What you need to know for the new NFL season

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Here’s what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

The NFL season kicks off tonight

By pure luck, sports’ richest league is the one that’s been least hurt by the pandemic. It didn’t really take hold in North America until about a month after the Super Bowl, allowing the NFL to ride out the worst days during its off-season. All exhibition games were cancelled, but apart from that, teams have been preparing as usual (more or less) in their training camps.

Now, the NFL is set to kick off what it hopes will be a full, uninterrupted 2020 season tonight when Super Bowl champion Kansas City hosts the Houston Texans in front of up to 17,000 fans (around a quarter of the stadium’s capacity). Let’s get you caught up on the stuff you should know:

Kansas City is still the team to beat — but it can be beaten

Its Super Bowl win last February may feel predestined now, but everything does in hindsight. Kansas City trailed 24-0 and 17-7 in its playoff games vs. Houston and Tennessee, respectively, and spent most of the Super Bowl getting pummelled by San Francisco’s tough defence. When K.C. got the ball back with 8:53 left, it trailed 20-10.

Of course, what happened next speaks to why Kansas City is favoured to repeat as champs. Superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes led three quick touchdown drives to rally for a 31-20 win. As the 2020 season kicks off, K.C. still has the world’s greatest quarterback, an extremely dangerous set of pass catchers and one of the most brilliant offensive coaching minds ever in Andy Reid. That’s a recipe for sustained success.

CanCon note: Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, an important offensive lineman for K.C., opted out of this season in favour of continuing his work toward eventually becoming a full-time medical doctor. He worked in a long-term care facility in Quebec during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak last spring.

Don’t forget the Ravens

Baltimore had a better regular season than Kansas City last year, steamrolling to an NFL-best 14-2 record before losing its first playoff game for the second year in a row. The Ravens’ offence can be as powerful as Kansas City’s, but in a completely different way. K.C. attacks by air, Baltimore primarily by land.

Running the ball is widely considered passe in modern football, but not the way the Ravens do it. They’re on the cutting edge because third-year quarterback Lamar Jackson is the greatest combination of runner and passer the NFL has ever seen. He won MVP last year by rushing for a running-back-like 1,206 yards and seven touchdowns while also throwing a league-high 36 touchdowns with only six interceptions.

If not for Mahomes, Jackson would be the best QB in the world. He also has a great supporting cast around him on both offence and defence, along with an excellent coaching staff and a top-notch organization. The Ravens should be considered right up there with K.C. as the Super Bowl favourites.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are out on their own

The biggest story of the off-season was the breakup of the most successful QB-coach combination in NFL history. After two decades and six Super Bowl wins together in New England, football’s version of Lennon and McCartney split.

Brady’s new band is much more talented. He landed in Tampa Bay, where he’s surrounded by two of the best receivers in football in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, a loaded trio of tight ends that includes his old pal Rob Gronkowski (out of retirement), plus a creative head coach in Bruce Arians. They’ll make Brady look good. But he’s 43 now, and he looked washed at the end of last season. The Buccaneers are a popular Super Bowl pick, but their new QB might drag them down like Jameis Winston did last year.

Belichick is a genius who always gets the most out of his players on both sides of the ball. But the Patriots were hit hard by opt-outs — especially on the defence, which carried them last year. So their fortunes may rest on how far Cam Newton can take them. The 2015 MVP’s career was derailed by injuries the last few years, and New England got him on a cheap, one-year “prove it” deal. But if he’s healthy, the Pats have a good chance to hold off upstart Buffalo for their 11th division title in a row.

How ’bout them Cowboys?

“America’s Team” is staying very on-brand with that nickname right now. Ultra-capitalist owner Jerry Jones is intent on getting as many fans as he’s allowed into his luxurious stadium. That aside, the Cowboys are a legit Super Bowl contender with one of the game’s best offences. Quarterback Dak Prescott remains absurdly underrated, and Jones gifted him another weapon by drafting star college receiver CeeDee Lamb to join the dynamic duo of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup.

Jones also finally let Jason Garrett go after inexplicably sticking with one of the NFL’s worst head coaches for the better part of a decade. But the guy he brought in, Mike McCarthy, earned a similar label during his previous job, in Green Bay. The beauty of this year’s Cowboys is that they could win the Super Bowl or flame out spectacularly, and no one would be shocked either way.

There will be surprises

This is the NFL’s calling card. Because of the randomness created by a 16-game season, tilted scheduling and a high injury rate, teams come out of nowhere every year. As a general rule, you can expect about half the squads who made the playoffs the year before to drop out. And this season could be even friendlier to underdogs. An extra playoff spot has been added to both conferences, so 14 of the league’s 32 teams will reach the post-season this year (and only the top seed in each conference, not the top two, will get a first-round bye).

So who might surprise us this year? A good bet is Arizona, whose up-tempo offence could really take off in quarterback Kyler Murray’s second year. The No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft played well as a rookie, and the Cardinals landed him one of the best receivers in football by trading for DeAndre Hopkins. The last two NFL MVPs — Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes — were both second-year quarterbacks.

