Football is back! Here are five things to watch this NFL season

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After an offseason filled with players returning from retirement, celebration rule changes, and Gronk being Gronk, football is back!

Before the Hall of Fame game gets underway, here are five storylines to watch as the new football season approaches.

Heavy is the head that wears the Star

Dallas entered last season with a rookie backup quarterback that wasn’t expected to see a lot of time until Tony Romo got injured and a rookie running back that was supposed to make an immediate impact. Now, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott enter this season with expectations the size of Texas. The Cowboys are looking to win the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, or when TLC’s “Waterfalls” was the No. 2 song on the Billboard charts.

Undefeated Patriots? It could happen…

Even Seahawks fans can admit that Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever and Bill Belichick is one of the greatest coaches of all time. The amazing thing about the Patriots is their ability to reload (specifically from the Buffalo Bills, but that’s a longer story). Lose Martellus Bennett? Bring in Dwayne Allen. Lose LeGarrette Blount? Pick up Rex Burkhead. Top it off with an electric Brandin Cooks and the NFL’s best offense may be even better in 2017.

Falcons’ Super Bowl hangover recovery

28-3. The rallying cry of Patriots fans everywhere that makes Falcons fans cringe and want to crawl into a hole. Everyone talks about the Super Bowl hangover, but will a series of changes, including offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan departing to run his own team in San Francisco, be enough for the Falcons to return to the Super Bowl? Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will have a major role in that.

Kaepernick’s role

As of this post, Colin Kaepernick is still without a spot on an NFL roster. That could change at any moment. Kaepernick potentially has two landing spots: Miami Dolphins or Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco has been dealing with a back injury in camp, and the Dolphins are fearing the worst with Ryan Tannehill‘s knee injury Thursday. On the field, Kaepernick makes sense for both teams as a backup quarterback. But will one of these teams actually sign the former 49ers quarterback?

Raiders’ Resurgence

Before the Falcons’ brutal Super Bowl collapse, the Raiders held the crown for the most devastating way to have your season end, with quarterback Derek Carr breaking his leg two games before the playoffs started. Now, with Carr back and healthy, the Raiders look poised to make a big run and make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2002. One person who remembers that run well? Oakland native and new Raider Marshawn Lynch, who was a student at Oakland Tech high school.

Just think of it this way-you’ll now have football every Thursday until January, so sit back, relax, and enjoy the season.

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Sunday wild-card matchups: Giants, Dolphins seek underdog payouts

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The anticipated Arctic chill could be more foe than friend of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, if their postseason track record at Lambeau Field is any indication. The Packers are listed as 4.5-point favorites against the Giants in the NFC wild-card matchup slated for Sunday at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

While Green Bay is 7-2 straight-up in their last nine home outings against teams with winning records, they are also only 2-6 against the spread in their last eight playoff games as home favorites.

The Giants, who are 11-5 SU and 8-6-2 ATS, have had protracted offensive struggles over the last month, although QB Eli Manning typically gets it together for the playoffs. Wide receiver Odell Beckham should also be good for a big play, or three, against a Packers defense that allows an NFL-worst 8.1 yards per pass.

The cold weather might mandate more use of the running game, which might bode poorly for the Giants since their offensive line struggles to control the line of scrimmage.

The Packers, who are 10-6 SU and 8-7-1 ATS, have a big X-factor with Rodgers’ ability to keep plays alive with his scrambling. While the Giants’ pass coverage is the most improved area of their team this season, it’s going to be tough to completely stymie Rodgers and the quartet of Jordy Nelson, Geromino Allison, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams.

For all their explosiveness, the Packers do have issues with dropped passes and failed red-zone visits. Cleaning that up would go a long way to preventing an upset.

Led by DE Olivier Vernon, the Giants are stout against the run. Green Bay also has an unimpressive running game.

