After six long months of waiting, it's finally time to drop "pre" from the word "season" and joyfully place the word "regular" there instead.
After months of free agency, draft talk, rookie camps, OTAs, minicamps and training camps, NFL teams have gone through their preseason paces. Playtime is over! From here on out, everything counts.
Preseason isn't just for funsies, though.
There's a reason NFL teams go through four preseason games. Not only is it crucial to see all their new starters playing together as a unit and evaluate the backups and special-teamers, playing in an actual game is just different. Seeing how players respond to game situations is something no amount of practice can simulate.
After four weeks of preseason games (and the opening Hall of Fame Game), NFL fans and media have a much better idea of what this regular season holds than they did in July.
Following a month of exhibition action, whose stock is up and whose is down?
In an offseason of extreme makeovers, Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs might have undergone the most extreme of all.
Reid remade the offense in his image, aggressively trading for and building around veteran quarterback Alex Smith. Smith completed 64.6 percent of his passes this preseason for 288 yards, a touchdown and zero interceptions.
Better yet, Reid and Smith are coaxing a strong effort and quality play out of mercurial receiver Dwayne Bowe, who agreed to a five-year, $56 million contract extension rather than test the market.
In the first half of their first two preseason games, the Chiefs dominated on defense and played effectively on offense. Going up against the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints, the Chiefs outscored both teams by a combined 23-9.
Add in the third and fourth games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, respectively, and that number jumps to 46-25.
It's only preseason, but if the Chiefs' two-deeps can play those four teams' ones and twos and perform that well, it speaks volumes about how good the Chiefs can be in the regular season.
While the volatile Oakland Raiders quarterback situation has gotten a lot of attention, the Raiders defense shouldn't be getting a free pass. Entering defensive coordinator Jason Tarver's second season, the Raiders invested heavily in the defensive back seven with free agents and top rookies.
Oakland added linebackers Kevin Burnett and Nick Roach in free agency, and third-round linebacker Sio Moore and first-round pick D.J. Hayden joined them. Even safety Charles Woodson returned for a second stint in Oakland.
The results so far? The Raiders surrendered 10, 23, 27 and 16 first-half points in their four preseason games.
The offense needs the defense to keep games closer than that if the Raiders want to win many games this year. Worse yet, the nature of preseason means the Raiders defense has been at its worst when playing starters against starters.
Tarver will have to get his new players to play like a team—and quickly.
Ask anyone and they'll tell you: Ted Ginn Jr. is a bust.
Well, don't ask the Baltimore Ravens, who surrendered a 74-yard punt return touchdown to him in the third preseason game.
Don't ask the Pittsburgh Steelers either. Ginn burned them through the air for 149 yards and two touchdowns on just five catches.
All told, the former ninth overall pick finished the preseason with nine catches for 214 yards, two touchdowns and a magnificent average of 23.8 yards per reception. In a Carolina Panthers offense desperate for that kind of field-stretching ability, Ted Ginn Jr. could be the answer to Cam Newton's prayers.
EJ Manuel, the Bills' top rookie draft pick and the first quarterback prospect selected this season, isn't ready. Kevin Kolb, the veteran brought in to provide a steady hand at the tiller while Manuel learned, has suffered a possible career-ending concussion, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News.
That leaves undrafted rookie free agent Jeff Tuel to start Week 1.
Desperate for usable arms, the Bills signed former No. 10 overall pick Matt Leinart off the street. The Bills also swung a deal for Detroit Lions fourth-string quarterback Thad Lewis.
In the Bills' Week 4 preseason game against the Lions, Leinart went 3-of-10 for just 11 yards, zero touchdowns and two interceptions. Thad Lewis played well against the team he was part of a week ago, gaining 132 yards and a touchdown.
Neither is a competitive option for this regular season. If the Bills want to win many games this year, Manuel will have to get healthy quick—and then prove wrong the pundits (like me) who said he wasn't the best quarterback prospect in this draft.
At the beginning of August, the Browns bandwagon was taking on passengers at a surprising rate.
Fans and media were getting on board with the idea that second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden could flourish under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. People were seeing that the stable of young Browns running backs could do a lot of damage behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines. Folks realized the aggressive additions of top free agents could make a decent defense very good.
After solid wins against the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions, though, the Browns were dominated in the critical third preseason game by the Indianapolis Colts.
With a defense actually game-planning to stop Weeden and the Browns, they mustered only six points—all in the second half. Weeden completed just 12 of his 25 passes for a mere 4.2 yards per attempt.
The Colts—who had the 21st-ranked scoring defense last season—had little trouble throttling the supposedly high-octane Browns offense.
