Associated Press
The Steelers-Ravens rivalry provides a defensive start to the 2011 season, while the Broncos-Raiders rivalry is on the decline.


One of the NFL's fiercest rivalries has become "The Newlywed Game." Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco each married during the summer in what, with a little creative planning, could have been an awesome dual ceremony: Roger Goodell presiding, DeMaurice Smith playing the organ, Ray Rice as ring bearer.

Matrimony may have a mellowing effect on the two quarterbacks, particularly Roethlisberger; the mellow Flacco's gift registry was at Crate & Barrel, so although he lacks a Super Bowl ring, he has all the napkin rings he could possibly need.

Domesticity implies age, and this rivalry is definitely graying: Ray Lewis is 36, James Harrison 33, Casey Hampton 34, and even newcomers like Baltimore center Andre Gurode are on the high side of 30. Still, most of the participants are young enough to enjoy a good schoolyard taunt. "They talk a whole lot," said Hampton, who must wear noise-canceling headphones in his own locker room.

The new Ravens fullback Vonta Leach said: "I want to be part of that. I want to talk about being part of the great rivalry."

Pittsburgh is 6-2 against the Ravens in the past three seasons, with two playoff victories, including a 31-24 win last season that was decided by a 55-yard Roethlisberger completion on third-and-19 in the fourth quarter.

"It seems like they always have us beat and we always end up beating them," Hampton said. But a great rivalry, like a good marriage, should be full of surprises.

COWBOYS AT JETS (6:20 p.m.)

The Ryan brothers can always be counted upon to stir up some familial controversy, and last week was no different. So we are forced to take the high road. The Cowboys rid themselves of many of their controversial characters in recent years, which is why the defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is now doing most of the talking.

A quieter Dallas team would cause a bluster void in the league if not for Rex Ryan's Jets. Mark Sanchez is on the GQ cover as "the rock-starriest New York quarterback in decades." Judging by the black tank top and white jeans Sanchez wears in the magazine, rock-starriness for GQ reached its apex with Simon Le Bon in 1986.

These new, under-the-radar Cowboys are ostensibly led by Jason Garrett, though with Jerry Jones squeezing from above and Ryan from below, Garrett must feel like the cheese in the world's most self-aggrandizing panini. Garrett's team is young, unheralded and hoping to play the spoiler.


Peyton Manning will miss a start because of injury for the first time in his NFL career; the recently acquired Kerry Collins replaces him. The Indianapolis organization is putting on a brave face, but you can determine owner Jim Irsay's true emotional state by the classic rock lyrics he tweets. Anything by the Hollies or Fairport Convention means Manning will be back soon. Steely Dan could mean anything from measured optimism ("Can't Buy a Thrill" era) to mild despair ("Katy Lied"). If Manning's latest neck operation shelves him for the season, Irsay will clue us in with a selection from Neil Young's "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere."

Houston has a rebuilt secondary intended to stop the Colts. The Texans also had some Twitter drama of their own when Arian Foster recently published the MRI of his ailing hamstring. The tweets displayed dubious taste and awful judgment, but worst of all did little to end injury speculation: Foster is questionable for Sunday. You would think that 400,000 diagnoses could yield one straight answer.


Atlanta abandoned its slow-and-steady philosophy in the offseason, trading five draft picks for the right to select receiver Julio Jones, a deep threat to complement Roddy White and open running room for plow horse Michael Turner. Chicago improved its pass protection by drafting the enormous Gabe Carimi, but coordinator Mike Martz then took steps to make his offense more Martz-like, replacing versatile tight end Greg Olsen with the disappointment-at-large receiver Roy Williams.

With Williams dropping passes and the offensive line again in flux, Jay Cutler must brace for another 50-sack season. Martz loves offenses that can throw deep. He will be watching one from the opposite sideline Sunday.


Rex Grossman will start at quarterback for Washington. Mike Shanahan insisted throughout the off-season that John Beck would start, but that was presumably just a motivational tactic for Grossman, because the best employees are the ones who need six months of psychological manipulation to achieve adequacy. The best thing about the start of the season for the Giants is that nothing else can go wrong for them in the preseason.


Like a superhero movie franchise that fell short of expectations, Donovan McNabb's career needs a reboot every year or so. McNabb 3.0 is a mentor to rookie Christian Ponder, a hand-off vendor for Adrian Peterson, and a security blanket for a team with a novice head coach (Leslie Frazier) and a stadium referendum to sell to Minnesota voters. It sounds like too many story lines: the hallmark of a trilogy that has run out of ideas. San Diego has the talent to return to the playoffs, and it also has its own beverage for celebrating victories: Chargers Legacy cabernet sauvignon, produced and bottled by Bell Wine Cellars of Napa Valley. A.J. Smith personally inspected every grape, alienating half of them, and Norv Turner was not involved in the production in any way, ensuring that the wine is safe to drink.


