By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – The loss of some star power to retirement and a suspension to one of the NFL’s greatest players has done little to dampen excitement for North America’s favorite game ahead of a season that will mark the league’s return to Los Angeles.
When the reigning champion Denver Broncos host the Carolina Panthers in a Super Bowl rematch on Thursday, it will kick off an NFL season unlike any seen in decades, where the only sure bet is that the league will enjoy its usual ratings bonanza.
Gone are Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch as the quartet, who have a combined 54 seasons between them, led a parade of big-name players who hung up their cleats in 2016.
As for Tom Brady, one of only three quarterbacks with four Super Bowl wins, he is serving a four-game ban as part of the “Deflategate” scandal that will force him to miss the first quarter of the regular season.
The absence of such talent leaves big shoes to fill and there are many eager to take their place, including flamboyant Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and dynamic Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, both of whose teams are among the favorites to reach February’s Super Bowl in Houston.
Even a number of first-year players are expected to show their worth, most notably Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is a popular pick to be the offensive rookie of the year despite not yet playing a down in the regular season.
Elliott will need to excel starting in Week One if the Cowboys, who at $4 billion top Forbes’ list of the world’s most valuable sports teams, are to overcome the loss of Tony Romo and erase memories of a dreadful 2015 season.
Romo, the lifeblood of the Cowboys, suffered a broken bone in his back during the preseason and could be out of the lineup until November. The injury thrusts rookie quarterback Dak Prescott into the starting role.
No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots did it in 2004 and 2005 and while Denver will be without future Hall of Famer Manning, they are still a championship-caliber team powered by one of the NFL’s best defences.
The Seahawks, who came within one pass of repeating as Super Bowl champions in 2015, have been perennial contenders over the last four seasons and, despite the loss of powerhouse Lynch, will boast a team stacked with talent on offense and defense.
While losing a player of Brady’s caliber would be a blow to most teams, the talented Patriots remain favorites to win the AFC East division title for an eighth consecutive year.
One team who could not withstand the loss of their starting quarterback were the Indianapolis Colts, who missed the playoffs last season as Andrew Luck sat out the second half of the 2015 campaign with various injuries.
But Luck, coming off the worst season of his career, is back to full health and will be determined to remind any doubters why he is considered one of the game’s best quarterbacks.
The Arizona Cardinals hope to build on a franchise-record 13-win season that ended a victory shy of a trip to the Super Bowl. With most of the team’s key players back, led by quarterback Carson Palmer, Arizona look poised for another deep playoff run.
There is also plenty of excitement on the West Coast since North America’s biggest sport is back in the country’s second-largest TV market. After 21 seasons in St. Louis, the NFL’s Rams are back in Los Angeles, where they played from 1946 to 1994
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)