Reggie Roberts: Despite the NFL missing an entire offseason because of a 132-day work stoppage, there still is seemingly a significant amount of buzz surrounding the start of the regular season which kicks off in earnest on Thursday in Green Bay when the defending Super Bowl champion Packers host the New Orleans Saints. Is that how you see it, as well?
Judy Battista: I think there is actually MORE of a buzz because of the lockout and the way the offseason unfolded. I'm not sure most fans ever were really worried that games were in jeopardy, but they clearly missed all the offseason news we're used to. So when the lockout ended and then we went into that crazy first week of signing rookies and free agents, it was an explosion of news that heightened interest even more. If you're going to have labor strife, they at least orchestrated the end of it perfectly.
RR: Give us your thoughts on one of the teams you closely follow — the New York Jets. They made a ton of roster moves over the weekend. How do you think they will fare this season?
JB: Good question and to be honest, I'm not sure. I don't know that, for all of their moves, they got any better at any particular spot. Certainly, it was good that they kept Santonio Holmes, but we don't have any idea what Plaxico Burress will be able to give them week in and week out. If he can stay healthy, which was a battle even before prison, he should help their red zone situation, which was a big problem last year. The defense still seems to struggle to get pressure without blitzing, although you can do that when you have Darrelle Revis taking out an entire side of the field, and I'm worried about the offensive line. Of course the biggest story line all season will be how Mark Sanchez develops. It's year three — he has a great post-season record, but his accuracy has to improve. Having said all that, I think they are a playoff team. I picked them to be a wild card, with the Patriots winning the division.
RR: There are a significant number of storylines across the league this season. What are the top three and why in your opinion?
JB: The top story line for the league right now has to be Peyton Manning and his health. For as long as he has been in the league, everybody has said the Colts would be nothing without him. I hope we don't get to find out if that's true this year. But his return, or lack of return, is going to dominate until it becomes clearer.
Storyline No. 2 has to be what does football look like in the wake of the lockout? Will teams look sloppier, will the established teams (like the Falcons) have a big edge, will there be any surprise teams?
And thirdly, what does Cam Newton look like in the NFL? Tough year for a rookie to be starting because there was no offseason work, but if he can transition well, he'll be an exciting player to watch.
That's three off the top of my head, but something always happens once the games start to create more storylines. After all, the hits to the head crackdown became the big story of 2010 and that didn't happen until October.
RR: Can Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons take the next step and make a deep run into the 2011 NFL playoffs?
JB: Yes. I think teams that did not change coaching staffs that did not have significant personnel turnover, have a real edge this year because they are able to pick right up where they left off last season. Certainly, that includes the Falcons and I think the addition of Julio Jones adds the explosive, downfield dimension that was missing. So yes, I think a deep run is entirely possible.
RR: Which team in the NFC and AFC are flying under the radar as we start the 2011 season?
JB: I think the Bucs in the NFC are often overlooked because they play in a tough division (with the Falcons in the always tough NFC South), but they are a team on the rise, with an exciting quarterback and an incredibly young roster. In the AFC, I think the Dolphins defense can be one of the best in the league. It's the offense that may keep them from making the playoffs.
RR: Are both New York teams capable of making the playoffs this year?
JB: Yes, I think so. I've already said I think the Jets are a wild card and that's how I think the Giants will have to get in. The Giants have already absorbed a lot of injury blows, but if Eli Manning cuts down on the interceptions and gets comfortable with his receivers, then the defense should be superb. The problem for the Giants is their own division -- the NFC East just brutalizes their own.
RR: Do you like what the Philadelphia Eagles did this off-season and on paper, are they the NFL's best team?
JB: On paper, it was phenomenal, collecting all that talent. My only concern is that all those new faces had only four weeks together. I think they'll win the division, but to me, the best team is the Packers. They were still an ascending team when they won the Super Bowl, I'm not sure we've even seen the best of Aaron Rodgers yet, and they won it all with 15 guys on IR, including Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley. They might be better this year than last year.