The Washington Post Sunday



As the second season in which the NFL must contend with the coronaviru­s pandemic begins in earnest, there are plenty of changes, some of which will take some getting used to.

The league has relaxed its longtime policies for uniform numbers, which means single-digit jerseys are available to linebacker­s, defensive backs, running backs and wide receivers.

Another change concerns officiatin­g, with the NFL saying it will more strictly enforce taunting rules, with refs throwing a flag for “baiting or taunting acts or words” and “abusive, threatenin­g or insulting language or gestures.”

Social justice messages will continue to be part of the experience, with the league allowing players to choose a decal with one of six messages for the back of their helmets: “End Racism,” “Stop Hate,” “It Takes All of Us,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Inspire Change” or “Say Their Stories.” The messages “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” will continue to be displayed on the field near the end zones.

As the first Sunday of what now is a 17-game season arrives, here’s a look at a few key Week 1 matchups.

The Jets aren’t ordinarily appointmen­t viewing, but this team has a quarterbac­k anointed the next Patrick Mahomes by no less than Tony Romo. “It’s rare for me to say someone has the ability to get in the stratosphe­re of a Mahomes, but I think this kid actually has that ability,” Romo said of rookie Zach Wilson. “. . . He can make up for a lot of weaknesses in a lot of areas for a football team.” Heaven knows the Jets have long had a lot of weaknesses in a lot of areas. They will be tested right off the bat, facing Sam Darnold, their former franchise face, who will start for Carolina . . . .

The Steelers weren’t budging from their stance on T.J. Watt, last year’s NFL leader in sacks, as his training camp holdout threatened to spill over into the regular season. Watt was in camp but participat­ed only in individual drills, and he practiced with the team for the first time Wednesday before he finally agreed to a four-year contract extension Thursday that makes him the league’s highest-paid defensive player. Buffalo’s dynamic offense will provide an immediate test of whether Watt’s missed time had an effect on him.

Aaron Rodgers’s scorched earth tour begins as Green Bay plays Drew Brees-less New Orleans in a game moved to Jacksonvil­le because of Hurricane Ida. Rodgers, who called his murky future with Green Bay a “beautiful mystery” with a veiled reference to a Michael Jordan-esque “Last Dance” season, won’t have the security provided by all-pro offensive linemen David Bakhtiari, who is out at least six weeks as he recovers from knee surgery at the end of last season, and Corey Linsley, who is now with the Chargers . . . .

Right off the bat, the Browns, the favorites to win the AFC North, face a stern test of just how ready they are to occupy the NFL’s stratosphe­re. Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt lead a two-pronged rushing attack, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. returns from a knee injury, and a talented offensive line can help ease the pressure on Baker Mayfield. Kansas City won the January playoff meeting between the teams, even after quarterbac­k Patrick Mahomes exited in the third quarter with a concussion . . . .

Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones start in what may be a budding AFC East rivalry between the Dolphins and Patriots. What’s not to like about a matchup of quarterbac­ks who helped lead Alabama to a berth in three of the past four national championsh­ip games? Jones replaces Cam Newton and becomes the first Patriots rookie to start a season opener since Drew Bledsoe in 1993. Tagovailoa, in his second NFL season, won’t be looking over his shoulder any longer to see whether Ryan Fitzpatric­k is taking his job.

Los Angeles comes into the game as a trendy preseason pick to play in Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13 at its new digs, SoFi Stadium. In Matthew Stafford, the team has a quarterbac­k who never got over the hump in Detroit, and Coach Sean McVay is positively giddy. The Bears arrive with no such certainty at quarterbac­k, a contributi­ng factor to the murkiness surroundin­g the future of Coach Matt Nagy. The job belongs to Andy Dalton, with rookie Justin Fields waiting in the wings.

Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, the NFL’s reigning sack leader, got a big payday last week leading up to his team’s showdown at Buffalo.
MATT FREED/ASSOCIATED PRESS — Cindy Boren Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, the NFL’s reigning sack leader, got a big payday last week leading up to his team’s showdown at Buffalo.
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