Carolina Panthers star Cam Newton is excited as he enters his ninth season in the NFL.

Newton was chosen with the first pick in the 2011 draft and the quarterback has gone on to earn three Pro-Bowl selections and the 2015 NFL MVP.

The 30-year-old also led the Panthers to the Super Bowl in 2015.

Newton spoke to reporters on Wednesday and said he was looking forward to facing the Los Angeles Rams in week one.

"I feel like a rookie again," Newton said. "I'm having fun, feeling good and the thrill is still there, man. I'm blessed just knowing that you've just got to sometimes put everything into perspective.

"Just two or three days ago, grown men cried. People getting unexpectedly cut, released, traded or whatever.

"I'm just lucky to be a part of a fan base and organisation for these same nine years. A lot of people can't say the same. ... So for me, being Year nine, I'm just as humbled to have the opportunity, and I want every time a person sees me play, talk, whatever — I want them to see the joy as if it's Day one cause that's how I feel."

Newton sprained his foot in Carolina's third preseason game. But, he said he feels fine physically heading into Sunday's opener.

"[I'm] focused on the Rams," Newton said when asked about the injury. "I don't want to dwell on something that's irrelevant or doesn't need to be talked about."

Newton missed the last two games of 2018 and underwent offseason shoulder surgery. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told reporters Newton is "in great shape" entering 2019. 

"He's mentally where we need him to be," Rivera said. "He had a really good day [of practice]. He threw the ball very well a couple days ago when we had practices and he's been very sharp."

The NFC South has always been a toss-up division. Only twice in the division's history has a team won back-to-back titles — the Carolina Panthers from 2013-15 and the New Orleans Saints in 2017-18.

Can the Atlanta Falcons reclaim the crown they had during Matt Ryan's MVP season now that the team is healthy? Will the Saints remain on top with the returns of Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas? And what will happen to the Panthers if Cam Newton is unable to avoid nagging injuries?

Perhaps one of the bigger stories is how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — who have finished last in the NFC South eight out of the last 10 seasons — will fare under new head coach Bruce Arians.

''When you go back and look at [last year's] 5-11 record, there were a lot of close games. We didn't play smart enough to win, or we missed a kick, or we had a penalty or busted assignment. It was Bucs beating Bucs,'' Arians said during the preseason. ''It wasn't talent. It's just play better in the final two minutes of the half and the final two minutes of the game, and they're at least 8-8.''

Wise words from Arians, but will the Bucs be able to get out of the division's basement? Here we break down key aspects to expect within the NFC South.


Player to watch

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints running back

Kamara had a breakout season in 2018, fulfilling Saints fans and fantasy owners' dreams by rushing for 883 yards and 14 touchdowns, along with 709 receiving yards and four touchdowns. According to Stats Perform data, Kamara was tied for first in rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter and was second in the league in first downs per carry percentage (29.4 percent) among running backs. He was instrumental in keeping the chains moving for New Orleans last season.

Quarterback Brees heaped praise on Kamara while on The Rich Eisen Show, calling him one of the best players he's ever worked with.

"He's up there, he's way up there," Brees said. "It's pretty amazing. The combination of his athletic ability, just how fluid he is as an athlete, as a runner, how smart he is as a football player, his ability to grasp whatever we put on his plate — he can do so many things. He's so versatile ... he's a heck of a football player."

The big question is will he live up to the lofty expectations that were created during his sophomore season. All signs point to yes. Fellow running back Mark Ingram left the team due to free agency, meaning Kamara will be getting most touches — much like he did in the first four games of last season when Ingram was suspended. The team signed Latavius Murray to fill the void Ingram left behind, but it is obvious Kamara will be their number one tailback.

Impact rookie

Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker

Tampa Bay have a lot of faith in White, who was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. He was phenomenal at LSU, recording 286 total tackles in his three years with the Tigers. With his impressive resume, White is expected to become the face of the Buccaneers' defense — a role he relishes.

"I've always been in big roles in my life. Everything I did, I always kind of grew up faster than probably what I should've, and I think it kind of helped me," White said. "I wasn't a guy who sat around and played video games all day. I was a guy who was working, trying to make my own cash and stuff. I always have been that guy, and I'm going to keep being that guy. I've always had a lot of pressure on me, and always did good with it. I'm very comfortable with myself and knowing my abilities."

The saying "defenses win championships" does seem to ring true — Tampa Bay ranked 31st in defense last season, while the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots ranked seventh. Should White be the defensive leader the Buccaneers need, he will be instrumental in turning the tide for a team that's missed 11 playoffs in a row.

Coach on the hot seat

Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers

Riverboat Ron could find himself in murky waters should the Panthers have another poor season. Since the team's 2015 Super Bowl appearance, Carolina's only winning campaign came in 2017. With owner David Tepper in just his second season with the team, he has less loyalty to Rivera than former owner Jerry Richardson.

What would stop Tepper from deciding that Rivera's tenure is over should the Panthers have another 7-9 season? He already has shown he is willing to make big changes with the team, such as moving their headquarters to South Carolina and switching up other personnel.

Rivera is respected by his players and the NFL community, but in his eight seasons as Carolina's head coach, he has a 71-56-1 record — not exactly exciting. Should the Panthers not at least make a playoff run, expect Tepper to weigh his options and decide if Rivera is worth the patience.

Key matchup

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints, November 10

This will be a make-it-or-break-it game for Atlanta. Even though anything can happen in conference play, the Falcons beating the reigning NFC South champions in New Orleans would be the confidence boost they need to try and clinch the division. Also, with coach Dan Quinn taking over as defensive coordinator on top of head coaching duties, the defense is expected to be more buttoned-down.

