The Designed Rush, Week 1: The Shape of Things to Come

Oh NFL season, overtaker of personal schedules, dictator of emotional states, joy of joys, what godspun splendors you promise to bestow upon us. ↵

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↵Yes, the seven-month death march from the 2008 season's Super Bowl to this season's Kickoff Weekend has mercifully come to an end, and never quite soon enough. ↵

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↵The current preseason format, as it is with its downshift into an extra meaningless fourth week, makes the transition to the regular season more jarring than it should be from the fan's standpoint. If and when the league changes to the two preseason game, 18 regular season game schedule, there will be a cleaner crescendo of anticipation that moves seamlessly from training camps to games of consequence. ↵

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↵Unlike college football with its array of opening week cupcake games, the NFL gets right down to business. In a three-day span, months of suppositions give way to conclusions - even if frequently they're knee-jerk ones that don't bear out over a full season. We still get a sense of how teams will try to distribute touches, which rookies and role players are ready to step up, who will fall prey to the sure-fire Week 1 devastating injury. ↵

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↵Kickoff Weekend of the NFL season, even with the considerable hype it receives, doesn't really get its due in the sports calendar. With parity having convinced most every team of its chances at success, the consequence of each game and quality of the matchups, an argument can be made that this weekend rivals the unbridled universal excitement of the first two rounds of March Madness. ↵

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↵And even if this offseason were an uneventful one, the 2009 season was never at a loss for plot points. The return of Tom Brady. Whether the Steelers can repeat and challenge New England for team of the decade status. The drama surrounding what will likely be a (possibly disastrous) lame duck season for head coach Wade Phillips in Dallas, set to the opening of a billion dollar stadium with low-hanging video boards. Whether surging teams like Atlanta or Baltimore can take the next step. Whether longtime mediocre teams like Houston and San Francisco can harness their momentum from late last year. ↵

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↵Add to that Cutler's tumultuous and sulk-laden move to Chicago, the headline grabbing returns of Michael Vick and the reanimated corpse of Brett Favre, the possibility (however remote) that Ben Roethlisberger's civil suit and Shawne Merriman's battery arrest will be distractions, the imminent implosions in Denver and Oakland and the usual certainty that a few teams will catch us totally off guard for better or worse and you've got all the makings of a banner year. Hell, even Miami's new glut of celebrity owners is kind of interesting. ↵

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↵I just managed to fire myself up. So let's make with the headlong diving into what promises to be another fantastic year in your reason for being. ↵

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↵Five games to watch even if you don't have a rooting interest or fantasy players involved ↵

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↵Tennessee at Pittsburgh (8:30 p.m., Thursday) ↵

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↵Now Patron-less Titans running back LenDale White reignited the obvious storyline that joins the top two seeds from the AFC last season - the incident in which he, along with teammates Keith Bulluck and Bo Scaife, stomped Terrible Towels on their own sideline in the waning moments of the Week 16 home victory over Pittsburgh. White assured media in Tennessee over the weekend that he would have no problem doing it again should the Titans get a victory in Heinz Field. The Steelers, to their credit, haven't given the issue much outward thought, though their reaction might be interesting if receiver Nate Washington, who left the Steelers for the Titans in free agency, joins in the theatrics this go-round. That is, if he plays through a hamstring injury. ↵

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↵Miami at Atlanta (1 p.m., Sunday) ↵

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↵The two most dramatic turnaround teams of 2008 get an early test on whether they can turn surprising success into predictable dominance. Many pundits look at the Falcons as darkhorse NFC contenders, while many expect that the Dolphins will take a step back this season. Will an offseason of coaches preparing for the Wildcat hurt its efficacy in Miami? ↵

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↵Philadelphia at Carolina (1 p.m., Sunday) ↵

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↵Two victims of the Cardinals' mad dash through the NFC playoffs start off their 2009 campaign facing stiff competition. With Donovan McNabb already stressed by the attention that Michael Vick received from fans and coaches during the preseason, he has only a few weeks to instill confidence before Vick's suspension is over and a possible quarterback controversy looms. ↵

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↵Washington at New York Giants (4:15 p.m., Sunday) ↵

