Still packing ‘em in after the lockout

IN SPITE of the lockout cloud which overshadowed the off-season, the NFL machine cranks into gear this weekend, a little creaky but right on schedule.

And such is the sense of relief for fans and TV networks, there will be no time to toast absent friends. One of the game’s main figureheads and its highest paid player to boot will miss a game for the first time since 1997. And that’s the least of Peyton Manning’s worries right now.

Indianapolis Colts quarter back Manning, a leading light of the modern era, is in real danger of missing the entire season after another neck operation on Thursday confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Manning decided to have the surgery after consultation with several doctors who advised the four-time MVP a cervical neck fusion was required as a follow-up to surgery he had in May to repair a bulging disk.

Manning, whose older brother Cooper had his college football career ended by a severe neck injury, was tightlipped this week but his father Archie, himself a former NFL quarter back, claimed his son was relieved to have some clarity on his situation.

“I think he’s okay, probably because there’s a little finality to this deal in terms of playing,” Manning Snr told ESPN.

“He’s been on the clock since May. He didn’t make it. It’s a big letdown, but he can relax a little bit compared to the intensity of everything he has done trying to rehab.”

When Manning, 35, misses tomorrow’s opener against AFC South rivals, the Houston Texans, it will bring to an end a 14-season stretch of 227 consecutive starts including play-off games, the height of his career arriving in 2006 when his Colts won that season’s Super Bowl. Now the honour of longest active stretch of starts for a quarter back falls to his younger brother Eli, the New York Giants number 10 who will be at the Washington Redskins tomorrow evening for his 104th consecutive regular season start.

It’s the only blot on what has been a frenzied build-up, one which was rendered all the more chaotic by the narrow timetable the teams had to get ready since the player lockout ended six weeks ago.

A record amount of free agents flooded the NFL market as a consequence of a new agreement between the owners and the players’ union. But while the abbreviated pre-season played havoc with the preparations of coaches, the appetite for the game is as big as ever. On Thursday, ESPN extended its 17-game-a-season deal with the NFL agreeing to pay almost €11 billion over eight years to keep Monday Night Football on the station until 2021 as well as maintaining other global broadcasting rights.

Given what happened on Thursday night when the season actually had its official kick-off, it will probably be money well spent.

A thriller at Lambeau Field between the last two winners of the Super Bowl lived up to its pre-game billing, the prospect of which forced President Barack Obama to schedule an earlier speech to Congress so it wouldn’t clash with the visit of the New Orleans Saints to current champions, the Green Bay Packers.

The free-scoring Packers led by an almost perfect display from quarter back Aaron Rodgers that showed that, although they’re not generally regarded as favourites, they’re in a good position to be the first side to retain the Vince Lombardi Trophy since New England Patriots in 2004.

Rodgers could even afford to be marginally outperformed in an absorbing duel with opposing quarter back Drew Brees whose valiant efforts failed to prevent a 42-34 Packers win that sent out a warning message to a packed field of favoured teams.

Much has been made of the aggressive moves made by Green Bay’s rivals for the NFC crown, the Philadelphia Eagles who locked down their star quarter back Michael Vick to a big-money contract and produced the goods for the shock move of year snapping up of corner back Nnamdi Asomugha from under the Dallas Cowboys’ noses.

Big things are expected this season from the Cowboys who open up with a visit to the New York Jets tomorrow night in what is sure to be an emotional 9/11 commemoration at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Meanwhile in the NFC South, the Atlanta Falcons are expected to come close to replicating last season’s scintillating form.

In the AFC, the title race is set to be even more absorbing. The perennial composure of the Patriots will prove a threat as ever while their AFC East rivals the New York Jets continue to talk a big game under the boisterous tutelage of larger-than-life coach Rex Ryan.

In the AFC North, Super Bowl losers the Pittsburgh Steelers will, like the Patriots, begin the season with a settled coaching staff along with a largely unchanged group of players and will face a stiff test as always from arch-rivals the Baltimore Ravens — a pairing which should be the highlight of tomorrow’s action.

Heavily tipped out west are the San Diego Chargers whose quarter back Philip Rivers will look to repeat his heroics of last season if he is to justify the tag of Super Bowl favourites n placed on his team by many observers.

But it will be in the AFC South where the most upheaval will be felt. With no Peyton Manning for the first time in a generation, the Colts will be forced into the unfamiliar position of also-rans with the Houston Texans prepared to take full advantage. And that may ultimately dash any hopes of Indianapolis being the home team when February rolls around and the city gets to host its first ever Super Bowl. Colts fans fear the end of an era. The rest of the league will roar on in ruder health than ever.

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