Will Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning be ready for the Colts'… (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press )
With the NFL opener less than a week away, here are some of the pressing questions heading into the season:
Will Peyton Manning be back for Week 1?
Here's betting he will be, even though his off-season neck surgery was serious business. The four-time most valuable player has missed one snap because of an injury in his career, and that's when he had a broken jaw. He's riding a streak of 208 consecutive starts — second only to Brett Favre — and that matters to him. The Colts, who are as secretive as anyone when it comes to injuries, just extended Manning's contract for five years at $18 million per season.
Does San Diego turn the corner and make a serious playoff run?
The stage is certainly set for that. The Chargers led the NFL in offense and defense last season, yet missed the playoffs. Part of that was lousy special teams, and part was the team's typical stuck-in-the-mud start. A couple of difference-makers this year could be linebacker Takeo Spikes and safety Bob Sanders, newcomers rich with experience who garnered instant respect in the locker room. If Sanders can stay healthy — the former Colts star has played in nine games over the last three seasons — he has the ability to make surrounding players better. On the other side of the ball is Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers, the club's most reliable cornerstone over the last several years.
Is Philadelphia's "Dream Team" headed for a wake-up call?
The Eagles could be if they don't get that offensive line up to speed. The team is trying to get more athletic up front, and that includes starting two rookies (something they haven't done since Andy Reid's first season) and moving left guard Todd Herremans to right tackle (the blind-side protector for left-handed Michael Vick), all decisions made in the last week. Vick was repeatedly hammered in an exhibition game against Cleveland. The Eagles need to protect a lot better in a division loaded with elite pass rushers — and for a quarterback who's played a full season just once in his career.
Can Jim Harbaugh do for the 49ers what he did for Stanford?
Don't look for a U-turn this season. As was the case at Stanford, this potential turnaround will take time. Harbaugh does have the advantage of coaching in the NFL's most lukewarm division, one that made history last season when the 7-9 Seahawks made the playoffs. But instead of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Harbaugh has Alex Smith, who's on his seventh offensive coordinator in seven NFL seasons. Michael Crabtree, tabbed as the No.1 receiver, is coming off a foot injury and has gone through his third training camp without playing in an exhibition game. The offensive line? Tackle Joe Staley said he was "disgusted" after watching a recent performance of that unit. And Frank Gore is very talented, but he's got a lot of miles on him for a 28-year-old back. Harbaugh has a chance to be successful, but be patient.
Will Tim Tebow pan out in Denver?
That's unlikely. No one questions Tebow's heart or desire or leadership skills, but the Broncos did him a disservice by taking the quarterback in the first round. Now, he's expected to make an impact right away, rather than learning in a pro offense and getting comfortable with tasks such as taking a snap from under center, reading defenses while he's dropping back, and making his throwing motion quicker and more compact. He wasn't the pick of Coach John Fox or Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway — the coach who picked him, Josh McDaniels, is in St. Louis now — so the Broncos aren't going to invest a lot of time to keep the experiment going.
New Raiders Coach Hue Jackson says he wants to "build a bully." Can he?
Not right away. Even though the Raiders swept the division last season, they were 2-8 outside of it and missed the playoffs. It won't get any easier this year, with games against the NFC North and AFC East. They have a three-game stretch starting in late September with home games against the Jets and Patriots, then hit the road against Houston. They have lost a pair of Pro Bowlers in cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and tight end Zach Miller, and aren't likely to run the table against the Chargers and Chiefs the way they did last fall. Oakland does have some playmaking young receivers in Louis Murphy, Jacoby Ford and Denarius Moore, and maybe offensive coordinator Al Saunders can bring out the best in Jason Campbell. But for a franchise that hasn't had a winning record since 2002, bully-building will require baby steps.
Did the lockout help Green Bay?
In a strange way, it might have. All of the bickering and legal maneuvering between the NFL and players in the spring overshadowed what the Packers did in Super Bowl XLV. They were denied the chance to pound their chest and bask in the afterglow of winning another Lombardi Trophy. That could work out in their favor, though. The Packers could be coming into this season a little hungrier than the typical defending champions, and that could serve them well. They're definitely healthier than they were in 2010, when they ended the season with 15 players on injured reserve.