LOS ANGELES (AFP) – With popularity undimmed by a series of hard hits off the field, the National Football League opens the 2013 season on Thursday with a mouth-watering match-up of multi-millionaire quarterbacks.
Joe Flacco leads the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens into Denver, where Peyton Manning and the Broncos are hotly tipped contenders to be hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy come February.
After two years featuring labor disputes — between owners and players and then between owners and officials — and the pay-for-injury “bounty” scandal that saw New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton banned for all of last season, the league has done all it could to ensure there is little to distract from on-field action.
A week before kickoff, the NFL reached a settlement worth $765 million in a lawsuit filed by more than 4,500 former players over concussion injuries — a payout less than the NFL’s income from any of its television rights deals.
The settlement won’t end the discussion on traumatic brain injuries in the violent sport. But with it, the league avoided acknowledging liability for such injuries affecting the long-term health of its veterans.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will still have to grapple with the league’s inability to agree with players on testing for human growth hormone, and the first-degree murder charge against former Patriots receiver Aaron Hernandez is a blemish on the league’s image.
However, on-field drama is set to push those issues to the back burner in a season that will include three games outside the United States — two in London and one in Canada and culminate with the Super Bowl at Met Life Stadium on February 2.
It all starts in Denver, where Flacco will be eager to show he’s worth the $120 million contract he received in the afterglow of the Ravens’ title triumph over San Francisco.
It’s a re-worked Ravens squad who will take the field, without retired defensive stalwart and emotional leader Ray Lewis.
The Broncos have endured some turmoil, too, with linebacker Von Miller suspended for six games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.
Nevertheless, four-time Most Valuable Player Manning is widely expected to guide Denver to the playoffs as he did last year in his return from multiple neck surgeries.
As always, quarterbacks are key. Among the veterans, Manning, New England’s Tom Brady, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Manning’s younger brother Eli of the New York Giants and Aaron Rodgers at Green Bay have shown they have the ability to take a team all the way.