A look at some of the changes and top things to watch for in the NFL's new season:
What’s new in NFL 2014
Goalposts are taller: The league extended the height of the goalposts from 30 to 35 feet, part of an effort to help officials make definitive rulings on field goals.
Replay adjustment: During replay reviews, referees will now confer with NFL officiating bosses in New York. The on-field referee will still make the decision.
Tablets: Players and coaches will be holding tablets along the sidelines this season to review recent plays, a first for the NFL. It's a big change from when players and coaches used printed photos. The tablets can be used only for NFL-approved images and will not have access to other applications. So don't expect to see players on the bench playing Clash of Clans.
No more goalpost spiking: Jimmy Graham has dunked his last football between the uprights (we think). The NFL outlawed the Saints tight end's signature touchdown celebration by extending the ban on props to include the goalpost. (Though that didn't stop Graham from testing the rule twice in a preseason game — drawing two penalties and the scorn of coach Sean Payton.) The move was motivated by a Graham dunk last season that dislodged a goalpost and caused a delay in the game.
Limits on linemen: While cut blocks are still legal, offensive linemen can no longer roll into the side of a defender to execute a cut block. Such a move will result in a 15-yard penalty. Also, linemen on both sides of the ball will be subject to an increased emphasis on the illegal-hands-to-the-face rule, which will be flagged even for incidental contact.
Limits on pass defense: The NFL intends to increase protection of pass catchers outside of the 5-yard bump zone off the line of scrimmage. In short, defenders will not be allowed to initiate contact with receivers beyond 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. In the preseason, this led to an increase in defensive holding and illegal-contact penalties.
"Thursday Night Football" on CBS: NFL games on Thursday nights aren't new; this is the third year of a full season of midweek games. But the Thursday night games being broadcast on a major network is new, with CBS launching its eight-game schedule in Week 2. But you may still need to rely on the TV guide for Thursday night viewing. Two of the games, the opener and the Thanksgiving nightcap, are on NBC. And NFL Network will broadcast most of the November-December games, along with simulcasting CBS's contests.
Saturday football: NFL games on Saturday used to be a schedule staple after the college season. That ended in recent years, but will make a one-week return in Week 16 with NFL Network (4:30 p.m) and CBS (8 p.m.) each airing a game. The matchups will be Eagles-Redskins and Chargers-49ers, with time slots to be determined.
Practice squads are bigger: The NFL expanded practice squads from 8 to 10 players and widened the pool of players who are eligible for them.
Flex scheduling expands: The window of flexible scheduling that allows the league to change the Sunday night game has been expanded from seven to 13 weeks. Sunday games can now change start times as early as Week 5.
"Cross-flexing" begins: The days when you could count on CBS broadcasting all AFC Sunday afternoon games and Fox all NFC Sunday afternoon games are over. The NFL begins "cross-flexing" games — basically, sending CBS games to Fox, and vice versa — this season. So, for example, Buffalo at Chicago in Week 1 (traditionally a CBS game because the visiting team's network owned the rights) will be on Fox, and Atlanta at Cincinnati in Week 2 on CBS. The NFL says the goal of cross-flexing is to give the widest possible distribution to games.
New playoff TV format: For the first time, ESPN will be the home to a playoff game when it broadcasts a wild-card contest. NBC will broadcast one of the wild-card games, and will also broadcast a divisional round game.
Who’s next to go worst to first?
When the Panthers and Eagles won division titles last season, it marked an astounding 11 straight years that the NFL has had at least one team go from worst to first.
There have been 42 worst-to-first reversals in NFL history and 45 percent of them (19) have come since 2003. (Of course, that also coincides with the league's expansion to eight divisions in 2002.)
So what team might extend the streak to 12 this year? Here are the candidates, ranked from mostly likely to least:
Tampa*: Lovie Smith is the new man in charge, and he imported veteran quarterback Josh McCown to run the offense. The Bucs have a capable defense and some playmakers (Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans). With Smith's quiet leadership, they could surprise people.