Atlanta can get the job done as long as the team stay healthy — a huge part of the Falcons' disappointing 2019 campaign was the number of injuries they suffered. With a healthy offensive line, secondary and the return of running back Devonta Freeman, the Falcons should be in good form.

On the other hand, the Saints have a massive chip on their shoulder after a blown pass-interference call at the end of the NFC title game ended their Super Bowl push.

New Orleans also know they have to play with a sense of urgency as Brees enters his age-40 season. Dismantling the Falcons in the middle of the season would be the ultimate boost for the Saints, who have an easier second-half schedule.

Predicted finish

While everyone except the Saints will have improved, it is not enough for a dominant NFC South presence in the playoffs like a couple of seasons ago. The Panthers and Bucs will miss the playoffs again, while the Falcons have a chance for a wild-card spot. However, the Saints will earn the first-round bye and try to make it past the NFC Championship this season.

1. Saints

2. Falcons

3. Panthers

4. Buccaneers

In the NFL's 100th season, one of two founding franchises will be hoping to hold off the league's most successful team in the NFC North.

The Chicago Bears, who began life as the Decatur Staleys, will kick off the century campaign on Thursday at home against a Green Bay Packers team turning over a new leaf after rookie head coach Matt LaFleur was hired to revive the 13-time champions following a 6-9-1 campaign in 2018.

Chicago's decision to turn to a first-time offensive-minded head coach paid off last year as Matt Nagy led the team to their first division title since 2010 and Coach of the Year honours for him.

The Packers, meanwhile, have the best quarterback in the division — and arguably the NFL — executing LeFleur's plays and a defense with top-10 potential on the other side, so the expectations are high in Green Bay.

"I think there's an incredible amount of talent here," LaFleur said at his introductory news conference back in January. "Obviously when you have a quarterback of the calibre of Aaron Rodgers, we're going to have high expectations. We are going to be process-driven in the pursuit of bringing a Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay."


Player to watch

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings running back

Do not tell those with a keen interest in who wins Thursday at Soldier Field, but there is another NFC North team with aspirations of a deep playoff run. The Vikings had the number one-ranked defense when they made the NFC championship game two seasons ago, and quarterback Kirk Cousins was supposed to be the final piece of the jigsaw when he arrived in 2018.

Instead, Minnesota went 8-7-1 last year and missed the playoffs, though there is reason for optimism anew in 2019, particularly if Cook can finally stay healthy. A second-round pick in 2017, he has missed 17 of 32 games due to knee and hamstring injuries but has flashed potential in averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He also ripped off an 85-yard touchdown run this preseason to suggest he could finally breakout.

Crucially, the Vikings' troublesome offensive line should be better after they drafted center Garrett Bradbury in the first round and acquired guard Josh Kline in free agency. Even more important, Super Bowl-winning coach Gary Kubiak is on board as an offensive adviser and Cook should thrive in his zone-blocking scheme.

"Most great players that I've been around in this business are workers and when you come out here every day, you see why he's a great player, really works hard," Kubiak told reporters of Cook in August.

Impact rookie

David Montgomery, Chicago Bears running back

Chicago had no first- or second-round picks in the 2019 draft, but they were not prepared to stand pat and moved up in the third round to land Iowa State back Montgomery.

"We didn't have a first-round pick, we didn't have a second-round pick … and when he was sitting there, to us, he was a first-round talent," Nagy recently told Yahoo Sports.

Montgomery led college football in broken tackles last season and is expected to slot in as the Bears' primary back after Jordan Howard's departure, with the electric Tarik Cohen and bruising Mike Davis also in the mix.

The consensus in Chicago is that Montgomery is a better fit for Nagy's offense than Howard due to his versatility and ability to contribute in the passing game. At a position where rookies can often shine, Montgomery could really wow right away in the Windy City.

Coach on the hot seat

Matt Patricia, Detroit Lions

A fine coordinator who impressed with the New England Patriots failing to deliver as a head coach? We have been here before. The evidence so far is that Patricia will not buck the trend after a 6-10 debut season.

Patricia has the comfort of being the handpicked selection of general manager Bob Quinn — himself a former Patriots staffer — but seven losses in their final 10 games of 2018 could not have gone unnoticed by the Lions hierarchy.

The Lions do look strong on both sides of the trenches, but if quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for just 3,777 yards in 2018, disappoints again, Detroit may consider ripping it up and starting over (again) in 2020.

A first winless preseason since 1989 has only given Patricia's naysayers more fuel. Though Lions fans will remember the team went 4-0 in the 2008 preseason, only to go 0-16 in the regular season.

Key matchup

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers, December 15

Thursday's opening clash between these two in Chicago could set the tone, but the Packers beat the Bears at Lambeau in week one last year only for Nagy's team to win the division.

We will have a better idea of these two teams by Week 15, when they will meet for the 200th time.

That is Green Bay's final home game of the season and the Packers will want to record a fourth successive victory over the Bears at Lambeau given they finish the season with tricky road games against the Vikings and Lions.

Interestingly, the Bears have a 10-day break between hosting the Dallas Cowboys and visiting the Packers. With contests against the Chiefs and Vikings to round out the season, Week 15 could be crucial to their postseason aspirations too.

Predicted finish

Number one ranked defenses typically tend to fall back to the pack the next year — the Vikings went from the top in 2017 to ninth in 2018, for example — and as well as losing key personnel in the secondary like Adrian Amos (now a Packer) and Bryce Callahan — their defensive coordinator Vic Fangio departed to become Denver Broncos head coach.

