*(CNN) — Surprises, schemes and supreme skill — the NFL is back. The US’ most popular sport returns on Thursday as the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Los Angeles Rams, host the Buffalo Bills at SoFi Stadium.
Heading into the season as reigning champions, the Rams will see their championship banner lifted into the rafters of the stadium to commemorate the moment.
But Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford isn’t getting wrapped up in the emotion of it.
“I’m going to be ready to play football. I’m going to be ready to go out there and play against Buffalo,” he said. “It’s a brand-new year, brand new group of guys that we have, brand new season. It’ll be cool to see it, but at the same time, we got a task at hand. We’re ready to go.”
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Following another season of thrills and spills last time out, 32 teams stuffed full of talented players and innovative coaches prepare to do it all again with the ultimate prize waiting at the end of the tunnel: eternal immortality in the shape of a Super Bowl ring.
So ahead of kickoff in California, here’s a look at the runners and riders, as well as the new signings, rookies and MVP contenders to keep an eye on this year.
That glittering, sparkling ring given to the eventual Super Bowl winner is quite the carrot.
That light at the end of the tunnel is what teams are playing for: the opportunity to be crowned the best team in the NFL for the 2022 season.
As well as the two Super Bowl LVI participants — the Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals — there are a whole other host of high-powered teams vying to be competing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy come February.
Matt Bowen, former NFL player and current analyst for ESPN, believes the favorites to lift the trophy are one his former teams, the Buffalo Bills, coming off last season’s heartbreaking overtime defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional round.
The ascension of quarterback Josh Allen — who Bowen calls a “top three quarterback” in the NFL — combined with the offseason signing of Von Miller makes for a potent challenger, according to Bowen.
“What they have at the skill positions offensively, the additions they’ve made,” Bowen told CNN Sport. “And with Allen right now, that is the most quarterback centric-offense in the NFL. What I mean by that is the offense runs through him.
“Everything runs through him. The pass game, the quarterback run game, the ability to make plays outside of structure, the ability to run with the football, the ability to carry that football team. And why you add someone like Von Miller is because he is a closer. You added Von Miller because you’ve had two great seasons, but you’ve given up over 80 points total in two years of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs,” he added.
“You need someone to sack and hit Patrick Mahomes in January and that’s my opinion why they added Von Miller. Now, that includes all the rest of the AFC teams with the amount of quarterback talent in the AFC. But if I’m running the Buffalo Bills right now, I need someone to put Patrick Mahomes on the ground in critical situations. They were so close last year and Mahomes would get outside the pocket and make a play.
“They have to make those plays. And that’s why you spend the money, that’s why you invest in someone like Von Miller, who even at age 33, is still a top 50 overall player in the NFL and still one of the top edge rushers — because when the lights are on, in the game’s biggest moments, that’s where he shows up and that’s what you want.”
Ahead of the season-opening game between the Rams and the Bills, Rams head coach Sean McVay described facing the Bills as a “great challenge against a great football team.
“There’s no weaknesses, they’re strong in every phase, they’re well coached, got great players at the key spots,” McVay said. “Like I mentioned the other day, there’s a reason why everybody’s talking so highly about this team, and it’s been earned. We’re excited about the challenge.”
In an extremely competitive AFC, with star quarterbacks, offenses and defenses throughout, fans are in store for some high-quality football and competitive clashes.
Alongside the Bills and the Bengals, Bowen highlights the LA Chargers, the Chiefs, the Denver Broncos, the Baltimore Ravens, the Las Vegas Raiders, the New England Patriots, the Miami Dolphins and the Indianapolis Colts as some of the possible contenders from the AFC
Bowen said: “I don’t care if it was when I played, before I played or now, those games are extremely hard to win and, this year, even more so. Games in the AFC are going to be extremely hard to win. There are so many contenders in that conference.”
In the NFC, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, quarterbacked by Tom Brady, lead the way as the favorites.
Despite having an unannounced 11-day break during preseason, Brady — now 45 years old and a seven-time Super Bowl winner — and his high-powered offense look ready to rumble yet again.
“Brady can still throw 4,500 yards a season. That’s what they can do. Now, they’ve had some injuries already up front on the offensive line,” Bowen explained.
“It’s something to monitor but, with Tom Brady, that receiving corps, what they can do in more of a pass heavy system. Then you flip over to the defensive side of the ball and the personnel they have at all three levels of the defense. Still one of the top defenses in the NFL and especially in the NFC. They’re in the mix.”
Bowen also thinks the defending champion Rams, the San Francisco 49ers, the Green Bay Packers, the Dallas Cowboys, the Arizona Cardinals, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Minnesota Vikings and the New Orleans Saints will be competing head-to-head come playoff time.
‘Will this year’s selection be the one to turn our fortunes? Can they be the final piece we need to finally win a title?’
