After a frenetic preseason featuring comebacks galore (Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Michael Vick), a stream of jurisprudence (Donte' Stallworth, Plaxico Burress) and the usual damaging injuries (Walter Jones, Jon Beason, Stewart Bradley), are we ready for some football?
Sure. Enough with the National Favre League that some media outlets have covered at the expense of the real thing. Keep the court dates and lawsuits off our radar.
Let's chew on these topics:
UNDERRATED AND OVERRATED DIVISIONS
Why are so many people in love with the AFC East? Yes, New England not only is the class of the division, but perhaps the league, especially with Brady ready to tear apart defenses again after a season lost to a knee injury. And Miami is pretty solid.
But the Dolphins aren't likely to win 11 games again, won't sneak up on anyone — particularly with the wildcat offense — and aren't in the Patriots' class.
The Jets will have a rookie, albeit one with great potential, at quarterback in Mark Sanchez. Their receiving corps might not rival Texas Tech's, let alone New England's or even Buffalo's. And their early schedule (at Texans, Patriots, Titans, at Saints, at Dolphins) is formidable.
Buffalo has issues on both lines, star running back Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games, and Dick Jauron has gone 7-9 in all three of his seasons in charge.
So, no, the AFC East is not the league's best division. That honor belongs to the NFC East, where all four teams could be playoff worthy.
The division that should get more love is the NFC South, where all four squads were .500 or better in 2008. While the Buccaneers are do for a nosedive (see below), the Falcons, Panthers and Saints all have Super Bowl potential.
If Atlanta's offense takes the natural next step behind QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner and brilliant TE Tony Gonzalez, acquired from Kansas City, the Falcons finally will have two straight winning records. And if the defense can get stingy against the run, a bid for the NFC crown is not farfetched.
New Orleans must find a defense to go with what might be the league's top offense this season behind Drew Brees, the league's Offensive Player of the Year in '08. Even without a great D, the O is good enough for the Saints to contend, particularly if Reggie Bush finally breaks out.
Carolina won the division a year ago with a stout rushing game that should be just as good. But the defense has some serious issues because of injury, and Julius Peppers' contract has eaten up any cap space the Panthers might use for depth.
Three teams to watch as they move their way up in the standings: New Orleans, Green Bay and Kansas City.
The Saints upgraded the defense with several free agent moves and expect a return to Pro Bowl form by linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Brees nearly set records last year without having WR Marques Colston and Bush at their best.
The Packers can't possibly be ravaged by the injury bug the way they were last year, and they don't have any of the Favre farce to deal with. Aaron Rodgers has looked quite good since taking over at quarterback, and the move to the 3-4 defense will get more playmakers on the field in a mediocre division.
Don't expect the Chiefs to be a playoff threat, but they figure to be a whole lot better than the 2-14 of 2008. New GM Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley have improved the roster significantly, starting at quarterback with Matt Cassel — when he's healthy — and they've added veteran leadership, too.
About to struggle after decent seasons are the Buccaneers, Broncos and Jets.
New York won't fall too far from its 9-7 perch a year ago, but won't be challenging the Patriots or Dolphins, either.
Tampa Bay, which was 9-3 and in control of its division, fell apart down the stretch, losing the final four games and costing Jon Gruden his job. The new Buccaneers aren't improved, and the loss of leaders such as Derrick Brooks and Jeff Garcia will add to the toll. It won't be a pretty debut season for coach Raheem Morris.
If the Raiders weren't occupants of the AFC West, Denver might be a cinch for the cellar. Since firing Mike Shanahan, the Broncos have had all kinds of discord, including trading franchise QB Jay Cutler after he feuded with new coach Josh McDaniels, and the Brandon Marshall episodes. Look for a Mile High plunge.
It's stunning how many teams head into the season without much of a clue how their quarterbacks will perform. If QB is the most important position on offense, why are Cleveland, Denver, Oakland, Detroit, Tampa Bay and San Francisco so uncertain there? Not to mention the tentative hold on the job Jason Campbell has in Washington. Or the Favre situation in Minnesota.
Dozens of rookies wind up starting in the NFL each season, some more noticeable than others. High picks are expected to have a big impact, so here are some guys not selected in the first round to watch for:
Dolphins DB Sean Smith (second round), Vikings tackle Phil Loadholt (second round), Eagles RB LeSean McCoy (second round), Seahawks guard Max Unger (second round), Bengals TE Chase Coffman (third round), Lions safety Louis Delmas (third round), Falcons DE Lawrence Sidbury (fourth round), Steelers DB Joe Burnett (fifth round), Titans RB Javon Ringer (fifth round); and Cardinals RB-KR LaRod Stephens-Howling (seventh round).
-- Column by Barry Wilner, AP Football Writer