The Lions are serious wild-card contenders, and their first test pits them against not just the up-and-coming Buccaneers, but also the steamy Florida weather. The temperature is expected to be about 90 degrees at kickoff, but Detroit coach Jim Schwartz was never tempted to crank up the thermostat in his team's practice facility. "That's foolishness," he told The Detroit Free Press. "We don't pipe in crowd noise, and we don't open up the doors and make it cold, and we don't try to smoke the team out." The decision not to smoke the team out may haunt Schwartz if the league ever awards an expansion team to Istanbul.

EAGLES AT RAMS (11 a.m.)

With Philadelphia's lineup full of superstars and big-name free agents you are sick of reading about, the Eagles have nothing to fear this season except the Law of Inverse Ninjutsu. In action movies, the more ninjas (evil robots, imperial storm troopers) the heroes face, the less dangerous the actual threat: Waves of bad guys are usually mowed down easily. By extension, the more free agents an NFL team signs, the less effective each will be, at least in theory. St. Louis is not in position to exploit the Law of Inverse Ninjutsu; the Rams are a little short to be a storm trooper.


The Chiefs played to win in the fourth preseason game. Coach Todd Haley gave his starters significant playing time in a game most coaches treat as a Greg McElroy-Ryan Perrilloux film festival. As a result of his innovative thinking, Haley lost tight end Tony Moeaki for the season and jeopardized quarterback Matt Cassel's availability for the opener; Cassel has been practicing with a cracked rib he suffered on a second-quarter sack. Also, Kansas City lost. Just because Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels are no longer head coaches does not mean Haley has to make all of the "crazy wunderkind" decisions by himself.


Back in 2007, Jacksonville cut starting quarterback Byron Leftwich eight days before the season opener and promoted David Garrard. Last week, the Jaguars released Garrard and promoted journeyman backup Luke McCown, who threw only 18 passes in the preseason. Rookie Blaine Gabbert is McCown's backup; given the team's track record, he will earn a starting job when McCown is cut during the coin toss of the 2012 season opener. The rickety Matt Hasselbeck will start at quarterback for Tennessee, though with Chris Johnson back from a contentious preseason holdout, Hasselbeck's main duty will be to hand off without spraining a wrist.


Here's a brief update on the whereabouts of last season's Bengals. Running back Cedric Benson is back with the team after a five-day August stint in a Texas prison. Benson got time off his 20-day sentence for good behavior, which can only mean that the big inmates-versus-guards football game was coming up and the warden did not want Benson teaming up with Burt Reynolds to cause mischief. Terrell Owens, a free agent, was last heard on Philadelphia radio advising Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson not to play until he receives a new contract; Owens' knee may not be healed, but his dissent-sowing skills are as sharp as ever. The not-quite-retired quarterback Carson Palmer lives in the sewers, occasionally emerging to help Linda Hamilton solve crimes. The remains of Cincinnati's roster are not quite as good or nearly as interesting.

SEAHAWKS AT 49ERS (2:15 p.m.)

The Seahawks have had a strange case of Vikings envy in recent years. Seattle signed former Vikings Tarvaris Jackson and Sidney Rice as their starting quarterback and go-to receiver despite Jackson's track record and Rice's injury history. Jackson was his usual sack-prone self in the preseason. Rice averaged only 5.5 yards a catch and missed significant time with a shoulder injury, causing an outbreak of post-Nate Burleson stress disorder among Seahawks fans. San Francisco's new coach, Jim Harbaugh, has complete confidence in quarterback Alex Smith but is otherwise doing a swell job.


It is hard to improve on a great Onion headline, and "Panthers Name Cam Newton Starting QB Because Everyone Seems to Think They Should" sums up the state of football in the Carolinas nicely. Arizona signed Kevin Kolb and Larry Fitzgerald for a small fortune, inserted rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson into the starting lineup and assembled a roster that appears destined for a 7-9 finish. Or as the Cardinals are called in the NFC West, contenders.


Miami is probably the NFL's least interesting team, and the Dolphins definitely have the least inspiring slogans. The first slogan, as reported by Mike Berardino of The Sun-Sentinel, is: "One team. One mindset. One goal." As motivators go, that flunks the William Wallace test. ("They can take our land. They can take our freedom. But they cannot take our mindset!") The other slogan: "Winners don't even know they are in a race. They just love to run," is false for any competition except toddler relays. The Dolphins are well aware that they are in a race with the superior Patriots, which by the logic of their slogan may preclude their winning.

RAIDERS AT BRONCOS (Monday, 8:15 p.m.)

The most interesting player on each team is the third-string quarterback, which speaks volumes about how far this rivalry has fallen. Denver's new coach, John Fox, said Tim Tebow would play more often than most third-string quarterbacks, which is like being used more often than most swimming pool fire extinguishers. Terrelle Pryor is suspended for the first five games of the season, but according to the terms of the disciplinary action, he is allowed to start overshadowing Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell immediately.