Published: Sep 08, 2012 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Sep 07, 2012 6:31 AM EDT

One thing the NFL hopes everyone notices is the youth wave, particularly behind center where 10 starting quarterbacks are in either their first of second pro seasons.

Something the league doesn't want anyone focusing on as the 2012 season begins: the replacement officials.

When top draftees Andrew Luck of Indianapolis and Robert Griffin III of Washington make their NFL debuts Sunday, they will do so with newcomers carrying the whistles. The league locked out the NFL Referees Association in June after the on-field officials' contract expired, and negotiations have gone nowhere.

So official from the lower levels of the college game, arena ball and even the Lingerie Football League will be throwing the flags this week.

"Regardless, we've got to go out there and execute and take it out of their hands," Chargers All-Pro safety Eric Weddle says. "Let's go out and play good football, execute at a high level and then they won't be in position to throw flags and make judgment calls."

Guys like Luck, RG3, Trent Richardson and Morris Claiborne won't notice any difference in the officiating because they're rookies. Indeed, Richardson, the star running back from Alabama, is one of 15 rookies who made the Browns - possibly the main reason Cleveland came in 32nd and last in the AP Pro32 power rankings.

"It's emotional as far as me being in the NFL," said Richardson, who had arthroscopic left knee surgery on Aug. 9 and might be held out of the game. "But as far as being a football player, I am always going to be a football player in my head. Football is football wherever it goes, I just can't wait."

Luck takes the Colts to Chicago, while Griffin and the Redskins are in New Orleans.

Elsewhere Sunday, San Francisco is at Green Bay and Pittsburgh at Denver for the return of Peyton Manning in spotlight games. Also, it's New England at Tennessee, Carolina at Tampa Bay, Miami at Houston, Atlanta at Kansas City, Buffalo at the New York Jets, Seattle at Arizona, St. Louis at Detroit, and Jacksonville at Minnesota.

Monday night's doubleheader has a strong AFC North matchup of Cincinnati at Baltimore, followed by a not-so-strong AFC West matchup of San Diego at Oakland.

The action began Wednesday night when the Super Bowl champion New York Giants were stunned 24-17 by Dallas, which got three touchdown passes from Tony Romo, two to unheralded receiver Kevin Ogletree.

Indianapolis at Chicago

If a perennial contender is going to fall apart and start rebuilding, it would be wise to follow the Colts' path.

With the previously indestructible Manning sidelined in 2011 after a neck surgery, Indianapolis plummeted to the bottom of the standings. Perfect timing: Luck was available in the draft to replace the Indy icon.

While Luck has looked poised in preseason, dealing with the real thing against a Chicago defense that can cause havoc for blockers is problematic - even if Bears star linebacker Brian Urlacher is slowed by knee woes.

"I can't wait to see him perform again, along with everybody else," Colts coach Chuck Pagano said of Luck. "So I guess I'm excited and anxious just like he is. I think we're all excited to see him when it really counts."

Washington at New Orleans

Possibly the most intriguing matchup of the opening week as fans get to see how much impact RG3 will have on the Redskins' offense and whether he will be running for survival behind a banged-up line.

"I didn't think I would, but I do feel different. I feel like the guys are, 'it's real,' " Griffin said. "It's not that guys weren't out here working hard or anything like that, but I think everyone's working knowing that stuff counts."

New Orleans is without LB Jonathan Vilma for the season and DE Will Smith for four games as punishment for their roles in the Saints' bounty program. Coach Sean Payton also is gone for the year and interim coach Joe Vitt is out for the first six games, leaving offensive line coach Aaron Kromer in charge.

Kromer says "this isn't adversity - having a new coach (in) Game 1, having Joe Vitt during the preseason, having Sean Payton have to leave when he did. That's an opportunity for all of us to step up. "

Philadelphia at Cleveland

A year after declaring themselves something special, the Eagles are being quieter. They need to be more efficient out of the gate after stumbling to a 1-4 start, and this is the perfect place to get on track. Adding LB DeMeco Ryans was a coup for the defense, which will get after the passer - in this case first-round pick Brandon Weeden - from the outset.

With new ownership in Cleveland, Browns President Mike Holmgren and coach Pat Shurmur can't be sure of their job security. And with such a young roster, no one can predict how quickly a turnaround might come.

San Francisco at Green Bay

After going a combined 28-4 in the regular season, both teams should be considered prime Super Bowl contenders. They will learn a lot about themselves and each other at Lambeau Field.

Green Bay has all the tools offensively, so the development of the defense, which was a sieve for much of 2011, might determine how far the Packers go. They need big performances Sunday from linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle B.J. Raji to throw off San Francisco's precision attack.

Many eyes will be on Randy Moss, who didn't play last season and has come back to boost the 49ers' so-so passing game. Still, the most attractive thing to watch in San Francisco is that powerhouse defense, which will get after Aaron Rodgers all day.

Pittsburgh at Denver

The NFL couldn't have set up a juicier matchup for Manning's return. Although the Steelers' defense needed to replace some key parts, and safety Ryan Clark can't play in Denver for health reasons, this is still a formidable challenge for the four-time MVP as he makes his Broncos debut in prime time.

"It was a no-brainer that they were going to put Peyton's first game back on a Sunday night or a Monday night, one of the two, and let him play at home," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "And they'll let us come back to (Denver), I guess."

