Fifty-five NFL things to watch on the road to Super Bowl LV

This is our annual exercise in suggesting the NFL stories to watch on the way to the Super Bowl. And we’ll get to all the free agency movement — Tom Brady in a creamsicle uni! — rules changes and marquee games in a moment. But the road to Super Bowl LV in Tampa is going to look very different this season. The road just to get to the season opener on Thursday has already been extraordinary, exhausting and often painful.

Since the last Super Bowl, the NFL has negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement, shut down almost all operations as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the spring, staged a virtual draft, crafted a virtual offseason workout program, had an awakening on social justice and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in police custody that included Commissioner Roger Goodell saying “Black Lives Matter” and many players vowing to protest during the season, renegotiated the collective bargaining agreement to reflect the economic realities of playing in a pandemic, put together a sweeping plan for preventing the spread of the virus in team facilities and administering thousands of tests to players, coaches and staff, and navigated a training camp with one eye on player evaluation without preseason games and another on testing data.

Any one of those would be the top headline in any other offseason. But the deluge of adjustments necessitated by the pandemic just to be able to safely hold a practice, made amidst the wrenching national conversation about race and police brutality, has heightened the anticipation and curiosity about how the NFL will play a season while navigating two of the pivotal moments in the country’s history happening simultaneously.

The long-term impact of the NFL on the social justice movement is yet to be determined. But its success in playing through a public health crisis will be measured in weekly increments. That’s why, of all the questions we have about players and teams, the only one that really matters is whether the NFL can make it safely to Feb. 7.

The training camp success in managing the COVID-19 virus with a byzantine testing protocol combined with ad hoc efforts like players choosing to isolate from their families at quarantined hotels has boosted optimism around the league that a full season will be played. From Day 1 of camp, coaches and players alike have talked about the need for discipline and personal responsibility. Read: no nightclubs, no parties, lots of hand sanitizer. Those will certainly be important, and perhaps determinative, for teams with playoff aspirations.

The season will produce moments of spellbinding play, just as it always does, and perhaps moments that are stark reminders of our current national condition. There will be few fans at games, no cheerleaders or mascots on the field, masks and distancing wherever possible and in-stadium recognition of racial equality. The NFL’s 101st season will certainly be its most unusual, even as the league hopes to provide a dose of normalcy.

Here are the 55 things to watch on the way to Super Bowl LV:

THE OVERRIDING FOOTBALL ISSUES

1) How much will the absence of offseason training and OTAs, the revamped training camp schedule and the lack of preseason games affect the quality of play, especially in the first few weeks?

2) With no preseason games, how much of an edge do teams with continuity in the coaching staff and quarterback rooms have?

3) Will a team suffer a virus outbreak significant enough for the league to shut it down and postpone games?

4) The playoff field is expanding by one additional team in each conference, and only the first overall seed in each conference will get a first-round bye. Coaches’ decisions about resting players down the stretch will surely be impacted.

THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

5) Farewell, replay review for pass interference. Will we miss it?

6) Keep an eye on penalties early — because of COVID-19 restrictions, teams couldn’t have officials at training camps to tutor them on what rules will be emphasized this season.

7) With the NFL embracing the social justice movement, how wide-ranging will player protests be?

WELCOME HOME

8) There won’t be fans there to appreciate it, but after decades spent in faded stadiums, the Rams and Chargers become uncomfortable roommates in the NFL’s newest showstopper, SoFi Stadium.

9) And the long-anticipated marriage of Las Vegas and the NFL is finally complete, with the Raiders playing in Allegiant Stadium.

10) With only some teams allowing a small percentage of fans, will home-field advantage lose all meaning?

11) Is a postseason bubble really a possibility?

APPOINTMENT VIEWING (Where we don’t just list the entire Chiefs schedule)

12) Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs | Week 1, Sept. 10 (Kickoff Game): OK, we’ll start with the Chiefs. What this game really means, though, is that the NFL passed its first test and made it to the season opener.

13) Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots | Week 1, Sept. 13: We’re probably not going to see Tua Tagovailoa for the Dolphins, as Brian Flores announced on Monday that Ryan Fitzpatrick will be Miami’s Week 1 starter, but we are going to see Cam Newton playing quarterback for the Patriots. And this will not even be the strangest sight of the weekend.

14) Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints | Week 1, Sept. 13: This will be the strangest sight of the weekend: Tom Brady in another uniform. You still have to rub your eyes to believe it’s true, but don’t take too long to focus, or you’ll miss Brady’s debut in Bruce Arians’ offense against Drew Brees.

15) Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams | Week 1, Sept. 13 (Sunday night): It’s the debut of a new stadium, sure, but also the debut of the Cowboys under Mike McCarthy.

16) Las Vegas Raiders at New England Patriots | Week 3, Sept. 27: A very good litmus test for the Raiders.

17) Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens | Week 3, Sept. 28 (Monday night): The AFC Championship Game we all thought we’d get last season, and maybe a preview of the one we’ll get this season.

18) Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers | Week 9, Nov. 5 (Thursday night): The 49ers blew out the Packers in the NFC title game last season. This meeting closes out a brutal four-game stretch for Green Bay.

19) Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts | Week 9, Nov. 8: The first game of what will be a telling five-game stretch for the Colts, dark-horse contenders whose addition of DeForest Buckner should help them try to contain Lamar Jackson.

20) Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers | Week 12, Nov. 26 (Thanksgiving): If Ben Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers could threaten the Ravens’ grip on the AFC North.

21) Kansas City Chiefs at Tampa Bay Buccaneers | Week 12, Nov. 29: Now that they are in opposite conferences, is this the last time we get Mahomes versus Brady, or can we hope for a Super Bowl rematch?

22) Kansas City Chiefs at New Orleans Saints | Week 15, Dec. 20: We would also take this as a Super Bowl matchup.

23) Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints | Week 16, Dec. 25 (Friday): Remember last season’s playoff stunner? The Saints assuredly do. A Christmas Day present for us all.

24) Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers | Week 17, Jan. 3: There is no chance this game has no playoff implications.

QUESTIONS FOR THE SEASON

25) Which one of the players who opted out of the season will be the biggest loss?

26) Who from a historically great rookie class of wide receivers makes the biggest impact?

27) There is a complete overhaul taking place in Washington — will Dwayne Haskins play well enough this season to be a long-term part of the future?

28) Does Alex Smith even have to take a snap in Washington to be the Comeback Player of the Year?

29) How does Teddy Bridgewater’s second chance as a starter go in Carolina?

30) How do the Patriots plug the defensive holes created by the losses of Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Patrick Chung, among others?

31) Will Cam Newton — and the offense Josh McDaniels creates for him — be more than a one-year fix in New England?

32) And what about Philip Rivers in Indianapolis? Jadeveon Clowney in Tennessee?

33) What does defensive coordinator Gregg Williams cook up for the Jets’ defense without C.J. Mosley and Jamal Adams?

34) Rob Gronkowski has unretired, but can his body hold up for an entire season in Tampa?

35) How much will the Dallas Cowboys regret not already giving Dak Prescott a long-term deal?

36) How much will the Texans’ offense miss DeAndre Hopkins?

37) Will Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson run forever?

38) Whither Earl Thomas?

39) Did the Ravens fix the run defense that was gashed by Derrick Henry in the playoffs?

40) Do Joe Judge’s physical practices pay off for the Giants?

41) Is this finally the year Carson Wentz wins Most Valuable Player?

42) And if Wentz stays healthy, what role will Jalen Hurts have?

43) Where will Taysom Hill line up for the Saints this year?

44) What will we see from rookie quarterbacks like Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert?

45) Which version of the Atlanta Falcons will we get this season: the terrible one from the first half of last season or the red-hot version from the second half?

46) Is this the best Steelers defense in years?

47) Is rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire about to make the Chiefs even more dangerous?

48) Does Stefon Diggs provide enough firepower for the Bills to finally overtake the Patriots in the AFC East?

49) Is Kevin Stefanski the coach to finally get the most from Cleveland’s big-name offensive weapons?

50) Will Pete Carroll indeed #LetRussCook?

51) Have we really seen the last of Adam Vinatieri?

52) When does Deebo Samuel get back on the field in San Francisco?

53) Is Gardner Minshew the future in Jacksonville?

54) Who wins the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes?

55) Will the next head coach hiring cycle finally include more coaches of color?

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista

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