Washington: The NFC East teams routinely seem to play round robin to determine the division winner. Since 2009, every team has won it, with Philadelphia claiming two division titles. If they get the right breaks and Robert Griffin III returns to form, it's easy to see the Redskins in contention for the crown.
Atlanta*: The Falcons' 4-12 season was a bit of a fluke, and came after some costly injuries. If they stay healthy from here on out (they already lost LT Sam Baker), Matt Ryan's arm could put them in contention for an NFC South title they last won in 2012.
Vikings: Minnesota has some playmakers in Adrian Peterson and Cordarrelle Patterson. It would need standout QB play from Matt Cassel or rookie Teddy Bridgewater, which neither has shown capable of.
Houston: Put a halfway decent quarterback on this team, and it's a legitimate contenders for the AFC South title. The defense is playoff-caliber. But starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, in the NFL since 2005, has never even been on a winning team.
Cleveland: The Browns are another team with a playoff-caliber defense without an offense to match. With the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals, there's too much talent for them to leapfrog to win the AFC North. But they'll look for Johnny Manziel to win a game or two down the road that makes them contenders for 2015.
St. Louis: Before Sam Bradford's injury, the Rams would have had an outside shot at the worst-to-first turnaround. Good defense. QB with something to prove. But with Shaun Hill as the starting QB, the Rams appear headed for another last-place finish.
Buffalo: The Bills are the type of team where only the players' mothers believe they'll win the division. They have one winning season this century and haven't been to the playoffs since 1999. Let's see them crack .500 again (last happened in 2004), before we consider them a real threat to overtake the Patriots.
Oakland: The only odds worse than the Bills' for overtaking the Patriots are the Raiders' for leapfrogging the Broncos. They "retooled" this offseason by signing a group of free agents on the downside of their careers — including quarterback Matt Schaub, whom the 2-14 Texans gave up on last year.
* Atlanta and Tampa tied for last place in the NFC South last year.
Milestones to watch for
• Peyton Manning needs 18 TD passes to pass Brett Favre (508) for most all time. If Manning records another 5,000-yard passing season, he and Favre will be the only players with 70,000 career yards. He needs 5,036 to hit that plateau.
• With three wins, the Bears will become the first team to reach 750 victories in franchise history. Also, the Packers will become the second team to record 700 with their second victory.
• The Patriots are seeking to become just the second team to win at least 10 games in 12 consecutive seasons. Only the 49ers (16 straight seasons from 1983-98) have accomplished the feat.
• The fraternity of QBs to have thrown 400 TD passes could swell from three (Favre, Manning, Dan Marino) to five. Drew Brees (needs 37) and Tom Brady (41) are closing in.
• Brady can become the sixth QB to throw for 50,000 career yards with 851 more.
• With his next 200-yard receiving game, Calvin Johnson will be the all-time leader with six. He currently shares top honors with Lance Alworth.
• Both Jason Witten and Antonio Gates could leap past Shannon Sharpe on the list of most career receiving yards for a tight end. Witten needs 262 to get past Sharpe's 10,060, and Gates needs 868. Both will still trail leader Tony Gonzalez's 15,127.
• Adam Vinatieri can become the first player to score 100 points in 17 different seasons. He is tied with Jason Elam for most 100-point seasons now. Vinatieri has crossed the 100-point plateau in 16 of his 18 seasons.
• Bill Belichick has 218 career wins (regular season and playoffs combined), and can pass Paul Brown (222) and Curly Lambeau (229) to move into fourth place on the all-time list. He would trail just Tom Landry (270), George Halas (324), and Don Shula (347).
• With two playoff wins, Belichick would become the all-time winningest coach in the postseason. He and Shula have 19 playoff victories, one behind Landry.
Points piling up at record pace
More points (11,985) and touchdowns (1,338) were scored in the NFL last season than in any previous season. And the 32 teams also set a record for combined points per game, 44.8.
And it's clear that the record for points in a season by a single team could be endangered on a year-to-year basis going forward. Last season, the Broncos (606) eclipsed the Patriots' 2007 mark (589), after the Packers and Patriots came close to it in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
|Most points by a team in one season|
With wide-open offenses dotting the league in Denver, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and New England, don't expect the Broncos' mark to last long.
