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5 Stories to Watch for This NFL Season

5 minute read

Deflategate is sorta over. Kickoff has arrived. Here are a few storylines to follow during the 2015 NFL regular season:

1. Patriot Games. You may have heard that a certain controversy about football air pressure embroiled the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady for the entire offseason. And that a federal judge ultimately vacated the NFL’s four-game suspension of Brady for his alleged role in the deflation scheme. And that the whole affair has further damaged the credibility of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (the NFL is appealing the judge’s ruling, but most legal experts believe it will stick, and that Brady will play the whole season.)

You may have also heard about an ESPN report showing that a past New England rule-breaking scheme, Spygate–in which New England taped the defensive signals of the opposition–was way more sinister than it originally appeared to be, and that while the NFL went out of its way to nail Brady for Deglategate, it seems to have covered up the prior scandal.

So in the 21st century NFL, the Patriots always bring the heat, deliver the wins, and drive everyone outside New England nuts. That shouldn’t change this season, which for New England starts Thursday night, against the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Brady able to play and tight end Rob Gronkowski a reliable target, expect New England to win a traditionally weak division for the ninth time in 11 years. The team’s pass defense, however, is a concern. Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl hero who was little-known before picking off Seattle’s Russell Wilson in the waning seconds of New England’s win, is the team’s top returning cornerback.

One more thing: Can we at least extend a little sympathy towards Brady’s backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, who was finally going to get his chance to shine during Brady’s four-game punishment, and is now carrying the clipboard again? Tough break.

2. Fins Flourish? A team worth watching in the AFC East, and one that could challenge the Pats, is the Miami Dolphins. Two straight late-season collapses have cost the Fins possible playoff spots. But this season Miami added some veteran offensive weapons, like wide receiver Greg Jennings, and tried to shore up the defense by signing tackle Ndamukong Suh–known for racking up over $400,000 worth of fines and lost salary for doing things like stepping on Aaron Rodgers‘ leg–to the richest non-quarterback contract in history ($114.375 million over six years).

3. All Chips In. If it weren’t for Deflategate, Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly would have stolen the off-season. Kelly gained control of team personnel decisions, then went ahead and played mad scientist. He traded his top running back and his quarterback, LaShawn McCoy and Nick Foles, and let top receiver Jeremy Maclin leave in free agency. Nine starters from last year’s team are now playing elsewhere. The Foles for Sam Bradford trade is a huge gamble, as the former Rams QB, the number one pick in the 2010 draft, has suffered two ACL tears and failed to prove himself an accurate passer. Kelly scored big, however, by raiding the roster of the division rival Dallas Cowboys, and signing last season’s NFL rushing leader, DeMarco Murray, to a free agent deal. For Kelly, in his third season as Eagles coach, this is a season of reckoning. The team hasn’t won a playoff game in his tenure. Prickly Philadelphia fans will turn against him if the Eagles falter, or build him a Rocky statue if they win the franchise’s first Super Bowl.

4. Jameis v Marcus. Normally, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Tennessee Titans opening day clash ranks pretty low on the priority list. But this season, the top two picks of the 2015 draft with face off: Tampa Bay quarterback Jameis Winston, the top selection from Florida State University, and Oregon’s Heisman Trophy winning QB Marcus Mariota, whom the Titans picked at No. 2. It’s the first time the top two selections will meet in the regular season opener their rookie years. Both players had ups and downs in the preseason, which is to be expected — gleaning regular season performance from exhibitions games is rarely worthwhile. Given the troubling sexual assault allegations against Winston during his time at Florida State, and other off-field issues, he’ll remain a controversial figure as his career begins. Mariotta is starting out on a team with little offensive firepower. And if either quarterback get off to a quick start, he can look towards Washington, home of Robert Griffin III, to see how quickly a young star’s fortunes can change.

5. Still Stewing in Seattle? Can teams actually recover from psychological devastation? We’ll find out this season, when the Seattle Seahawks try to reach a third straight Super Bowl after blowing a chance at a repeat title. Coach Pete Carroll continues to stand by his call for a pass on second-down, from New England’s one-yard-line, with 26 seconds to go and his team down 28-24. Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch was a safe bet to pound the ball in the end zone; instead, Butler famously picked off Russell Wilson. To kill off the ghosts of that moment, Wilson organized an off-season team bonding trip to Hawaii. As Sports Illustrated’s Greg Bishop reports, there was a luau, beach football–beach football!–and a general airing of grievances. Will a tropical Festivus save the Seahawks?

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com