With the weather and two pass-dependent offenses, it could be a low-scoring game. In fact, the total has gone under in five of the Giants’ last six games in the playoffs. The total has gone under in 10 of the Packers’ last 14 games at home.

In the day’s AFC wild-card matchup, the Pittsburgh Steelers are listed as 10-point favorites against the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins, 10-6 SU and 9-6-1 ATS, are counting on backup QB and first-time playoff starter Matt Moore, whose efficiency declines markedly when he faces pressure. While RB Jay Ajayi went off for 204 yards when the teams played in south Florida in October, the Dolphins stand to encounter frigid weather and a firmer Steelers run defense.

While WR Kenny Stills and slot WR Jarvis Landry are a tough combo, Miami might be hard-pressed to extend their trend of being 13-4 ATS in their last 17 games as a double-digit underdog.

The Steelers, who are 11-5 SU and  9-6-1 ATS and have far better odds to win Super Bowl 51, have the triplets – QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le'Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown – together in the playoffs for the first time.

Roethlisberger was injured in that October defeat in Miami, but this time it is the Dolphins defense that is nicked up, with top CB Byron Maxwell (ankle) struggling to get healthy by game time. Strong safety Bacarri Rambo (undisclosed) is also doubtful.

The total has gone over in three of the Dolphins’ last four games against the Steelers.  The total has gone over in 22 of the Steelers’ last 28 games in January. The favored team is 3-7-2 ATS in the last three years in wild card games. Wild card games are 3-12-1 over/under in the last four years.

NFL Week 17 odds roundup: Playoff positioning on the line in top matchups

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With backup Matt McGloin at the controls, the Oakland Raiders will try to sustain their road-warrior mojo against the Denver Broncos. The playoff-bound Raiders, minus QB Derek Carr (broken fibula), are 2.5-point road underdogs against the Broncos at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The New England Patriots’ result will determine whether the Raiders have a shot at the AFC’s No. 1 seed, but a loss coupled with a Kansas City Chiefs win would leave them in a wild-card spot. The Raiders are 9-1 against the spread in their last 10 road games.

The Raiders, through RB Latavius Murray, have the fifth-ranked rushing attack and Denver is porous against the run. If McGloin passes well enough to keep the Broncos defense honest, Oakland could outscore Denver’s mediocre offense.

The New England Patriots are listed as 10-point road favorites against the Miami Dolphins.  The Dolphins, who are 9-1 SU and 8-1-1 ATS over their last 10 games, will have RB Jay Ajayi in the lineup to help with their formula of running the ball and playing good defense. Tom Brady might rely on RB LeGarrette Blount to ease the load, since Miami’s run defense is just average.

The Kansas City Chiefs are a 5.5-point road favorite against the San Diego Chargers as they vie for the AFC West title. The Chiefs, who rolled against Denver in Week 16, are 2-8 ATS in their last 10 games after an ATS win, but FS Eric Berry and a takeaway-happy defense are matched against the team with the NFL’s second-most turnovers.

The Washington Redskins, who need a win and some help to make the playoffs, are eight-point favorites against the New York Giants, the locked-in No. 5 seed. Washington has not been this big of a favorite since 2009. Whether QB Kirk Cousins‘ primary targets such as WR DeSean Jackson and TE Jordan Reed face the Giants’ starters for a full four quarters is unclear.

The Atlanta Falcons are 6.5-point favorites against the New Orleans Saints. Matt Ryan‘s offense has lit up the scoreboard against much better defenses than the Saints’ 25th-ranked unit. On the other side of the ball, Drew Brees has the league’s most productive offense and New Orleans is 5-2 SU in their last seven visits to Atlanta.

And with the NFC North title on the line, the Green Bay Packers are favored by 3.5 points on the road against the Detroit Lions in the Sunday Night Football matchup. The Lions are 6-0 SU and 5-1 ATS in their last six home games, but have rarely shown the type of formidable pass rush it would take to get Packers QB Aaron Rodgers out of the zone he has been in for the past five games.