Even if quarterback Mitchell Trubisky takes a significant step forward in his third season, the Bears may struggle to duplicate their 2018 record, especially with the Packers primed for a comeback. Rodgers will be determined to prove it was ex-head coach Mike McCarthy and not him who was holding the Packers back, while an exciting young defense should improve if Jaire Alexander and Kenny Clark move themselves into the elite category.

The jury is still out on Cousins with the Vikings, though it would be no surprise to see them get a wild card in a stacked division. The Lions may struggle to keep up if only because of how strong the other three are.

1. Packers

2. Bears

3. Vikings

4. Lions

The 2018 season gave us a number of record-breaking performances, and there is even more to come in 2019.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees reached the biggest milestone of the season when he surpassed Peyton Manning's mark of 71,940 yards as he became the NFL's all-time leading passer.

Brees also set records for career completions (6,586) and single-season completion percentage (74.4).

But it was young star Patrick Mahomes who ran away with MVP honours after the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback became only the second NFL player in history to pass for more than 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards in a season.

Other players who had an impressive statistical season included Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who set a rookie record for touchdown passes (27), and Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri – who moved past Morten Andersen (2,544 career points) to become the NFL's all-time scoring leader.

But there is more to come for the NFL's historic 100th season in 2019.


NFL milestones that could be reached this season

— Tom Brady (70,514) needs 1,325 passing yards to eclipse Brett Favre for the third most all-time. 

— Philip Rivers (374) requires 26 passing touchdowns to reach 400 in his career.

— Cam Newton (4,808) needs 121 rushing yards to pass Randall Cunningham for the second-most rushing yards ever by a quarterback. Michael Vick holds the record at 6,109.

— Russell Wilson (196) requires four passing touchdowns to reach 200 in his career.

— Adrian Peterson (106) needs one rushing touchdown to pass Jim Brown for the fifth most in NFL history. He (13,318) requires 345 rushing yards to surpass Jerome Bettis for the seventh-most all-time.

— J.J. Watt (92) requires eight sacks to reach 100 in his NFL career.

— Ben Roethlisberger (363) needs 37 passing touchdowns for 400 in his career.

— Larry Fitzgerald (116) requires one touchdown catch to leapfrog Antonio Gates for the sixth-most all-time. He needs 23 receptions to pass Tony Gonzalez for the second-most all-time.

— Antonio Brown's next touchdown catch will be his 75th in his career.

— Cordarrelle Patterson (six) needs two kick-off returns for touchdown to tie the NFL record.

— Von Miller (98) requires two sacks to reach 100 in his NFL career.

The day before the start of the NFL regular season was all about contracts, and there could be more to come this week.

Meanwhile, one player is taking the opportunity to remind people he will still looking for a job.


Three things that matter

Elliott ends holdout after getting Cowboys extension

Just hours after Jared Goff signed a record-breaking deal with the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott got the contract he has been holding out all offseason for — a six-year deal worth $90million in new money that included $50m guaranteed to make him the NFL's highest-paid running back. 

The 24-year-old returned to Dallas on Tuesday and was back at practice with the team on Wednesday for the first time this year.

The Cowboys open the regular season against the New York Giants on Sunday.

Brown has his helmet, but is still left with fines

Oakland Raiders receiver Antonio Brown will wear a Xenith Shadow after previously sporting a Schutt AiR Advantage, which was no longer approved by the NFL because it was deemed outdated. Brown said the new helmet makes him feel "agile and comfortable" while also allowing for "better visibility."

Brown had filed two grievances against the league as he hoped to avoid wearing a new model, but he lost both hearings. Given he did not have proper headgear until now, he is left with more than $50,000 in fines he racked up for missing mandatory team activities while the equipment debacle was ongoing.

Foles dealing with abdominal soreness

Nonetheless, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles is still expected to be under center for Sunday's opener against the Kansas City Chiefs, but his status is something to be monitored when the team resumes practice on Thursday.

Foles was held to just 19 snaps in the preseason, all of which came during the third game against the Miami Dolphins. Should his limited availability continue, though, the Jaguars only have rookie Gardner Minshew and second-year quarterback Chase Litton on the depth chart.

Two things that don't matter

Gordon trade market lukewarm

Maybe it is the high asking price, as the Chargers are rumoured to be seeking a first-round pick and a fifth-round pick. But the running back has not garnered much interest beyond the Philadelphia Eagles. 

The Eagles reportedly proposed sending Jordan Howard to the Chargers in exchange for Melvin Gordon and a swap of mid-round picks. However, this would cause the Chargers to take on some of Gordon's salary, so naturally, the team declined the lopsided trade.

Gordon will miss week one against the Indianapolis Colts since he failed to report to the Chargers' facility this week, so we will have to wait and see what happens in week two.

Atlanta "very, very close" to agreement with Jones

The Atlanta Falcons receiver never had plans to hold out but team owner Arthur Blank offered some assurance, saying he has every reason to believe the two sides will reach a deal soon.

"I'd be surprised and disappointed if we didn't get it done this week. ... I think it's very reasonable to assume it will get done this week," Blank told The Athletic.

Julio Jones, who is set to earn $9.6m in 2019, has two years remaining on the five-year deal worth $71m he signed in 2015. But the expectation has long been that Jones will have a new contract in place before Atlanta kick off the regular season against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday.

One video you have to see

A shirtless Odell Beckham Jr. caught passes — including a couple one-handed beauties — from Colin Kaepernick in a video the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback tweeted.