If Weeden and the Browns are to live up to their earlier hype, they're going to have to play much better against much stronger defenses.
OK, Tim Tebow's preseason Week 4 performance wasn't sterling enough to raise almost anybody's stock. But Tebow isn't just anybody, and his stock couldn't possibly have been lower.
Just last week, Bleacher Report National NFL Lead Writer Mike Freeman wrote that Tebow's "regression has been so steep" he wasn't fit to play football in any professional league—not the NFL, CFL or AFL.
In his preseason Week 4 performance of 6-of-11 for 91 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, Tebow proved he at least has what it takes to move the ball against fourth-stringers. Will that be enough for a roster spot? We'll see.
In the first half, No. 2 quarterback Ryan Mallett looked more than competent enough to keep the Patriots offense moving if starter Tom Brady is out for a game or two. Mallett's 10-of-16 performance for 117 yards, a touchdown and an interception wasn't top-to-bottom spectacular, but the 40-yard touchdown pass to Josh Boyce was a thing of beauty.
Patriots fans hope neither sees any action, of course, and that Brady finishes the season intact. Still, it's looking like Mallett is the kind of quality backup who won't steer the ship into the rocks when given the tiller.
Though Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's monstrous new contract got the most attention this offseason, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's deal wasn't much smaller.
Though the pressure on whoever happens to be the Dallas Cowboys quarterback is always relentless, Romo's deal cranks that pressure up several more notches.
After the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game, it took Romo, Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray and the rest of the first-team offense three more preseason games to find the end zone. It wasn't until the second quarter of the Week 3 contest against the Cincinnati Bengals that Romo ended the Cowboys' drought.
There's a whole lot of owner Jerry Jones' money tied up in that offense, and Cowboys fans would be right to expect better.
Then again, Romo's two touchdowns that quarter led the Cowboys to a 24-18 win over the contending Bengals in the crucial Week 3 "dress rehearsal" game.
Tony Romo performing well only when it counts? Well, maybe his stock isn't so "down" after all.
John Harbaugh is one of the best head coaches in the NFL. His consistent deep playoff runs and shiny new Super Bowl championship ring prove it.
But as a former special teams coordinator, Harbaugh's calling card is his complete, three-phases-of-the-game understanding. He's supposed to be a master of organization and detail who gets his players to play as more than the sum of their parts.
So what happened in Carolina?
In the critical Week 3 preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, Harbaugh suffered a three-phases-of-the-game embarrassment. The Ravens surrendered a punt-return touchdown, a fumble-return touchdown and two interception-return touchdowns, all in a game that's supposed to be a measuring stick for preparation and game-planning.
The Ravens have lost a lot of critical pieces off their Super Bowl team, but an influx of talent and skill through the draft and free agency was supposed to give Harbaugh what he needed to keep the Ravens on top.
If Harbaugh is going to pull it off, he didn't show many signs of it this preseason.
It was one of the most interesting stories of the offseason: Could Chip Kelly and his crazy new college offense succeed in the NFL?
After four preseason games, the answer appears to be a resounding "yes." Starting quarterback Michael Vick went an incredible 28-of-38 for 383 yards and two touchdowns, finishing with a NFL passer-efficiency rating of 101.1 despite two interceptions. He added 73 yards rushing on just nine attempts.
Better yet, Vick looks far more confident and comfortable than he did at any point last season, when he took a 28-sack beating in just 10 games.
All told, the Eagles have averaged 21.8 points per game this preseason, up from a fourth-worst 17.5 points per game in the 2012 regular season. Despite losing receiver Jeremy Maclin to an ACL injury, the Eagles offense has clearly shifted into a higher gear.
It was supposed to be so easy. The Denver Broncos added Wes Welker, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Terrance Knighton and a promising rookie crop to a team that was already the AFC's top seed last season.
This year was supposed to be a pleasure cruise back to the playoffs. Instead, preseason has revealed some major malfunctions in the Broncos machine.
After winning an offense-less 10-6 slugfest against the San Francisco 49ers, the Broncos visited Seattle in Week 2. In a preseason preview of my Super Bowl pick, the Seahawks housed the Broncos, 40-10.
Just like the divisional-round loss to the Ravens that sent the Broncos home early last season, they gave up a host of turnovers and return touchdowns to the Seahawks, including a 107-yard kickoff return and a 106-yard fumble return score.
The Broncos' struggles didn't end there. In the all-important Week 3 preseason game, they had to eke out a 27-26 comeback win over the St. Louis Rams, and in the fourth game they suffered a 32-24 defeat at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals.
It's still "only preseason," but the idea that the Broncos have a free pass to the Super Bowl has been debunked.