NFL’s 98th season kicks off

In the season’s opening game and a primetime matchup against the defending champion New England Patriots, rookie running back Kareem Hunt (27) put up big numbers for the Kansas City Chiefs. Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated/Twitter

Football fans have plenty to watch for in the National Football League this fall
     It’s that time of year again, when Sunday becomes an unofficial holiday for 17 straight weeks for millions across the country. This past weekend, the National Football League (NFL) kicked off its 98th professional season. With a new season comes new hope, excitement, surprises, disappointments, and storylines for football fans to follow throughout the fall.
     After his Super Bowl win last February, one of the biggest things for fans to keep an eye on is whether New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can continue to outrun Father Time. Brady is coming off a season in which he looked much younger than his 40-year-old body should — a remarkable feat considering the grind of an NFL season and his availability throughout his career. After arguably the best Super Bowl performance ever, Brady is looking to continue his dominance of the league and add a sixth championship ring to his collection.
     However, it’s only a matter of time before his eventual regression comes. No great quarterback has continued to play at their usual elite level once he passed the 40-year mark. Two years ago, Brady was quoted as saying that he’d love to play close to 10 more years. He may be the greatest quarterback ever in terms of resume and accomplishments, and has developed a reputation for doing things no one else has done before, but many fans are anxious to see if he can defy expectations again.
     While on the topic of elite quarterbacks, one might also wonder if Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will ever get an elusive second championship ring.  While Tom Brady may be the “greatest of all time,” there is no doubt that Rodgers is the “best” quarterback in the league today — and arguably the greatest ever — when it comes to pure talent and statistical production. A mix of some of the best qualities from the greatest quarterbacks in league history Peyton Manning’s brain, Dan Marino’s arm, Joe Montana’s pocket presence, and John Elway’s legs — Rodgers’ talent should be expected to lead to more than a few championship banners.
     Unfortunately, the Green Bay Packers have failed to surround him with the talent needed to compete for championships consistently.
     Without Rodgers, it could be argued that the Packers’ roster would finish in the bottom half of the league, putting pressure on the Berkeley product to carry the franchise as long as he wears Green Bay green and gold.
     As a result, Rodgers hasn’t been back to the Super Bowl since he last won it in 2011, suffering heartbreaking losses seemingly every year. 2017 could be the year he overcomes the Packers’ poor defensive showings and makes his return to February football.

The Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers will play in Los Angeles in 2017. Photo courtesy of National Football League/Twitter

Speaking of teams with questions on defense, fans should also have an eye on the Oakland Raiders as they look to improve on a surprising 2016 season. Led by MVP candidate Derek Carr, who quarterbacked a potent offense before injuring his leg in the team’s next-to-last game, the Raiders beat preseason expectations last year, finishing 12-4 and making the playoffs as a wild card team.
     However, a closer look at the numbers shows that they also finished with a measly +31 point differential, a difference of just 1.9 points per game. To put that into perspective, last year’s two Super Bowl teams, the Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons, finished at +191 and +134, respectively.
     Point differential is an effective way to gauge the dominance of a team, and shows a simple point in this case: the Raiders may not be the title-caliber team some are expecting them to be this season.
The team is young, so they are due to take the next step in their development, but their 12-4 record from last year seems to be at least partially a fluke, and expecting the same record this season may be a little too hopeful. Did they make enough quality moves on defense to help compliment an explosive offense? If not, they’ll be closer to middle-of-the-road than they were in 2016.
     Local fans, meanwhile, will spend 2017 without a team after the hometown Chargers moved north to Los Angeles in January. The relocation ended a 56-year run for the team in San Diego. With that much history thrown aside, the move angered more than a few fans in America’s Finest City, with some going so far as to purchase billboards in the Los Angeles area to voice their displeasure.
     The Chargers disappointed again in 2016, finishing a frustrating 5-11 despite possessing obvious talent on both sides of the ball. Longtime quarterback Philip Rivers continued his run toward a potential Hall of Fame induction, and running back Melvin Gordon quieted doubters with a near-1,000 yard season on the ground. Meanwhile, defensive end Joey Bosa, now in his second year in the league, showed the talent that made him a top-five pick in the 2016 draft.
     With a new head coach leading the way in Anthony Lynn, and in a fight for fans alongside the Los Angeles Rams, can the Chargers finally get back to their formerly-winning ways? Perhaps only time will tell.
     Ultimately, football fans will have plenty to follow over the course of the 2017 NFL season, creating excitement and anticipation as the NFL begins another iteration in the American sports spotlight.
Sunit Bhakta | Contributor | The USD Vista