Wednesday's tweet of the day

Brown let the Raiders know exactly how he felt when he shared a screenshot of his fines to his Instagram story with the caption that read, in part, "when your own team want to hate but there's no stopping me now."

Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott believes he is the "best" after signing a new contract with the NFL franchise.

Cowboys running back Elliott ended a 40-day holdout to sign a six-year, $90million extension - $50m of that guaranteed.

Reflecting on Wednesday's agreement, Elliott was asked why it was important for him to be the highest-paid player at his position and he said: "I believe I'm the best."

Elliott said he is happy to be back with the team after holding out for 40 days and training in Cabo with Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.

The 24-year-old and two-time Pro Bowler expressed gratitude for the amount of support he received from his team-mates.

"Calls, text ... I mean, one of my team-mates told me don't come back without a deal," Elliott said. "I mean, just support like that from this group of guys meant everything. It definitely would have been harder if things were the opposite."

As for the running back's fitness after training on his own during the entire preseason? Elliott said he feels good. 

"He's in very good shape. He looks good, but he hasn't practiced with pro football players, so we'll just see how he fits back in," head coach Jason Garrett said. "But he's a quick study. He's a smart guy, got excellent football IQ. So we'll just see where he is and adjust accordingly as we go."

The Cowboys still need to make a move on the 53-man roster for him to play, but Elliott believes he could still handle a full workload if Dallas gave it to him on Sunday.

"I think I'm just going to approach it as a normal week. You still have to be fresh by Sunday," Elliott said. "It is a long season. So don't want to try to overdo it and risk injury."

Elliott – the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft – said he is just focused on getting better for the Cowboys, who open their season against the New York Giants.

"I've just got to take it to the next level now," Elliott added.

There's no telling what will happen in the NFC East.

If past is prelude, then chaos will likely reign in the division again this year, as there are quite a few interesting situations that need to be tracked.

Eli Manning and Daniel Jones are battling for the support of New Yorks Giants fans, the Philadelphia Eagles' success is based on whether Carson Wentz can hold up for an entire season, and Ezekiel Elliott's holdout in hopes of becoming one of the NFL's highest-paid running backs overshadowed the Dallas Cowboys.

Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins are looking to rebound from a year in which they lost not one but two signal-callers to season-ending leg injuries - and they have put their faith in Case Keenum.

No team has won the division in consecutive years since the Eagles won three straight NFC East titles in 2002, 2003 and 2004, so anything could happen.

Player to watch

Carson Wentz, Eagles quarterback

Wentz undoubtedly has MVP-calibre talent, but he needs to stay healthy in order for Philadelphia to have any shot this year. The 26-year-old has thrown for 10,152 yards and 70 touchdowns in three NFL seasons - actually two and a half seasons, considering he has played in only 40 games because of injuries.

Speaking of injuries: Wentz hasn't managed to play in a single playoff game, as now-Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles took over for the Eagles in the postseason in each of the last two years.

Wentz has weapons like Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson and Zach Ertz at his disposal, so Philadelphia appear to be built for success on paper. If Wentz can start (and finish) at least 14 games and is in relatively good shape at the end of the regular season, he could very well live up the expectations set by the four-year, $128million extension he signed this offseason and be the best quarterback in the NFC East in 2019.

"I feel like I'm just mentally in a much different place, and physically I feel good too," Wentz said, via "A little more relaxed, you could probably say."

He's a natural when it comes extending plays to make something out of nothing, but his knack for this also increases his risk of injury. Wentz, 26, will need to choose his battles and know when to throw the ball away or take a sack in 2019. Moderation will be key in what could be his biggest season yet.

Impact rookie

Derrius Guice, Redskins running back

Derrius Guice technically isn't a rookie, as he was drafted by Washington as a second-rounder in the 2018 NFL Draft. But he did miss all of what would have been his rookie campaign after tearing his ACL in the preseason. Expect big things from this explosive running back in 2019.

Adrian Peterson eclipsed 1000 rushing yards last season, but Washington's Jay Gruden has already made it clear he expects Guice to handle the bulk of the carries.

"It's not so much about Samaje as it is about Derrius Guice, how much faith we have in him to carry the ball," Gruden said, via the Washington Post. "We drafted him for a reason. We feel like he can be a first-, second- and even third-down back if needed. The offense, carries-wise, will probably go through him, pretty much."

The 22-year-old ran for more than 1,000 yards in two of his three seasons at LSU and even led the SEC in rushing yards as a sophomore. 

Washington's lack of depth at receiver and questionable quarterback situation will likely force them to pound the ground with their top option early and often.

Coach on the hot seat

Jason Garrett, Cowboys

Jason Garrett is entering his ninth full season as Dallas' head coach since going 5-3 as their interim in 2010, and he simply has to do more with the talent he has. Garrett has arguably the best running back in the NFL in Ezekiel Elliott, a talented dual-threat quarterback in Dak Prescott and one of the games more dynamic receivers in Amari Cooper. The Cowboys also have a top-flight defensive line.

But Dallas have won only two playoff games under Garrett, despite winning the NFC East three times during his reign. 

Garrett's five-year, $30million contract he signed in 2014 is nearing its end, and this might be his make-or-break season.

Garrett downplays any pressure - for a third consecutive season.

"Our biggest focus is on what we need to do to be our best as players and coaches and the rest of that stuff will take care of itself," he said, via the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Key matchup

Cowboys at Eagles, Dec 22

It's easy to see that Dallas and Philadelphia are the two teams in the NFC East with the most talent. There's no quarterback controversy and each team's top skill players have defined roles and most have proved they can perform at a high level.

