All systems go, new season set for smooth launch

Steve Keating
NFL logo and set are seen at New York's Radio City Music Hall before the start of the 2013 NFL Draft
The NFL logo and set are seen at New York's Radio City Music Hall before the start of the 2013 NFL Draft April 25, 2013. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Steve Keating

(Reuters) - With no lockouts, no replacement referees no 'Bountygate' and no concussion lawsuit to worry about the spotlight will be back on the field when the National Football League (NFL) season kicks off on Thursday.

After a pay-for-pain scandal involving the New Orleans Saints and two labor disputes - one between owners and players and another between the league and referees - blotted the start of the last two seasons, the 2013 campaign is set for a smooth launch with the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens visiting the Denver Broncos.

The NFL made sure there would be no dark clouds hanging over opening night when it agreed last Thursday to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of former players who accused the league of hiding the dangers of brain injury while profiting from the sport's violence.

With still no testing for human growth hormone and the disturbing trial of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez indicted on a charge of first-degree murder, there will be plenty to keep NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell busy.

But nothing should distract from an intriguing schedule that includes two games in London and one in Canada before reaching a chilling climax on February 2 when New Jersey's MetLife Stadium plays host to the first outdoor, cold weather Super Bowl.

The road to the Super Bowl, however, will begin in the Mile High City on Thursday with a matchup that features the Ravens and Broncos, the bookmakers' pick to lift the Vince Lombardi trophy this season.

Quarterback Joe Flacco was rewarded with a six-year $120 million contract for leading Baltimore to a title but it is Denver's Peyton Manning, a four-time NFL most valuable player, who remains the gold medal standard at the position.

It is no surprise that the teams tipped as contenders also feature the creme de la creme of quarterbacking fraternity.

Manning, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans' Drew Brees and New England's Tom Brady are all Super Bowl winners and MVPs and billions of dollars will be wagered this season on one of them adding more hardware to their trophy cases.

Flacco and Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who signed a five-year $103 million extension, will be eager to prove they are worthy of big raises while Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers and Russell Wilson of the NFC West rival Seattle Seahawks will be under pressure to build on their breakout 2012 campaigns.

Meanwhile, last season's rookie sensations - quarterbacks Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins - must avoid the dreaded sophomore jinx while 2013 draft picks E.J. Manuel of the Buffalo Bills and Geno Smith of the New York Jets will try to prove they are capable of handling the starting job.

In the American Football Conference, Denver, Baltimore, New England and Houston will all target repeat division titles, a feat that will be much tougher in the ultra-competitive National Football Conference.

The NFC East has been a battle royale in recent years, going down to the schedule's last game before crowning a champion, and this year should be no different with the Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants slugging it out for a playoff spots.

Things will be no easier in the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings ready to renew hostilities.

The West division also looks an intriguing two-way battle between the reigning NFC champion 49ers and Seahawks but the St. Louis Rams under Jeff Fisher should show improvement.

With the bounty scandal behind them and coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines after serving a year suspension for his role in the scheme, the Saints should return to the top of the South division ahead of the rival Atlanta Falcons.

In the AFC West, Manning will have Brady's one-time favorite target Wes Welker to throw to, adding yet another dimension to an already explosive passing attack.

If there are chinks in Denver's armor they are on the other side of the line of scrimmage where defensive leader Von Miller will miss his team's first six games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

The Kansas City Chiefs went a dismal 2-14 last season but are a popular pick to be the AFC's surprise package with highly-respected former Philadelphia coach Andy Reid and 49ers castoff quarterback Alex Smith providing new optimism.

Despite a tumultuous offseason that saw Hernandez charged with murder, Rob Gronkowski recovering from arm and back surgery and the departure of Welker to Denver, the Patriots still have Brady and remain the class of a weak AFC East.

Once again, the North looks the toughest division in the AFC with the Ravens and the highly fancied Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens said goodbye to defensive lynchpin and inspirational leader Ray Lewis and hard-hitting defensive back Ed Reed but the defense remains menacing with a healthy Terrell Suggs and the addition of Elvis Dumervil from the Broncos.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, with Ben Roethlisberger leading the offense and safety Troy Polamalu back healthy, will battle for a post-season spot leaving scraps for the improving Cleveland Browns.

The South is setting up as a rumble between the two-time division champion Houston Texans and the Indianapolis Colts, who will need Luck to build on his brilliant rookie campaign to reach the playoffs again.