Names to know for 2014
Dean Blandino: Now in his second season as the NFL's director of officiating, Blandino will have an even bigger role this season. He and his staff will communicate with on-field referees as they review replays during games.
Jay Gruden: The new coach of the Redskins is the younger brother of ESPN analyst and Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden. Jay Gruden was the offensive coordinator of the Bengals the past three seasons, and the team earned a playoff berth each year he was there. Gruden was one of the most celebrated quarterbacks in the history of the Arena Football League.
Mike Zimmer: The new coach of the Vikings also came from Cincinnati; he was defensive coordinator there the past six years.
Bill O'Brien: The new Texans coach is no stranger to Patriots fans, having served on Bill Belichick's staff for five seasons before replacing Joe Paterno at Penn State. O'Brien was born in Dorchester and raised in Andover.
Mike Pettine: The new Browns coach also may be familiar to Patriots fans, as he was the defensive coordinator in Buffalo last season and for the Jets for the previous four seasons. Pettine has been an NFL assistant since 2002, and was a high school head coach before that.
Lovie Smith: The longtime Bears coach is back in the NFL as the head coach in Tampa Bay, where he'll look for Logan Mankins to bolster his offensive line and try to make the Bucs' defense again the envy of the NFL.
Jim Caldwell: The man who led the Colts to Super Bowl XLIV has taken the reins in Detroit, where he is charged with instilling discipline into a talented but often-too-wild Lions roster.
Ken Whisenhunt: The former Cardinals coach is seen as an offensive wizard, after leading the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII and helping the Chargers bolt to a playoff spot as offensive coordinator last year. That reputation will be tested as the new coach of the Titans, who haven't had a top-10 offense in the last 10 years.
Johnny Manziel: With Tim Tebow out of the NFL, Manziel has taken the mantle as the league's most famous backup quarterback. But Manziel, drafted 22d overall by the Browns, may not remain a backup for long.
Jadeveon Clowney: The desperate-for-a-quarterback Texans chose the defensive lineman with the first pick of the draft. He could team with J.J. Watt to give the Texans a scary assault on opposing quarterbacks.
DeMarcus Ware: After nine seasons in Dallas, where he collected 117 sacks, seven Pro Bowls, and four All-Pro nods, Ware has moved on to Denver. He, T.J. Ward, and Aqib Talib all joined the Broncos to fortify the defense.
Eric Ebron: The Lions rookie tight end has already said he wants to be Rookie of the Year. At 6 feet 4 inches, 245 pounds, and with good hands, Ebron figures to be heavily involved in the Lions offense and could become a favorite for fantasy players.
Jared Allen: The five-time Pro Bowler is in Chicago after trading sides of an NFC North rivalry with the Vikings.
Julius Peppers: The eight-time Pro Bowler also traded sides in an NFC North rivalry. After four seasons in Chicago, he'll hunt quarterbacks for the Packers this season.
Michael Vick: The veteran quarterback joined the Jets after leaving the Eagles. He'll be a backup to Geno Smith . . . for now. He could be called on to start at some point.
Sammy Watkins: The Bills traded up in the draft to select the Clemson receiver fourth overall. They know they need points to compete with Tom Brady and the Patriots. Now, can Watkins and quarterback E.J. Manuel deliver?
Jairus Byrd: The ballhawking safety collected 22 interceptions for the Bills over the past five seasons. Now the three-time Pro Bowler will patrol the backfield for the Saints.
Devin Hester: The ace return man ran into the record books in his eight seasons in Chicago. Now he'll aim to boost the Falcons' special teams.
DeSean Jackson: Cut by the Eagles this spring, Jackson — who caught 82 passes for 1,332 yards and nine TDs last season — will now be a primary weapon for Robert Griffin III in Washington.
Mike Carey: The longtime referee has hung up his whistle and joined CBS. You'll likely see him most prominently breaking down officials' decisions when CBS broadcasts "Thursday Night Football."
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter @leahysean