(Reuters) - The “Deflategate” saga that engulfed New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady all offseason has not dampened excitement for the NFL’s 2015 season, which opens on Thursday and ends in February with the league’s 50th Super Bowl.
The long-running feud between four-times Super Bowl winner Brady and the NFL was just the latest public relations fiasco for the league.
Recent issues of domestic violence, child abuse and the forthcoming movie “Concussion” about football-related brain trauma have all been hurled at America’s favorite game.
The accusation that Brady “was at least generally aware” of a scheme to deflate footballs used in a playoff victory found its way into a courtroom before Brady’s four-game suspension was overturned last week.
While the effects of the decision are sure to linger, Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots are ready to be judged on the field, starting with Thursday’s game versus the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
“(There’s) still a lot of preparation to do between now and then,” Brady said over the weekend. “We’re facing a really good team. All my energy and attention needs to be there, and that’s where it’s been the last couple of days.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a mastermind at overcoming obstacles and getting the best out of his team, will have his hands full this season as more than a few contenders appear ready to challenge the Patriots’ supremacy.
The Seattle Seahawks came up a yard short in their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots last season and responded with a busy offseason that included signing quarterback Russell Wilson to a four-year, $87.6 million contract extension.
The two-times defending NFC champions also acquired a new target for Wilson in Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham. Seattle would again appear to be the class of the NFC, but disgruntled defensive standouts like Kam Chancellor have voiced their own contract concerns and bring team chemistry into question.
Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly faced questions about his own locker room and then went out and dramatically changed the personnel inside it during the offseason.
The Eagles traded for quarterback Sam Bradford and signed free agent running backs DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews, giving them an entirely new backfield for Kelly’s fast-paced offense to run rampant in the NFC East.
The defending NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys will have to replace the production of Murray, though their defense may see an uptick in effectiveness.
Linebacker Sean Lee, who missed 2014 with injury, is back to beef up a defense that will also feature former Pro Bowl defensive end signing Greg Hardy after he serves a four-game ban.
Running back Adrian Peterson was one of the high-profile suspended standouts from a year ago, playing in just one game for the Minnesota Vikings after being banished for a child abuse indictment.
The former NFL Most Valuable Player will return motivated with his eyes set on the rushing crown.
The Green Bay Packers have their own absence to worry about now that leading receiver Jordy Nelson has been lost for the season with a knee injury.
Reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers will be put to the test with his inexperienced cast of receivers, though the Packers remain prohibitive favorites in NFC North.
In the AFC, Denver and Indianapolis resume their role as division favorites.
The Colts and Andrew Luck are ready to take the next step after three consecutive trips to the playoffs, including last season’s run to the AFC Championship.
Indianapolis have added veteran running back Frank Gore, who brings balance to the offense and Super Bowl experience.
Peyton Manning’s mileage could be a concern for the Broncos. Manning, 39, admitted that he was still feeling the effects from neck surgery in May 2011 that cost him an entire year.
Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Baltimore are ready for another AFC North battle after all three finished within a game of each other last season and reached the playoffs.
The Buffalo Bills begin a new era under coach Rex Ryan, with acquired running back LeSean McCoy and one of the top defenses in the NFL.
The Houston Texans have enjoyed the offseason exposure that comes with being featured on the HBO series Hard Knocks, and are always a threat with the league’s defensive face, J.J. Watt.
In observance of the Super Bowl’s golden anniversary, all 32 NFL fields will have gold 50s at midfield throughout the regular season to commemorate the 50th Super Bowl, which will be played Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, California.
Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue