NFL: Seahawks and 49ers ready to show West is still best

The new NFL season has begun

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The Independent Online

Anyone care to bet against the Seattle Seahawks? That is the question, now what passes for the National Football League off-season is over.

Its main features have been the announcement of tougher sanctions (a six-game suspension for a first offence and a lifetime ban for a second) in cases of domestic violence committed by players, a practice to which they appear unusually susceptible. Meanwhile an ESPN poll found that, contrary to the assumption of the politically correct lobby, seven out of 10 Americans have no problem with the name Washington Redskins, which the franchise’s much-reviled owner Dan Snyder is adamant he will not change.

All the while another familiar argument has rumbled on: should the NFL, whose annual revenue now approaches $10bn (£6.15bn), focus on more games in London (three are scheduled for 2014, against two last year) or on returning a franchise to Los Angeles?

But now America’s de facto national sport is back for real. And in Thursday evening’s season curtainraiser, the Seahawks, defending Super Bowl champions, delivered a resounding statement of intent as they crushed the Green Bay Packers 36-16.

Tomorrow brings the first full slate of games, amid an unusual consensus that there are just half-a-dozen or so teams with a serious chance of going all the way.

Can Seattle win back-to-back titles? They are one of the best teams in a league where the centre of power has shifted west, if not the best. But repeating is a tough feat, achieved only three times in the last 25 years, by the Dallas Cowboys, the Denver Broncos, and most recently the New England Patriots in 2005.

The Seahawks have a young, stifling defence that last season checkmated the Broncos and Peyton Manning in an almost embarrassing 43-8 victory, the largest Super Bowl-winning margin in two decades. Their vibrant offence is led by quarterback Russell Wilson.Then there’s Seattle’s celebrated “12th man,” the home advantage conferred by the loudest fans in the NFL.

This time around their closest rivals may lie not just in their own league but in their own NFC West division, in the shape of the San Francisco 49ers. Last year the Seahawks beat the 49ers in the NFC championship game 23-17, and 2014 could see an identical post-season match-up. Another eternal contender, despite Thursday’s result, is Green Bay, winners of Super Bowl XLV in 2011, or the New Orleans Saints, triumphant the year before, and whom Seattle despatched in last season’s divisional play-offs.

Notably absent from the conversation is that one-time powerhouse, the NFC East. With the New York Giants, the Dallas Cowboys and the Redskins all struggling, the division could go by default to Philadelphia’s Eagles.

Over in the AFC, it’s once again a tale of the usual suspects – first and foremost New England, owners of three Super Bowls between 2002 and 2005, and like San Francisco always in the post-season mix. So too should be the Indianapolis Colts, who made the play-offs last year, and have if anything improved their defence. And never write off the Broncos.

If there is a dark horse, it’s the Cincinnati Bengals. In fact, as horses go, the Bengals aren’t dark: they have reached the play-offs in four of the past five seasons. But this could be their chance to win not just the AFC North, where old rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore are treading water, but the biggest prize of all.

Like every season, the spotlight will be on the quarterbacks. Will 2014 be a twilight of the gods for the Broncos’ Manning, 38, and the Patriots’ Tom Brady, 37, two of the NFL’s marquee figures of the last decade?  Or might the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, or the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, lay a claim to the mantle? And what about the youngest guns – can the Colts’ Andrew Luck and the Seahawks’ Wilson, two of the trinity of star draftees in 2012, consolidate terrific starts to their pro careers? Or will the third member of that trio, Robert Griffin III, prove after a dismal 2013 that the Redskins were right in mortgaging their future to sign him? How the season unfolds will depend on the answers.