The Cowboys and Eagles will likely be the two teams fighting for a division title as the regular season comes to a close, so this Week 16 matchup could seriously affect the playoff picture.

It wouldn't be that surprising if this game outright determined which side takes the cake.

Predicted finish

We're just going to stick with recent trends in predicting how the season shakes out. Since no team has repeated as division champ in the NFC East in 15 years, the Eagles will dethrone the Cowboys. But Dallas shouldn't be too far behind.

It's a toss-up between the Giants and Redskins when it comes to third and fourth place.

1. Eagles

2. Cowboys

3. Giants

4. Redskins

There's a legitimate case to be made for the NFC West being the most exciting division in the NFL.

After their Super Bowl letdown, the Los Angeles Rams enter 2019 knowing they will likely face an extremely difficult fight to maintain supremacy in the division.

With the health of Todd Gurley's knee a huge question mark hanging over their season, the Rams face stiff competition from a Seattle Seahawks team that made the playoffs last season and potentially a San Francisco 49ers team set up to contend if their quarterback can stay healthy and return to his 2017 form.

Lurking as a dangerous worst-to-first contender is a Arizona Cardinals team that promises to be one of the most fascinating in the league in 2019.

After he guided them to within a win of the Lombardi Trophy, Rams quarterback Jared Goff signed a four-year extension.

"He's just getting better and better," coach Sean McVay says of Goff.

For the Rams retain the division title, they'll need that to continue to be the case.

Player to Watch

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers quarterback

Last year, the 49ers were expected to make the leap to playoff contention because of Garoppolo. That all went south when Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, and now he is under considerable pressure to prove he is the right man to lead the offense and deliver much-needed results for coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch in year three of their regime.

Garoppolo rebounded from a dreadful preseason performance against the Denver Broncos with a solid outing against the Kansas City Chiefs, though the concerns his performance in the first game raised will not be extinguished until he starts winning.

Niners tight end George Kittle, though, has full belief in Garoppolo. Kittle told StatsPerform: "I know for a fact that Jimmy Garoppolo is really, really good at football and I can't wait until everyone can see what he can do in a full season. He's a special player, so I'm just looking forward to being back on the field with him.

"When he came in, he played in five games and won all five. That year we were kind of banged up too, we were missing some pieces and he still led us to five wins, so I'm just looking forward to what he can do with a fully healthy roster and a whole year with coach Shanahan under his belt. I'm really looking forward to it."

Impact Rookie

Kyler Murray, Cardinals quarterback

Sometimes the best answer is the obvious one. That is certainly the case with Kyler Murray, the clear frontrunner to have the biggest impact of any rookie not just in the division, but in the whole NFL, too. As the Cardinals adjust to Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid offense, they will go as far as the dual-threat (potential) superstar can take them.

There has been so much attention on what Murray can do with his legs, but what has stood out most to his Arizona team-mates is his unerring accuracy.

"Obviously, he's a dynamic quarterback. He can change just the whole style of a team's offense when he scrambles," running back Chase Edmonds said, via ESPN. "But I think it overshadows just how accurate he truly is and just how calm he's able to stay under pressure when you look at his footwork when guys are approaching him or how he's so quickly able to just settle back and get an accurate throw going on."

If the Cardinals are to bounce back from a dismal 3-13 season and surprise those who expect another last-place finish, Murray will need to showcase that accuracy right off the bat.

Coach on the hot seat

Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals

There is a strong argument for 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan being on the hot seat after two losing seasons, but injuries likely bought him time and, given Shanahan's play-calling wisdom, general manager John Lynch would likely go before him.

Questions about Pete Carroll's longevity may come if the Seahawks struggle, but the most likely scenario is that the Cardinals' gamble on Kingsbury and his offense backfires and Arizona are forced to cut bait.

Kingsbury, for his part, is adamant his attack will not look the same as it did during his time with Texas Tech, telling The Ringer: "We won't throw it 88 times [a game] the way we did with [now-Chiefs QB] Mahomes."

However, his hiring is still one with potential for disaster, and he has a chance to be one and done should the Cardinals be as bad as they were last season - 3-13 in, ahem, Steve Wilks' one-and-done season.

Key Matchup

Seahawks at 49ers, Nov 11

The Niners ended a long winless run against the Seahawks in 2018 with a meaningless late-season overtime victory. This primetime clash should have a lot more riding on it, though, and if San Francisco are victorious again this time around, it will be a clear signal the Seahawks' time as a force in the West is coming to a close.

Predicted finish

It's an offense-dominated league in which play-callers are perhaps even more important than those executing the instructions. In that area, the Rams and 49ers have the edge over the Seahawks. A lot is dependent on Garoppolo, but the two California teams looked best placed to fight for the division, with the Seahawks looking ill-equipped to keep up with them should both the Rams and Niners offenses fire on all cylinders.

1. Rams

2. 49ers

3. Seahawks

4. Cardinals

The 2019 NFL season is a celebration of the century - and such an occasion requires lots of attention.

The league returns on Thursday as the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers renew the NFL's oldest rivalry, opening its 100th season with an NFC North showdown.

But it's just the beginning of a season with many intriguing games and narratives that are sure to follow as the New England Patriots chase a record-breaking seventh Super Bowl win, the Indianapolis Colts deal with the aftermath of Andrew Luck's retirement and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz continues a(nother) comeback campaign.

We take a look at the key storylines.


Will Antonio Brown's season be as turbulent as his offseason?

It seems hard to top, but the 31-year-old did lead the league in receiving touchdowns last season and has plenty of other eye-popping stats on his resume. Still, the Pittsburgh Steelers' disastrous 2018 campaign is proof that distractions can be divisive, and Brown has dealt with a number of diversions this offseason, from his frostbitten feet to his helmet holdout. Will business boom or bust in Oakland? Keep your popcorn full.

How will quarterbacks on the mend fare?

Cam Newton (shoulder) and Jimmy Garoppolo (knee), Andy Dalton (thumb) and Marcus Mariota (foot, rib, shoulder, neck, back, nerves). Need we go on? There are a number of signal-callers seeking retribution after their 2018 campaigns were interrupted or cut short due to injury. Can these prominent passers prove they still have it or will it be next man up on the depth chart?

Are the Browns contenders?

It's a legitimate question after the overhaul offseason that saw the addition of new targets for second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield in Odell Beckham Jr and Kareem Hunt - who will begin the season suspended - but like first-year coach Freddie Kitchens, the team is still young. The Cleveland Browns improved to 7-8-1 after their infamous 0-16 season in 2017, and the team's offseason acquisitions give reason to believe the long-suffering fanbase is finally in for a treat this year. The AFC North is ruthless, but this could be the year Cleveland return to the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

How long will Eli Manning last as the Giants' starter?

There's a reason the New York Giants drafted Daniel Jones out of Duke with the sixth overall pick in April, but how quickly will that backup plan will be put into action? While the rookie impressed in preseason, it's said the starting job will remain Eli Manning's as long as the team is in contention. But it's hard to forget the veteran's irregularity last season. Manning completed 66 per cent of his passes for 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as the Giants missed the playoffs for a second straight year. Do they have the patience for another year?

Can Le'Veon Bell stay healthy after nearly 600 days away from the game?

The star rusher has remained relatively quiet since leaving the Steelers for the New York Jets, but could it just be the calm before the storm? Le'Veon Bell does have 5,336 rushing yards, 2,660 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns through his first five NFL seasons, but practice isn't the same as in-game action - and it's been a while since he's seen any. Still, the Jets running back appears ready to let his performance this season do the talking.

How will Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury adjust with the Cardinals?

The rookie quarterback and first-year NFL coach face the tall task of turning around a team that finished with their worst record in nearly two decades as the Arizona Cardinals went 3-13 in 2018. Arizona will still need to be cautious with Kyler Murray, as the dual-sport star continues to get comfortable following his preseason inconsistencies, but Kliff Kingsbury is expected to be more aggressive. The duo should be able to shake their nerves fairly quickly.

Will the Raiders bid farewell to Oakland with a winning season?

The Raiders have had only one winning season since 2002, but they have plenty to be optimistic about after selecting four rookies in the top 40 picks of this year's Draft in addition to acquiring Brown, Richie Incognito and Vontaze Burfict. They could even advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, something that would certainly be a sweet send-off to Sin City ahead of the team's 2020 relocation.

Can the Steelers still thrive without the 'Killer Bs'?

Bell and Brown left Pittsburgh in dramatic fashion this offseason, leaving only Ben Roethlisberger after a turbulent 2018 season in which the Steelers finished 9-6-1 and outside the playoffs for the first time since 2013 amid myriad distractions. Now it's time for third-year stars James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster to shine in their stead - if they can stay healthy. As for the team's Ryan Shazier-sized void on defense, there are high hopes first-round pick Devin Bush can bring back Blitzburgh.

How will the new pass interference rule play out?

Just don't ask a New Orleans Saints fan, because it will always be too little too late for them. Now that coaches can challenge pass interference calls and non-calls as part of the replay review system, such catastrophes like the infamous no-call in last season's NFC championship game can be avoided. But the new rule could also open a can of worms and change the strategies for using challenges in general. To see how it plays out, you'll just have to stay tuned.

Will the NFL negotiate a new CBA?

The league has been hinting that a new collective bargaining agreement could be finalized as early as September, but an ominous "work stoppage ready" plan distributed in July, urging players to be prepared for "loss of income, loss of health insurance, increased training costs and loss of camaraderie and structure", suggested otherwise. The current CBA is set to expire after the 2020 season, so the clock is ticking.

Antonio Brown is unhappy with the fines he received from the Oakland Raiders for missing mandatory team activities during the offseason. 

The Raiders wide receiver posted on his Instagram story a letter he received from general manager Mike Mayock that stated he has been fined $13,950 for missing the team's walk through on August 22.

The correspondence also said Brown was previously fined $40,000 for missing preseason training camp on August 18, and Oakland could take further action if he continues to miss mandatory team activities. 

Brown was not afraid to share his thoughts, as he wrote alongside an image of the letter: "When your own team want to hate but there's no stopping me now devil is a lie. Everyone got to pay this year so we clear."

The 31-year-old's public displeasure adds to the eventful offseason he has already had in Oakland.

The receiver started the Raiders' training camp on the non-football injury list. It was believed he was recovering from a "minor injury" he sustained after using a cryotherapy machine "without the proper footwear", resulting in frostbite.

However, it was later revealed Brown's holdout was related to a dispute with the NFL over his helmet. Brown wanted to wear his old headgear, which is no longer on the NFL's approved list, and reportedly threatened to quit if he could not. He filed two grievances against the league as he hoped to avoid wearing a new model, but he lost both hearings. 

Despite the distractions, Raiders coach Jon Gruden has insisted that Brown is "all in and ready to go."

Ezekiel Elliott has ended his holdout by signing a six-year contract worth $90million with the Dallas Cowboys.

Star running back Elliott had been holding out for a new contract for 40 days and the team confirmed on Wednesday they had reached an agreement on a deal that includes $50m guaranteed.

