The last time we had an NFL game that counted, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, it was a different football world.
Julio Jones was still an Atlanta Falcon. Aaron Rodgers' displeasure with the Green Bay Packers was a private matter. So was Russell Wilson's strife with the Seattle Seahawks. Drew Brees was officially still an NFL quarterback. Matthew Stafford was a Detroit Lion and Jared Goff was a Los Angeles Ram. Sam Darnold was still a New York Jet and Carson Wentz was a Philadelphia Eagle.
A lot has changed and more change is coming. Here are 10 storylines to keep an eye on as the season kicks off Thursday night:
10. Home fans return
Without diving into a discussion about vaccinations and whether fans will be in attendance by the end of the season due to COVID-19, let's appreciate that fans will be back in stadiums to start this season. It was a long season of empty stadiums, and even though the football itself was still great, there was something missing without 60,000 fans screaming their heads off on a third-and-long. The wait was especially tough for fans in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, who finally get to attend games in shiny new stadiums.
9. Bills chase a title
The Buffalo Bills fans have been through a lot. They lost the four Super Bowls in a row, then shortly after that went into a playoff drought. There's renewed hope. The Bills were excellent last season, and lost in the AFC championship game. Buffalo, with young star quarterback Josh Allen, has a chance to take the next step this season.
8. Another 2,000 for Derrick Henry?
Henry joined an exclusive list when he rushed for 2,000 yards last season, joining Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Chris Johnson and O.J. Simpson. Henry can be the first player in another group: Two 2,000-yard seasons. Nobody has ever repeated a 2,000-yard season, but the Tennessee Titans star has a chance. We know he'll get enough carries. In an era of backs who are in committees or are more receivers than runners, Henry is a fun throwback.
7. The longest season
By season's end, you might be used to teams no longer finishing 8-8, or records falling easily. There's a 17th regular-season game, and it'll take some time to get used to the new math. It's the first time the NFL has expanded the schedule since it went from 14 to 16 games in 1978. We'll see if more football is better.
6. Joe Burrow, Dak Prescott, Saquon Barkley come back
Three of the NFL's bigger names ended last season with awful injuries. Burrow, the No. 1 overall pick of the Cincinnati Bengals last year, suffered a bad knee injury. New York Giants running back Barkley tore his ACL too. Prescott, the Cowboys' star quarterback, broke his leg while being tackled. All three should be playing Week 1, but we need to keep an eye on them. Just because you're back on the field doesn't mean you're back to normal.
5. Can the scoring burst continue?
Last season, 12,692 points were scored in the NFL. The previous record was 11,985, set in 2013. Last season was unique, with offenses not having to deal with crowd noise on the road, but the high scoring should continue. Quarterback play across the NFL has never been deeper or better, and most teams are realizing that being balanced on offense is a myth. With teams throwing it more often and more efficiently, there will be plenty of points again.
4. Saints adversity/changes
For most teams, replacing a legendary quarterback is enough for one offseason. In addition to losing Drew Brees to retirement, the Saints were displaced by Hurricane Ida. They'll play their season opener at Jacksonville, and due to the schedule they won't have a home game in September. That's a lot to deal with going into the season.
3. Ben's last ride?
Ben Roethlisberger took a pay cut to stick with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and his future beyond 2021 is in question with his contract voiding at the end of this season.
“We're aware this could be Ben's last year and we hope it's a great one,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Rooney said Roethlisberger returning next season is possible, but given how Roethlisberger finished last season on a down note, it's probably best to not assume he'll be Pittsburgh's quarterback beyond this season. Whether this is the last season for Roethlisberger or not, there isn't much time remaining for the future Hall of Famer in Pittsburgh.
2. All these rookie QBs
We'll have three rookie quarterbacks to start the season: Jacksonville Jaguars' Trevor Lawrence, New York Jets' Zach Wilson, New England Patriots' Mac Jones.
Trey Lance of the San Francisco 49ers and Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears will join them soon in starting lineups.
We could look back on the legacy of this season being when one of the great quarterback draft classes entered the NFL. There's no guarantee any of them become stars, but all five first-round picks showed signs in the preseason they belong.
1. The Great Tom Brady
The hatred over Brady has subsided a bit now that he is no longer helping the New England Patriots win championships. Still, some are missing what could be the greatest American sports success story ever. It's not like we need to rehash Brady's beginnings as a sixth-round pick, but his championship with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers probably graduates him from "greatest NFL player ever?" talk to wondering if he's the greatest player in major American sports history. Brady, at 44, is a popular pick to win NFL MVP this season. The Buccaneers are a popular pick to repeat. If those two things happen, Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Wayne Gretzky or whoever else will be stepping aside. If they haven't already.