The first true football Sunday of the year is here! With it are a host of reasons to be optimistic or not-so-optimistic about your team heading into kickoff. Here's what to watch for during Sunday's games:
E.J. Manuel will be making his first career start after seemingly being ruled out two weeks ago after undergoing knee surgery. He will have a tough test going up against Tom Brady and Co., but he played well during the preseason, going 26-for-33 passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns to zero interceptions in two game appearances.
The Patriots bled pass catchers in the offseason, but young talent like Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson proved they could be passable receivers or better this preseason. Whether their production translates to the regular season remains to be seen. At least they'll be facing a Bills secondary likely without Jairus Byrd.
The Bengals' defense is expected to be fierce. Whether the offense can improve enough to make the team a Super Bowl contender remains to be seen. They certainly made a concerted effort in the offseason, adding running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert through the 2013 NFL Draft. How that young talent performs against a stout Bears defense could portend how the Bengals fare this season.
Likewise for the Bears, who revamped their offensive line and brought in Marc Trestman as head coach to spark the offense. Win or lose, if Jay Cutler isn't running for his life against a team that had 51 sacks last season, then the Bears could be in good shape going forward.
The Dolphins were one of the most active teams in free agency this offseason, adding solid talent to the defense (Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler, Brent Grimes) and a pinch of explosion to the offense in Mike Wallace to potentially make them a playoff contender this season. They have one big Achilles' heel, however. Jake Long is no longer manning left tackle, leaving second-year Jonathan Martin to sink or swim.
The Browns bring up the rear in what should be a fierce AFC North this season. They have the potential to contend for the playoffs with the defensive-minded Ray Horton taking over the team as head coach. If Brandon Weeden is as good Sunday as he was during preseason, the Browns could make waves.
Many believe that the Falcons have the firepower to make their way to the Super Bowl (at least, according to SB Nation believes they do), but whether they finally put the pieces together remains to be seen. After all, they've been highly touted before. Adding Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora improves the team on paper. Whether the Falcons are truly elite will be tested Week 1 against the Saints.
Saints fans are simply looking for improvement. That won't be hard on defense coming off a historically awful season, but fans have come to expect seeing an annual Super Bowl contender in New Orleans and anything less than a marked improvement from Rex Ryan's unit will be a disappointment. Hopefully, a pass rusher will step up in place of Victor Butler.
Buccaneers vs. Jets (1 p.m., FOX)
The Buccaneers are hoping, desperately, to see some consistency out of Josh Freeman. He has shown elite flashes in the past, but those encouraging signs are often quickly countered by mistakes. Expectations are lower for Geno Smith of the Jets in his first career start after a rough preseason.
Keep an eye on Darrelle Revis, who will be playing against his former teammates Sunday. The veteran cornerback did not try to hide the fact that he has been telling offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan everything he knows about the Jets defense. The Jets could be in for a rough start in their season opener.
It's do or die time for Jake Locker. SB Nation's Titans blog Music City Miracles addressed critics who say that the quarterback has been handled with kid gloves since being drafted, and determined that the criticisms are a bit unfair. That said, Locker has few excuses not to perform after the efforts that the Titans made to improve the talent around the young signal caller.
The Steelers are set at quarterback, but running back could be an Achilles' heel for a second straight year. Le'Veon Bell is out several weeks and Jonathan Dwyer was released, leaving Isaac Redman to prove he is finally capable of being a lead ball carrier.
There may not be two better physical talents in football than Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson, so if you're looking for a reason to watch this game there may be no better reason than that. Perhaps more significantly, this game could set the tone of the season early for two teams fighting for recognition in a competitive NFC North.
The Vikings made the playoffs last year, and should be better in 2013 provided Christian Ponder takes another step forward. That step is never guaranteed for quarterbacks entering their third year, however. The Lions simply need to prove that they aren't the Lions. On paper they are very talented, but the culture of losing in Detroit is strong and has been difficult to overcome for a long time now.
The Raiders are in rebuilding mode, so fans will be looking for any glimmer of hope that the 2013 season won't be torture. It would be nice if whoever starts at quarterback, either Matt Flynn or Terrelle Pryor, can at least be serviceable. Unfortunately, the team caught an awful break when left tackle Jared Veldheer tore his triceps.
The Raiders' battered line should be a good test for a Colts pass rush that is adapting to life post-Dwight Freeney. Andrew Luck seems like a sure-thing at this point, but his continued improvement would be an encouraging sign for fans.
The Seahawks are out to prove that they are truly one of the elite teams in football. There isn't a glaring weakness on paper, though the loss of Percy Harvin is a major blow. That said, Russell Wilson seemed to pick up where he left off from 2012 in preseason, and is quickly developing into one of the most exciting players to watch in the NFL.
The Panthers will be looking to defend their home turf and prove they're a pretty good team in their own right. Rookie Star Lotulelei has been a welcome addition to the defensive line, eating blockers so that Luke Kuechly can wreak havoc at middle linebacker. The offense has strong personnel, making the Panthers a potentially formidable team this season if they jell.
The Chiefs underwent a full-scale makeover, drafting Eric Fisher, dumping Quinn/Cassel in favor of Alex Smith at quarterback and hiring Andy Reid to lead the team as the new head coach. The defense is reasonably well-stocked on paper, as well. There is no tangible reason why the Chiefs shouldn't be pretty good this season. Now fans just have to hope they jell sooner than later coming off a 2-14 season.
The Jaguars are also coming off a 2-14 season, but they have fewer reasons to be optimistic about the 2013. Fans are looking for a sign, any sign, that Blaine Gabbert can be a serviceable NFL quarterback. Gabbert's maturation could be the difference between a winning season and a ticket in the Teddy Bridgewater sweepstakes.
The Cardinals revamped their passing attack, signing Carson Palmer and hiring vert-happy Bruce Arians as the team's new head coach. Larry Fitzgerald has to be excited for the big play opportunities the new offense affords him. The offensive line should also do a better job of protection with Levi Brown back and Eric Winston manning right tackle.
The Rams will unveil Tavon Austin, who has a chance to earn Rookie of the Year honors this season. He is a great fit working out of the slot in the Rams' offense and using his athleticism to make big plays in the open field. Receivers are often unreliable during their rookie seasons, but Austin's speed and agility should make him fun to watch.
The Packers have everything any team could want to compete for a Super Bowl this season ... except for a reliable offensive line. The team is down to fourth-round rookie David Bakhtiari at left tackle and former undrafted free agent Don Barclay at right. The Packers are set up to take a lot of sacks once again this season, especially against a fearsome 49ers front seven.
The Niners are also Super Bowl favorites, with one of the league's finest defenses and a budding star at quarterback. The team's only major weakness is at wide receiver, where the top two targets appear to be Anquan Boldin and Kyle Williams. Hopefully Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis can get on the same page to give the 49ers a reliable deep option.
In the ever competitive NFC East, every division game is pivotal. The regular season's first Sunday night game will establish an early leader for the division crown. Both the Giants and the Cowboys have significant strengths and significant flaws.
The Giants need their pass rush to be better if they are going to get by with a weak linebacker corps and secondary. Jason Pierre-Paul has returned from back surgery. He may have to be 100 percent if the Giants are going to have much success on defense this season.
The Cowboys are once again supremely talented on both sides of the ball, but there are questions whether the team will jell under the direction of a reshuffled coaching staff. Bill Callahan has taken over offensive playcalling duties from Jason Garrett and Monte Kiffin has installed a 4-3 Tampa-2 defense. Neither experiment is guaranteed to work.