Elliott, who had one year left on his rookie contract as well as a fifth-year team option, is under contract with Dallas through the 2026 season.

The $15m average annual value of the deal and $50m in guaranteed money takes Elliott past the Los Angeles Rams' Todd Gurley ($14.375m/$45m) to make him the NFL's highest-paid running back.

Elliott had been training in Mexico with Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk during his holdout, but he returned to Dallas on Tuesday and is expected to participate in practice on Wednesday.

A workhorse in the team's offense, Elliott earned his second rushing title in three years in 2018 with 1,434 yards on a league-high 304 carries with six touchdowns. He added 77 receptions for 567 yards with three scores.

The Cowboys open their 2019 campaign against the New York Giants on Sunday, and Elliott will now be available to spearhead their rushing attack.

Ezekiel Elliott has reached an agreement on a new six-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys, according to reports.

Dallas' star running back is set to sign a deal worth $90million, with $50m guaranteed.

Elliott, who had one year left on his rookie contract as well as a fifth-year team option, will now be under contract with Dallas through the 2026 season. 

Dallas had offered to make Elliott the second highest-paid running back, but he held out for the long haul as he continued to train in Mexico with Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk while sitting out the preseason.

A workhorse in the team's offense, Elliott earned his second rushing title in three years with 1,434 yards on a league-high 304 carries with six touchdowns last season. He added 77 receptions for 567 yards with three scores.

The Cowboys face the New York Giants in their season opener on Sunday, and Elliott is likely now to be available to feature.

Jared Goff is staying with the Los Angeles Rams for the foreseeable future.

Los Angeles and the quarterback agreed to a four-year extension on Tuesday which will keep him with the team through the 2024 season, the team announced.

The deal could be the largest guaranteed contract in NFL history, according to

Rams coach Sean McVay said in June he was confident the sides would eventually come to an agreement.

"He's just getting better and better," McVay said at the time (via USA Today's Ramswire). "This offseason, he's continued to take steps, truly becoming an extension of the coaching staff and a huge part of our success as a team the last couple of years is due to his leadership and we're so thankful to have him ... it's insane to think that he's going anywhere. He's stuck with me as long as I have a say."

Goff completed 64.9 per cent of his passes and threw for 32 touchdowns, along with 12 interceptions, in 2018. He helped the Rams advance to the Super Bowl, where they fell to the New England Patriots.

"I think what's really special about him is the way that he's wired mentally," McVay said about Goff in June. "He's got elite mental toughness and extreme security in himself that doesn't ride the wave of the inevitable ups and downs that you face as a quarterback, and I think he's so authentic and genuine, his players love him."

The Rams will open the regular season against the Panthers in Carolina on Sunday.

NFL schedule-makers wasted no time getting to some of the intriguing matchups of the 2019 season, and fans deserve nothing less for the league's historic 100th year.

Are you ready for some football?

"We are thrilled to be kicking off the 100th season of football in the NFL. As a charter franchise, we cannot think of a better way to begin our centennial season by hosting our long-time rival in prime time at Soldier Field," Chicago Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said.

From a throwback Thursday rivalry opener pitting the Bears against the Green Bay Packers, to a modern-day classic featuring defending champions the New England Patriots against the Pittsburgh Steelers to kick off "Sunday Night Football," the league has more than a few treats in store for the first weekend.

But there are plenty more exciting games to look forward to down the road this season. It is 256 fixtures over 17 weeks, beginning Thursday in Chicago and ending on December 29.

Remember, it is a marathon not a sprint. With that in mind… Here are five circle-the-calendar games in 2019:


New Orleans Saints at Los Angeles Rams, Week 2

Sunday, September 15

The bad blood is still brewing in New Orleans, so the NFL is getting this game out of the way early. 

It's hard to forget the infamous no-call in which officials missed Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman interfering with Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis in the final minutes of last season's NFC title game. Because of the blown call, the matchup went into overtime, where the Rams kicked a field goal to win, 26-23, and punch their ticket to Super Bowl 53.

Revenge is a concept often spoken about in professional sports, but much less frequently applicable in the regular season on the pay-for-play level.

The Saints, however, undoubtedly will be out for revenge after being robbed of a shot at Tom Brady and the Patriots for the championship.

Baltimore Ravens at Seattle Seahawks, Week 7

Sunday, October 20

The last time we saw Earl Thomas in a Seahawks uniform, he was flipping the bird at his Seattle sideline while being carted off the field with a broken leg in an air cast.

Now, he is set to lead a Ravens defense in need of a voice after losing long-time franchise veterans like Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and Ray Lewis over the years.

Baltimore are already building offensive momentum under second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, and it will be interesting to see how he compares to the NFL's highest-paid player in Russell Wilson.

Carolina Panthers at San Francisco 49ers, Week 8

Sunday, October 27

Eric Reid will return to Levi's Stadium to face his former team for the first time since he signed with the Panthers last September.

The safety has stayed in the social consciousness spotlight since taking a knee in protest beside Colin Kaepernick, drawing both praise and criticism (not to mention numerous drug tests) since his return to the football field last October.

But the Niners look a little different since Reid last played with them, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is poised for a comeback season after a knee injury spoiled his first year in San Francisco. His new weapons could even help get the team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Kansas City Chiefs at New England Patriots, Week 14

Sunday, December 8

Settle in, because this game is guaranteed to be a treat.

The last time these teams met was the AFC championship in January, when Brady and company battled at a roaring Arrowhead Stadium for a narrow 37-31 overtime win to advance to Super Bowl LIII.