If you’re looking for a true long shot, though, consider Carolina. Most people are writing the Panthers off because they went 5-11 last year, they play in the stacked NFC South, and their defence could be quite bad. But they made a huge upgrade at quarterback by signing Teddy Bridgewater, and they still have fantasy-football god Christian McCaffrey at running back. Plus, new head coach Matt Rhule is expected to bring a more innovative attack over from college football. At the very least, Carolina games should be very fun to watch.

Players will make their voices heard

With no games for the last seven months, NFL players were denied a platform during a period that saw the killing of George Floyd and the shooting of Jacob Blake by police, and the sports-wide walkout initiated by Black NBA players.

Traditionally, the NFL has not been kind to protestors. This is the league where teams chose to gainfully employ truly awful journeyman QBs like Mike Glennon and Matt Barkley last year but still wouldn’t offer Colin Kaepernick a job. But the ground has shifted under the NFL, and now it’s signalling a more open attitude to players’ expressing their views on racial injustice and other related issues — even during the anthem. Players from Houston and Kansas City were reportedly working together on a demonstration for tonight’s season opener.

They might just pull this off

The lack of a bubble and the sheer size of NFL rosters (up to 71 players if you include the practice squad, plus all the coaches and other on-field personnel) are concerning. The NFL’s setup is much more like baseball’s than the NHL’s or NBA’s, which is not the side you want to be on. And the fact that the league is letting teams decide whether they’ll allow some fans in their stadiums (subject to local restrictions) is not the best look. But pro football players are among the most disciplined people in the world, and they’re used to working in a military-like environment where orders are followed and sacrifices made for the greater good. So… we’ll see.

Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes celebrates after his team defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Quickly…

That Raptors game was “f—ing unbelievable.” Those are Kyle Lowry’s words, and there’s not a better description. Facing elimination and the end of their title reign, the Raptors pulled out a 125-122 double-overtime thriller over Boston last night to force a Game 7 in their second-round series. Lowry came through with another incredible effort, showing once again why he’s the heart and soul of his team. Despite a stray elbow gashing his chin for three stitches, Lowry played 53 of the game’s 58 minutes on his 34-year-old legs and scored a game-high 33 points. OG Anunoby (13 points, 13 rebounds) and Norman Powell (23 points off the bench) were big down the stretch as well. Game 7 is Friday at 9 p.m. ET. The winner faces Miami in the Eastern Conference final. Read more about last night’s heart-pounding win here.

The Tampa Bay Lightning won again, but they may have suffered another loss. Tampa is now 10-2 in this year’s playoffs after beating the Islanders 2-1 in dramatic fashion last night to go up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference final. Nikita Kucherov scored the game-winner with 8.8 seconds left. However, Lightning star Brayden Point exited the game in the second period after going into the boards awkwardly earlier. His status for Game 3 is unclear. Point has 23 points in 15 post-season games, trailing only the eliminated Nathan MacKinnon for the league lead. Tampa has been without injured star Steven Stamkos since late February (he might not be coming back) and it could down another forward for Game 3. Alex Killorn is facing a possible suspension for hitting the Isles’ Brock Nelson into the glass from behind, which got Killorn kicked out last night (Nelson left but later returned). Tonight is Game 2 of the Western final between Vegas and Dallas at 8 p.m. ET. The series is tied 1-1. Got caught up on everything you need to know from the NHL playoffs by watching Rob Pizzo’s two-minute recap. You can also watch his 90-second countdown of the nine most memorable Game 7 moments.

The second women’s golf major of the year is underway. Don’t let the awkward name fool you. The ANA Inspiration (sponsored by a Japanese airline) is one of the five biggest tournaments on the women’s golf calendar (cut to four this year because of the pandemic). Two Canadians are in the field this week on the Dinah Shore course at Mission Hills in California: Brooke Henderson and Alena Sharp. Henderson, ranked ninth in the world, is looking to bounce back from missing the cut at the Women’s British Open, which was the first major of the year. So far, so good: at our publish time, she was tied for the clubhouse lead after shooting 4-under today. Sharp, ranked 98th in the world, had just teed off.

Also…

Atlanta beat Miami 29-9 last night. Looks like a Falcons-Dolphins score, but no. This was baseball. Atlanta piled up the second-highest run total of the game’s modern era, which began in 1900 (Texas dropped 30 on Baltimore in 2007). The bulk came at the expense of Marlins pitcher Jordan Yakamoto, who got tagged for a batting-practice-like 13 runs on 11 hits in less than three innings. Atlanta’s Adam Duvall drove in nine runs and hit three homers, including a grand slam. Read more about Atlanta’s big night here.

And finally…

(Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Northern California wildfires created an eerie backdrop for ballgames. Leading up to last night’s games in San Francisco (above, top) and Oakland (above, bottom), smoke from the fires blocked the setting sun, bathing the stadiums in an orange-glowing haze. Despite the apocalyptic look, the smell of smoke, and pieces of ash occasionally falling, the air quality was deemed good enough to play in. Read more about the strange scenes here and more about the wildfires here.

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