons the NFL's next explosive offense?
46) Or does the arrival of DeAndre Hopkins help the Titans take back the top spot?
47) Can the Chargers' star-filled roster finally stay healthy enough to topple the Chiefs and make a push in the AFC playoffs?
50) What is the learning curve for the new face of the Colts, Anthony Richardson? How long until the 21-year-old's mastery of the fine points of quarterbacking catches up to his stunning physical skills?
52) Will Geno Smith's remarkable second career act continue and allow the Seahawks to challenge the 49ers in the NFC West?
53) How many teams will be undermined by the almost-universal lack of offensive line depth on display in the preseason?
56) After gutting their defense, can the Rams score enough -- and offer enough protection for Matthew Stafford -- to keep the season from getting ugly?
57) Is the Jets' offensive line good enough -- and settled enough -- to protect Aaron Rodgers?
58) Which teams will have the top draft-eligible college quarterbacks on their radar in the final weeks of the season?