The next crop of young players and their potential impact on their respective teams is always a source of optimism for fans.
And this year’s cohort is no different. In April’s 2022 NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected defensive end Travon Walker with the No. 1 overall pick, while the Detroit Lions picked Michigan-born Aidan Hutchinson with the second pick. Both teams are hoping their new defensive rocks can flip their fortunes.
As well as a whole host of defensive picks, there were six wide receivers selected in the opening round of the draft. And it is one of those, Drake London — chosen by the Atlanta Falcons with the eighth overall pick — who Bowen believes can thrive from day one in the NFL.
“Now, obviously, I don’t see Atlanta as a true contender this year, but you have to look at what they can do,” he said. “And whenever we talk about wide receivers, it’s about volume and opportunity.
“You have to get reps, you have to run routes and you have to see the football. I think that will happen [with] Atlanta, because right now they are a talent efficient team on offense — and it is Drake London and Kyle Pitts. So can Drake London be a guy who sees over 100 targets? Yes, he can. Can he be a guy you can isolate in the red zone? Yes, and on third downs and into the boundary. I think you will see that.”
Unlike many past drafts, the 2022 edition wasn’t fully focused on the quarterback crop.
Just one signal caller was drafted in the first round, Pitt University’s Kenny Pickett remaining in the city of Pittsburgh after he was picked by the Steelers.
Despite facing competition for the starting job with 2018 Pro Bowler Mitch Trubisky, Pickett is many people’s favorites to eventually claim the berth, being the hometown favorite and a first-round selection.
And although many pundits have said Pickett might be a bit too raw in his rookie year and would benefit from time spent as a backup, Bowen believes the 24-year-old has the traits to succeed from the get-go.
“He’s got to get that opportunity to play. The (Steelers) have to tell Mitch Trubisky: ‘You’re not the starter anymore. We’re going with the young kid,'” he explained. “I do think Kenny Pickett will be a solid pro, there’s no question about it.
“I think he throws to location, I think he decisively throws in the pocket. He’s got good mobility to get outside when he has to, when things are necessary to move and he’s got a big enough arm to push the ball to the third level. And he’s tough. There’s a physical element to his game. That’s something to remember about the quarterback position.
“We don’t talk about it enough but to play in this league, you have to have a physical element there. You have to be tough. You have to battle. We talked about Matthew Stafford. Look, I played two years with Brett Favre in Green Bay. That’s as tough as it gets. I’ve never seen someone tougher than Brett. So I think Kenny Pickett has that toughness about him, too, and that’s obviously a name everyone’s going to keep an eye on this year.”
Best in the league
The Most Valuable Player trophy is awarded to the player who’s been voted to have had the best regular season by a panel of 50 sportswriters.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has won the award in the past two seasons, but, given he will be missing his favorite receiver — Davante Adams was traded to Las Vegas Raiders — it will be a tall task for the 37-year-old to win it for the third time in a row.
And for Bowen, a trio of quarterbacks — Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes — headline his favorites for the award.
“Look, that’s all-AFC quarterbacks. We know it’s a quarterback award, right? I mean, even if Derrick Henry runs for 2,000 yards, it’s still going to be a quarterback award,” he explained.
“That’s unfortunate, but that’s just how it works. But I think Allen or Herbert are on the verge of taking that step. And with Mahomes, this could be a unique year for Mahomes because there are people who are going to question that offense and their explosive play ability without Tyreek Hill.
“But like I said, they added different parts and they still have Travis Kelce who is one of the best pass catching tight ends in the NFL. And Mahomes, when he has to play out of structure, he is the best in the NFL. When things go south and he has to leave the pocket or step up to create, there’s no one better.”
Ahead of the season opener, Stafford was full of praise for Allen, calling him “electric.”
“He’s a big play waiting to happen, both with his legs and his arm. I think since he’s come into the league, you’ve seen him progress. Like a lot of guys do, just don’t know exactly what’s going on your first couple games, first year maybe. Then holy cow, he came together for him and he’s playing at an unbelievable level.”
How to watch
When the NFL season kicks off on Thursday, as the Rams host the Bills at SoFi Stadium, the eyes of the world will be watching. Here’s how you can watch the NFL wherever you are:
Australia: NFL Game Pass, ESPN, 7Plus
Brazil: NFL Game Pass, ESPN
Canada: CTV, TSN, RDS, NFL Game Pass on DAZN
Germany: NFL Game Pass, ProSieben MAXX, DAZN
Mexico: NFL Game Pass, TUDN, ESPN, Fox Sports
UK: NFL Game Pass, Sky Sports, ITV, Channel 5
US: NFL Game Pass, CBS Sports, Fox Sports, ESPN, Amazon Prime
For a full list, click here.
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