Pittsburgh was eliminated from the playoffs on the first play of overtime in the Mile High City in January on Tim Tebow's 80-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas. Tebow is in New Jersey and Peyton is the man in Denver.

New England at Tennessee

A good test for the defending AFC champions, on the road against a well-coached group that has improved its pass rush. New England struggled to protect Tom Brady in the preseason, perhaps an ominous sign, and the Titans will come after him.

The Patriots also will be challenged on defense by Chris Johnson, whose holdout ruined his 2011 season, even though he gained 1,047 yards. Johnson has his sights on a second 2,000-yard rushing production, and Bill Belichick's defense must show it isn't ripe for the taking, as it was at times last year.

Carolina at Tampa Bay

Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton did so many special things in 2011 it's difficult to imagine what else he is capable of. The folks in Charlotte will tell you plenty, beginning at rebuilding Tampa.

"I think the whole vibe around this team is different this year," Newton said. "There's a sense in the air that everybody is anticipating something great is going to happen and that's exciting."

Greg Schiano was hired away from Rutgers to right the Buccaneers' ship. Improvement on defense is the first priority.

Miami at Houston

This might be the biggest mismatch of the week, a Super Bowl contender that won its division for the first time last year despite key injuries going against a club in total retooling mode.

Houston gets back QB Matt Schaub, who has an excellent supporting cast on offense led by WR Andre Johnson and RB Adrian Foster. The Texans could be even more dynamic on defense, led by LBs Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin, DE J.J. Watt and swingman Brooks Reed.

Only Reggie Bush would be described as dynamic on the Dolphins.

Atlanta at Kansas City

For the Falcons to take the next step and become a formidable playoff threat, they need more consistency on both sides of the ball. Look for big plays on offense from second-year receiver Julio Jones, but getting the defense in gear is most critical.

Kansas City will provide a solid exam for that D, particularly with RB Jamaal Charles, WR Dwayne Bowe and TE Tony Moeaki seemingly healthy. But the Chiefs will miss suspended LB Tamba Hali this week.

Buffalo at N.Y. Jets

No one is sure how often the Jets' most publicized offseason acquisition - Tebow - will get on the field. He'll be in a wildcat sort of alignment most of the time, and even has been used as the protector on punts.

Everyone can be sure how often the Bills' top addition, DE Mario Williams, will be in action. The more times he finds himself in New York's backfield - whether Tebow or starter Mark Sanchez is at quarterback - the better for Buffalo.

The Jets probably played the most conservative offensive of any team in the preseason. Or maybe they just can't move the ball.

Seattle at Arizona

Two teams that figure to be far in the 49ers' rearview mirror. Both need to get the jump on the other in the out-of-kilter NFC West.

Seattle's secondary should be among the league's best and will test the unproven John Skelton, who beat out high-priced Kevin Kolb at quarterback. Even more impressive was the work of rookie Russell Wilson, who took away the starting QB spot from free agent signee Matt Flynn. But Arizona's defense is on the rise.

St. Louis at Detroit

Jeff Fisher spent one year on the sidelines after leaving the Titans as the longest-tenured coach in the league. Now he's back, guiding the callow Rams, whose rebuilding challenge is formidable. Thankfully, he has a solid base in RB Steven Jackson, QB Sam Bradford, DE Chris Long and CB Cortland Finnegan.

The Lions will severely challenge St. Louis' defense with a passing game featuring All-Pro wideout Calvin Johnson. Look for Megatron and his QB, Matthew Stafford, to pick on rookie Janoris Jackson on the other corner.

Jacksonville at Minnesota

RB Adrian Peterson is hopeful of returning from a torn left knee ligament that he sustained in Game 15 last season; ACL injuries usually take a full year to recover from. Without him, the Vikings are pedestrian at best on offense.

"I'd love to have him out there, that goes without saying for our entire team," center John Sullivan said. "But at the same time it's out of our hands. I hope he is. But if not, we've got to go forward with the guys that are ready to go."

Maurice Jones-Drew ended his holdout in Jacksonville this week, but whether he is ready to go at anywhere near his 2011 form when he was an All-Pro running back is highly questionable.

Cincinnati at Baltimore

An early showdown in the league's best division, where three teams made the playoffs a year ago and just might repeat that feat this season. However, the Bengals have gone to the playoffs in successive seasons just once: 1981 and '82.

They are building something quite attractive, though with QB Andy Dalton, WR A.J. Green, tackle Andrew Whitworth, tight end Jermaine Gresham and a stout defense with a dangerous front line.

All of those riches don't compare to what the Ravens present, particularly if they are in high gear offensively behind Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin and potential breakout star receiver Torrey Smith. We know Ray Lewis and Ed Reed must have something left, or why else would they still be around?

San Diego at Oakland

Dennis Allen makes his debut as Raiders coach in the first year in nearly a half-century without Al Davis' presence. Lots of things are changing in Oakland, many for the better, and a quick start would raise confidence in what has been a floundering franchise for the last decade.

Nothing changed in the managerial department in San Diego, where GM A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner are on a blazing seat. They made plenty of alterations in the roster though, with linebacker Jarret Johnson and receiver Robert Meachem likely to have the most impact, perhaps immediately.


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