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↵In many ways, these teams look like mirror images of one another. Both boast suffocating defenses but are riddled by questions in their passing game. Last year, the Redskins came into a Week 1 matchup in the Meadowlands looking exceptionally flat. Quarterback Jason Campbell is likely feeling a little relief with Chase Daniel cut and Colt Brennan on injured reserve, but Redskins fans will still give him a great deal of heat if the offense comes out sluggish. ↵

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↵Chicago at Green Bay (8:20 p.m., Sunday) ↵

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↵Jay Cutler gets a quick opportunity to win over the Bears faithful by getting a primetime victory over the Packers in Lambeau. Last season's young Packers team fell seven times in contests that were decided by four points or fewer. Added experience coupled with the inevitability of a few bounces going their way has people eying them to make noise this year. ↵

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↵NFL Player Tweet of the Week ↵

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↵"Random" drug testing today -- Matt Hasselbeck, Sept. 7 ↵

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↵Uh oh. The league isn't going to appreciate those sarcastiquotes one bit, Matt! Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one ever expects NFL drug tests. ↵

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↵Truth About Advertising ↵

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↵In this section, I'll be frequently dissecting or simply carping about commercials that frequently air during NFL national broadcasts. ↵

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↵For a company that earlier this year agreed to shell out $4 billion over four years for the right to offer its NFL Sunday Ticket package, DirecTV has done remarkably little to overhaul its advertising campaign from a year ago. Last season: Jimmy Kimmel standing in front of a huge screen lecturing you about the games you missed because you relied on network telecasts and their regional assignments. This year: LL Cool J and Denis Leary stand in front of a huge screen lecturing you about the games you missed because you relied on network telecasts and their regional assignments. So, next year, we can expect who? Jay Mohr and Ice Cube? ↵

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↵Dispatches from Madden Nation (Now With Slightly Fewer Snickers Ads) ↵

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↵An irritating habit I've seen crop up while playing Madden 10 online is how often people request a "friendly quit" (for the uninitiated, that's an option in which the game is ended immediately and results don't count for either player's record) as soon as they fall more than one score behind in the second half. As if you're suddenly going to say to yourself, "Of course, buddy, this game was totally going to count until you realized you weren't going to win." Usually, if you decline the request, the player will submit a regular quit (you play the rest of the game against the computer, and they receive an automatic loss) a minute or so later anyway. That they first want to see if you're dumb enough to want to invalidate a game that you've been spending 30 minutes playing (and are winning!) is what drives me up the wall. ↵

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↵A Delicious Bundle of Gripes ↵

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↵-- Hopefully now that the games actually matter, the network talking heads will only enter into low-grade hysteria every time a defender so much as breathes in the direction of Tom Brady. ↵

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↵-- Tim McGraw and the Black Eyed Peas highlight the season kickoff pregame festivities Thursday night in Pittsburgh. I know the game is in Pittsburgh and all, but didn't Lil' Wayne perform with some of the Titans last year? I'm sure the crowd at Heinz (and the one at home) would prefer Weezy to Wil.I.Am, that is unless he's punching gossip bloggers onstage. ↵

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↵-- Matt Stafford and Mark Sanchez starting immediately is just the corrective that NFL head coaches will need to conclude that not every rookie QB starting Week 1 is Matt Ryan. In fact, here's cautionary tale David Carr to tell you all about it. ↵

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↵-- With the announcement of Tedy Bruschi's move to ESPN and Rodney Harrison already working for NBC, the news that former Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour is upset with his trade to the Raiders makes even more sense considering he thought he had a gig lined up with CBS. ↵

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↵-- Can Big Fan hurry up and expand to theaters outside Philly and New York? I know I reside in the cultural backwater that is the Washington, D.C. area, but I'd like to be given the chance to support a movie I want to see before being forced to download it. I know it's not exactly supposed to make us feel warm and fuzzy about our unhealthy sports obsessions, but it still looks outstanding. ↵

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↵Fearless and Therefore Probably Wildly Incorrect Season Predictions ↵

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↵Division winners: Philadelphia, Green Bay, Atlanta, Seattle, New England, Pittsburgh, Houston and San Diego
↵Super Bowl: San Diego vs. Philadelphia
↵Super Bowl champions: San Diego Chargers
↵MVP: Philip Rivers
↵Rookie of the Year: Knowshon Moreno ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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