The NFL regular season is officially back.
No more speculation, fantasy drafts or preseason games that don't matter. Finally, we can simply sit back and enjoy one of the most thrilling sports in the world.
In anticipation of Thursday night's opener between the Broncos and Ravens in Denver, let's take a wild ride through all of the offseason happenings, take a look at what has changed—both on the depth charts and around the league—and what the league has in store for its fans in the future.
Is there any better way to kick off the NFL season than the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens taking on Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos? Storylines are running rampant.
Elvis Dumervil, now a member of the Ravens after being released by the Broncos because of a fax machine debacle, makes his return to Denver.
Joe Flacco will start the season as Super Bowl MVP and the highest-paid player in NFL history.
And Manning returns for his second season in Denver, determined to win the second Super Bowl of his illustrious soon-to-be Hall of Fame career.
Meanwhile, and perhaps most importantly, this is a rematch of last year's wild playoff game, which was highlighted by a 70-yard miracle from Flacco to Jacoby Jones late in regulation subsequently followed by two grinding overtimes.
Those are just a few of the compelling stories adding to the intrigue of the season opener on Thursday night, but none of it will really matter. We'll just be happy that the regular season is officially underway and the games begin to count.
Unfortunately, the league has been marred by a troubling offseason.
The Aaron Hernandez murder case, in which the former New England Patriots tight end was charged with murdering his friend, Odin Lloyd, shook the sports world to its very core this summer, but that wasn't the end of the turmoil.
According to Business Insider's Tony Manfred, 31 active players were arrested between February 3 (the date of the Super Bowl) and July 25, including Da'Quan Bowers for having a gun in his luggage at the airport, Titus Young, Alfonzo Dennard and Eric Wright.
The league also continues to deal with player safety issues, particularly concussions. In August, the NFL settled with close to 4,500 former players, paying $765 million in total for damages related to head trauma.
Hopefully, the start of the regular season will bring with it fewer distractions off the field and more attention to hard, clean play on the gridiron.
There will be several changes around the league this season.
First, for those planning on attending games, there is a new policy regarding what kind of bags can be brought into stadiums.
NFL.com provides the details for what is acceptable to bring:
-Bags that are clear plastic, vinyl or PVC and do not exceed 12” x 6” x 12.” (Official NFL team logo clear plastic tote bags will be available through club merchandise outlets or at nflshop.com/allclear), or
-One-gallon clear plastic freezer bag (Ziploc bag or similar).
-Small clutch bags, approximately the size of a hand, with or without a handle or strap can be taken into the stadium with one of the clear plastic bags.
-An exception will be made for medically necessary items after proper inspection at a gate designated for this purpose.
There will also be some changes on the field.
It is now illegal for a runner or tackler to initiate a forcible blow with the crown of his helmet when both players are outside the tackle box. This will result in a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty and may warrant further discipline.
The snapper on field-goal and PAT attempts will now be considered a defenseless play as well, while defenses cannot have more than six players on the line of scrimmage during those instances.
You can check out the rest of the rule changes via Yahoo! Sports.
Unless you want to look like a fool in front of your friends—"Man, the Jets should just put in Tebow!"—you're going to need to know which top players changed jerseys this summer.
While there are several players in new destinations, here are some of the most noteworthy.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, desperate to slow down Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan in the NFC South, added elite cornerback Darrelle Revis (previously of the Jets) and hard-hitting safety Dashon Goldson (from the San Francisco 49ers) to bolster a secondary that was a sieve last year.
The Seattle Seahawks added big-play wide receiver Percy Harvin along with some help on the defensive line, but the 'Hawks lost the former Viking to a hip injury in the offseason. The injury is serious, but Harvin recently tweeted to tell fans to "keep an eye on week 7."
Legendary Green Bay Packer Charles Woodson is back with the Oakland Raiders, who drafted him in the first round in 1998. Dwight Freeney moved to the San Diego Chargers, James Harrison went to the Cincinnati Bengals and Steven Jackson switched from the Rams to the Falcons.
Super Bowl champion Ed Reed joined the Texans from the Ravens, Greg Jennings moved from the Packers to the division rival Vikings, Wes Welker teamed up with Peyton Manning in Denver after ditching Tom Brady and the Pats, and Danny Amendola replaced him in New England. Mike Wallace is in Miami via Pittsburgh and Reggie Bush took his talents from Miami to Detroit.
And those are just a few of the major moves this season, showcasing just how wild free agency turned out to be.
Rookies are going to make a major impact during the 2013 season.
The first-rounders are obvious. Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel should anchor the offensive lines for Kansas City and Jacksonville, respectively. Dion Jordan (Miami), Ziggy Ansah (Lions) and Barkevious Mingo (Browns) will cause havoc in opponents' backfields. Tavon Austin (Rams) is an elite playmaker. Dee Milliner is looking to replace Darrelle Revis in New York. And E.J. Manuel, who looked electric in the preseason, is starting for the Bills under center.
Those are just a few of the first-rounders projected to make significant early impacts, but this is proving to be a deep draft right out of the gate.
From Geno Smith—who will start at quarterback for the Jets—to Kiko Alonso (Bills) to Jonathan Cyprien (Jags) to Sio Moore (Raiders), there are several second-round picks and beyond who will be called upon to play at a high level in Week 1.
And don't forget about guys like Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld in New England and Marlon Brown (Ravens), undrafted free agents who are already projected to put up significant numbers in their offenses.
The youth movement is here.
So, who are the top picks to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February?
Let's take a look at what the experts are saying.
ESPN puts Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks at No. 1 in their power rankings, but two NFC squads are right behind, with the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers coming in at Nos. 2 and 3. The Broncos, despite losing dominant pass-rusher Von Miller for six games, are at No. 4 on the laurels of their loaded offensive attack.
NFL.com's Elliot Harrison has the same top four, just with a different order: San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Atlanta. He ranked the intriguing Cincinnati Bengals, with all of their young talent, at No. 5.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports puts the Broncos at No. 1, while sliding the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers into his top five in place of Seattle and Cincy.
Finally giving us our first team with two No. 1 nominations, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller puts the 49ers atop his list. Seattle, New England, Denver and Green Bay complete his top five.
So, for the most part, we seem to have six contenders that everyone is highlighting: the 49ers, Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots, Packers and Bengals. Will it be one of those teams at the top in five months, or will someone else surprise the football world?
There won't be any new stadiums in 2013, but business is booming and there are several new ones on the horizon, as Matthew Casey details in this special for CNN.
Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., is up next, as it is expected to be ready for the San Francisco 49ers to call it home in 2014.
The Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons also have new stadiums on the way, as Vikings Stadium is expected to open in 2016, while the opening date for the Falcons' new stadium is still undetermined.
We are currently engrossed in the digital age, and the NFL has plans of embracing that societal shift.
As CNN's Matthew Casey talked about, commissioner Roger Goodell announced an initiative last year to implement Wi-Fi in all 31 stadiums. However, less than half of the stadiums are currently equipped with Wi-Fi, and no stadiums have adopted it this year.
Among the reasons it hasn't been fully integrated, as Casey notes, are the pricey costs and inconsistency of Wi-Fi speeds.
There's the thought that installing Wi-Fi in NFL stadiums will take away from the true game-day experience, but as much as we hate to admit it, technology is constantly growing and is a part of our everyday lives.
People want to check their fantasy scores, see how their favorite team's rivals are doing, check Twitter and do a slew of other things on their phone while they are away from their house, and the NFL is smart to allow that.
True old-school football fans don't need to embrace Wi-Fi, but those simply along for the ride will have a better time.
Welcome to the future NFL game-day experience.