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Chris Omeara, Associated Press
Jacksonville's David Garrard has emerged as one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL and is poised to take the Jags deep into the playoffs, where some analysts predict will end in the Super Bowl.

Since the Giants beat the Patriots in what might have been the most exciting Super Bowl in NFL history, the nation's most popular professional league has gone dark.

Oh, that is unless you count free agency, the draft, trades and meaningless and mind-numbingly dull preseason games, endless babble on TV and radio, and a high-profile retirement and un-retirement.

Thankfully, all of that is over. It's finally time to play the games.

You've waited seven months for the NFL to start up again. We're here to guide you through what to expect this season.

WHO WILL WIN THE ARMS RACE:

It wasn't long ago that NFL analysts complained about the lack of quality starting quarterbacks in the league. That's not the case now, as a few quarterbacks made great strides in the last year or two: the Giants' Eli Manning, Cleveland's Derek Anderson, San Diego's Philip Rivers, Dallas' Tony Romo and Jacksonville's David Garrard to name a few.

Those four players return with Super Bowl aspirations this year, along with stand-bys such as Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Brett Favre (in a new uniform, of course).

The guess here is that in the AFC, Brady doesn't come close to 50 touchdown passes. It will be less than 40, which isn't exactly a poor total. Favre takes the Jets to the playoffs, but doesn't go too deep in the postseason. Peyton Manning isn't at 100 percent and will have even worse numbers than last year. And Garrard, who continues to show he belongs among the elite, takes the Jaguars to the Super Bowl.

In the NFC, Eli Manning puts together his best statistical season, but the Giants don't do as well in the playoffs because their defense isn't as strong. Washington's Jason Campbell will make steps toward becoming an elite player, while Aaron Rodgers will struggle in Green Bay. Romo will overcome past playoff failures and take the Cowboys to the Super Bowl — and win it.

MUST-SEE GAMES:

You can basically count on there being at least one game each week that makes you want to stay stuck to your couch. On opening weekend, the Cowboys-Browns game gets top billing. On Sept. 14, the Patriots and Jets meet for the first time with Favre suiting up for New York.

Dallas makes a rare trip to play in Green Bay on Sept. 21, then returns home the following week to play the Redskins. The Chargers will try and get over their mental block against the Patriots at home in a Sunday night game on Oct. 12. The annual game of the year between the Patriots and Colts is saved for Nov. 2 in Indianapolis.

RAKE THE LEAVES, GO TO A MOVIE:

There are some games that even the most die-hard fans will want to avoid this season. Detroit at Atlanta on Sept. 7? There's got to be something better you can do with your time. Dolphins-Rams on Nov. 30? Well, it's not a Super Bowl preview.

THEIR SEATS ARE WARMING UP:

A few coaches are on the hot seat this season, and for various reasons. John Fox probably has to get Carolina back into the playoffs to save his job. San Francisco's Mike Nolan has to show some progress this season or he'll be out of a job. If Green Bay has an average season, fans will be livid with the team for trading Favre.

One coach we know won't be back is Seattle's Mike Holmgren, who will step down at the end of the season and be replaced by former Falcons coach Jim Mora, Jr. Denver's Mike Shanahan has won one playoff game in the last 10 years, but his job never seems to be in jeopardy.

WHO'S ON THE RISE:

We'll stay away from the trendy picks (Arizona, Minnesota) and give you some teams to watch for. We like the Buffalo Bills to challenge the Patriots and Jets for AFC East supremacy. They have a smart quarterback, a good running game and a solid defense. In the NFC, we'll go with the Panthers to have a big bounce-back year. Not creative enough for you? OK, we'll take the Lions to challenge for a playoff berth.

WHO'S ON THE DECLINE:

At least one Super Bowl participant struggles the following year after reaching the big game. We're tempted to say the Patriots will, but the Giants are the more obvious choice. Their defensive line has been hit hard by Michael Strahan's retirement and Usi Umenyiora's season-ending injury.

At least one conference championship game loser also suffers a steep decline the following season. It won't be San Diego with LaDainian Tomlinson in the lineup. It will be the Packers with their new starting quarterback.

DOES MONEY BUY HAPPINESS, OR SUCCESS:

The Raiders will learn what Redskins fans should have so many times during the free-agency era. You can't buy a championship, and you especially can't overpay for average players. Oakland dished out millions of dollars, but the most troubling signing was receiver Javon Walker. No one else was bidding for Walker's services, but the Raiders gave him $55 million. He responded by getting beat up in Las Vegas, showing up to camp out of shape, and pondering retirement.

WHO'S IN OPENING NIGHT CONCERT:

It is one of a handful of troubling trends in the NFL. The league insists on having big-name musicians perform before big games and at halftime of big games. It isn't necessary. The games sell themselves, and fans don't need fireworks and dancers to get fired up for football. OK, if you really must know Usher, Keith Urban and Natasha Bedingfield will perform as part of Kickoff 2008 prior to the Giants-Redskins opener on Thursday.


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com