The teams had built up excitement during their high-scoring regular-season thriller last October when the they combined for 946 total yards and 30 points in the fourth quarter alone before New England sealed a 43-40 victory on a last-second field goal.

Is this Playoff Preview v.2? Maybe.

Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets, Week 16

Sunday, December 22

Le'Veon Bell's departure was not quite as loud as Antonio Brown's, but the Steelers certainly suffered without their star running back, especially after fellow rusher James Conner went down with an injury late last season.

To Conner's credit, he filled in admirably for Bell during his holdout as Conner compiled a total of 1,470 yards and 13 touchdowns.

On the other hand, it was Bell's locker that got looted by his Steelers team-mates when he opted not to show up midway through last season, and he gets the penultimate week of the campaign when playoff implications could be at stake for his own shot at retribution.

At the start of every NFL season, each team have the same 0-0 record. Combined with surprise trades, NFL draftees, free agency signings, shocking retirements and injuries, September signals the start of something new for all.

It has happened time again — a dark horse seemingly comes out of nowhere and has made a deep impression on that. Remember the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals that went to the Super Bowl, but were 4-12 the year before?

What about the 2008 Miami Dolphins who made it to the playoffs, even though they won just one game in 2007? Of course, the best example is Kurt Warner and the 1999 St Louis Rams, who won the Super Bowl that year, despite being 4-12 a season earlier.

Many eyes will be focused on the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders this year, especially with the addition of Antonio Brown and Odell Beckham Jr. But what other teams have the potential to go from zero to hero?

Here we break down three teams that could surprise us all during the 2019 season.


San Francisco 49ers

Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is back, Jerick McKinnon has also returned, running back Tevin Coleman now is with the team and San Francisco drafted defensive end Nick Bosa with the second overall pick. Not to mention, George Kittle might be the best tight end in the league now the Rob Gronkowski has retired.

A lot of the 49ers' problems in their shoddy 2018 season (which saw them finish 4-12) were because of injuries. Garoppolo tore his anterior cruciate ligament in week three, meaning backups C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullins had to take over for the rest of the year. McKinnon's knee gave him issues all last season and he is still recovering, but the depth with Coleman and Matt Breida gives the Niners more options.

Garoppolo struggled in his first preseason game but was able to step up and help San Francisco defeat the Kansas City Chiefs during its second preseason game. Garoppolo said playing at Arrowhead Stadium, where he tore his ACL last year, helped shake off any apprehension.

"A lot has happened in the year since then," Garoppolo said. "I thought it would be good to go back there just to remember everything that I've gone through."

On the other side of the ball, Bosa will have a helping hand from Dee Ford, who was traded from the Chiefs in the offseason after a 13-sack 2018 campaign.

As long as everyone stays healthy, the 49ers have all the pieces to at least win their division.

New York Jets

A far cry from their Super Bowl victory half a century ago, the Jets finished last season with a 4-12 record. New quarterback Sam Darnold looked like a shaky high schooler starting for the first time, the offense was sluggish and their third-down conversion rate was abysmal (32.24 per cent). 

But things have changed on the offensive side for New York. Running back Le'Veon Bell signed a four-year, $52million deal with the team and has had a quiet and drama-free offseason with the Jets. Bell also seemed to have helped Darnold gain some confidence and has heaped praise on the young quarterback.

"Sam has all the intangibles, he has the mindset. You can see him — he's a competitor. Every day in practice he literally wants to get better. It's hard to ... it's hard to describe someone that's like that because I'm like that," Bell said during the preseason.

"A lot of people go to practice and you're just practicing. They call a play and you run the play. When they call a play for me, I'm trying to work myself and I'm trying to like really get better at it. And I can see that in Sam. When he makes a throw he doesn't really like, I can see that in his face, 'I could've thrown that better.' You've got to love that about him because he literally wants to be perfect. He reminds me a lot of myself in that aspect."

Meanwhile, Ty Montgomery also was signed to a one-year $805,000 contract. Montgomery especially is intriguing, since he can take on the dual role of tailback and receiver. First-year Jets head coach Adam Gase said he was shocked Montgomery had not been claimed off waivers after the Green Bay Packers released him and envisions him being the perfect complement to Bell.

Montgomery later added that he and Bell work well together, making them an efficient and top-notch duo.

"I think we complement each other," Montgomery said. "I'm more of a receiver that's become a back and he's a back that's sort of become a receiver. Us being on the field together, we can line up anywhere. We can do anything. When he comes off, I come on. My mindset, the way I'm wired right now, nothing's going to change, nothing should change. Our offense should be just as efficient."

Indianapolis Colts

No Andrew Luck? No problem. The quarterback's surprise retirement at the age of 29 could have sent other teams into a tailspin, but the Colts have played without Luck before, although that result was not spectacular. In recent seasons, Luck has dealt with various injuries, and Jacoby Brissett has stepped up.

Colts head coach Frank Reich said Indianapolis are in "good hands" with Brissett, even though he has a 4-11 record with the team when starting. 

"You can just feel his presence in the huddle and on the field," Reich said. "The confidence that he's had, the chemistry with his receivers. We all know Andrew and T.Y. [Hilton] had a unique chemistry and connection. I can feel that developing. That's been very important that Jacoby has taken all those reps."

Brissett had been taking the majority of first-team reps during training camp and working with Hilton, Pro Bowl tight ends Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle, and running back Marlon Mack, who nearly had a 1,000-yard season last year, despite missing five games. 

The stage is set for Brissett to succeed. As long as the offensive line — which includes first-round picks Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly and Quenton Nelson — stays strong, Brissett and the Colts still have the chance to claim an AFC South title.

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