The story of the NFL’s 100th season lies ahead.
For one team — and one fan base — the narrative will read like an epic fairy tale. For 31 others, the plot will eventually turn ugly.
Before it does, I present you with a lineup of (mostly happy) storylines I’d like to see play out before the Football Gods drop their hammers. Here we go:
1) Eli gets the last laugh. After veteran passer Eli Manning is benched during a vicious Week 5 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the Giants stun football heads everywhere by releasing their favorite son to pave the way for rookie Daniel Jones. A peeved Manning turns down a lucrative studio gig with ESPN to ink a one-year pact with the Lions, a squad hunting for help after losing Matthew Stafford to a light case of food poisoning ahead of Detroit’s Monday night showdown with the Packers in Week 6. Despite just one practice with the Lions, Eli fries Green Bay for 375 yards and three touchdowns — including a fleet-footed 29-yard scoring dash. Searching for a spark, coach Matt Patricia rolls with the hot hand, allowing Manning to detonate the Vikings the following Sunday — the club he was benched against two weeks prior — before taking on the Giants in Week 8. Manning goes to town on his former employer, carving up Big Blue for 411 yards while completing a league-record 33 consecutive passes in a 40-0 romp. With Eli at the controls, the Lions march into January to win a 20-17 wild-card thriller over the Cowboys, before finally getting dispatched by the Saints on the road. The amped-up front office goes on to trade Stafford to the Titans before locking down Manning with a three-year mega-deal.
2) Murray gallops for record-setting yardage. The sample size was minor, but Kyler Murray looked comfortable running Kliff Kingsbury’s attack in the preseason opener. Live arm, will travel. It’s not just the athletic gifts, though, as veterans have praised the Cardinals‘ rookie signal-caller all summer for his grasp of the playbook and ability to teach it. If there’s one concern for Arizona, it’s protecting the diminutive passer in a scheme leaning on four-wide sets that can leave an offensive line vulnerable. Murray’s juicy mobility helps. I’m expecting him to scamper away from defenders all season long and do what only Michael Vick has accomplished before: barrel for 1,000-plus yards on the ground.
3) Darnold’s career day catapults Jets into January. Gang Green will both delight and tease their loyal fans with a see-saw campaign in which they fail to win — or lose — two games in a row (1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2, etc.). Perched at 8-7 heading into the club’s finale with the Bills, the Jets remain mathematically alive to win the AFC East over a 9-6 Patriots team set to face the Dolphins in South Beach. Sam Darnold was messy in a Week 16 meltdown against the Steelers, but he shows total command of the offense in Buffalo. With most expecting a monster day on the ground from Le’Veon Bell, coach Adam Gase surprises Sean McDermott’s defense with a meticulously scripted 20 straight passes to open the tilt. Darnold connects on 18 of those darts to build a 24-0 halftime advantage. The Jets snag their first playoff berth post-Rex Ryan with a little help from the Fins and Josh Rosen, who tosses a time-expiring 80-yard touchdown strike to Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate Preston Williams to unplug the Patriots 27-26 and keep New England out of the postseason for the first time since 2008.
4) Mahomes exacts overtime revenge. I didn’t plan to pick on the Patriots, but let’s go one step further: New England’s ultimate demise is fueled by a frustrating loss to the Chiefs in Week 14. When they last met in the AFC title game, Patrick Mahomes could only watch as Tom Brady sailed New England down the field for a game-ending touchdown march in overtime. This time around, Mahomes and Brady are kept in check all afternoon to forge a white-knuckle 9-all tie at the end of regulation. This time around, a fit-throwing Brady never even sees the field after Mahomes hits Demarcus Robinson on a 97-yard go route to the house on the first and only play of overtime. Tables turned. Seacrest out.
5) Frederick roars back in Dallas. It was during last year’s preseason opener against the Niners when Travis Frederick first felt it: numbness in his hands and feet. The stalwart Cowboys center, just 28 years old, watched his season evaporate after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barrï¿½ï¿½ syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disease that wreaks havoc on the nervous system. After months of wondering if he’d ever play again, Frederick made his Cowboys return last week in the preseason opener against those same Niners. Next up: a full, healthy campaign for Frederick with Comeback Player of the Year honors serving as the rightful cherry on top.
6) Mr. Luck’s 600-yard passing performance. Quick: Who owns the record for the most passing yards in a single game? Bully for you if you bypassed names like Manning and Roethlisberger, Marino and Moon to cite the on-field handiwork of Rams slinger Norm Van Brocklin, who peppered the New York Yanks for 554 yards on September 28, 1951. Moon and the glorious Matt Schaub sit second on the list with twin 527-yard outings. It’s time for someone to go completely unhinged one Sunday and rattle the skies for 600-plus. My pick — total dartboard throw — is Indy’s Andrew Luck against the Raiders in Week 4.
7) Baker’s Browns overcome ultra-rocky start. Today’s Browns are something they haven’t been in nearly 30 years: a Super Bowl contender — at least on paper. With so many new faces, though, growing pains are guaranteed.
The backlash will grow ugly after Cleveland opens a measly 1-5, with three of those losses coming on national television to the Jets, Rams and 49ers. Predictable “BROWN-OUT” headlines will dominate, but Freddie Kitchens never flinches. The first-year coach uses the bye week to gather the team at a rustic outdoor retreat center, CAMP GINGER WINGS, along the shores of Lake Erie. A newfound sense of togetherness is forged through trust falls, a scavenger hunt, morning visits to a nearby therapeutic petting zoo, hours spent in the arts and crafts shed building dreamcatchers, and a blindfolded night hike followed by a build-your-own-sundae station in the mess hall.
“I realize that kind of stuff is normally left to summer campers or desperate corporate types getting away from the office, but those activities really built a bond with this team. It’s us against the world now,” defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi later tells Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
8) Entire NFC South finishes with winning record. A quarterback unfurling 600 yards through the air would be a first. For another newfangled plot point, how about one division sporting four winning clubs? NFL Research confirms this has never occurred since the 1970 merger. While mathematically possible, this feat requires some heavy black magic. The AFC North looms as a contender, but the NFC South makes sense. The Saints, Panthers and Falcons are all worthy of a playoff pitch, while the Bucs feel primed for a jump under Bruce Arians, especially if Todd Bowles can flip the switch on defense.
9) Bears boot their way to glory. When Cody Parkey‘s 43-yard field goal try clanked off the upright in January’s playoff loss to the Eagles, Matt Nagy had a choice. The Bears coach could have used this offseason to psychologically “bury the ball” by never mentioning the ill-fated field goal again to his troops. Instead, Nagy went in the opposite direction, leaning almost obsessively into the team’s kicking woes by dragging Eddy Pineiro and Elliott Fry through a series of high-pressure reenactments of last year’s Parkey implosion. After Fry nailed a (you guessed it) 43-yard shot in last week’s preseason loss to the Panthers, the kicker was asked if he knew why the distance was a storyline: “Obviously,” he said, “that number’s been ingrained into my memory.”
Pineiro agrees, saying of the constant spotlight burning on the team’s radioactive kicking competition: “Yeah, it’s a little exhausting. Just every day you feel like, ‘Oh damn, if I miss this kick am I going to get cut? Are they going to trade for somebody else?’ “
I don’t care if it’s Eddy Pineiro, Elliott Fry or Elliott from “E.T.” We need someone to play the hero in a hurry. What better than one of these ham-and-eggers detonating Green Bay in the opener with a money-in-the-bank, 60-yard foot-laser at the final whistle?
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.