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Wednesday, September 5, 2012
The NFL finally returns! Thank you!

By Sarah Spain

Drew Brees, Tim Tebow
QBs Drew Brees (New Orleans) and Tim Tebow (Jets) face different challenges this season.

The NFL is back! Feel free to dance, sing, fist pump or worm.

The Giants and Cowboys open up the 93rd regular season of the NFL at MetLife Stadium tonight, the first Wednesday night game in 64 years. (This year's kickoff was moved up a night due to President Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention on Thursday.)

While Hump Day football may seem a little strange, anyone with a pulse would agree we've waited long enough after the 213 days (a.k.a. 306,720 torturous minutes) since the Giants hoisted the Lombardi Trophy in Indy.

A lot has happened in the months since the Super Bowl, including numerous coaching changes, big names in new places and a handful of suspensions, arrests and lawsuits. Here's a quick primer on the biggest stories you need to know for the 2012-13 season.

Thursday night's alright (for football)

This season, the NFL will feature 13 Thursday games, with at least one matchup every week from Week 2 through Week 15. Between the added Thursday games and the usual Monday Night Football contests, every single NFL team will again play in a prime-time game.

I've heard some grumbling from East Coasters and early risers who worry the games will go too late on "school nights" and mumbling from fantasy owners concerned they'll forget to change their lineups in time. To that I say: Suck it up, people! Have an extra coffee the next morning to get you through the day! Set a dozen or so iPhone reminders to update your fantasy lineups Wednesday night! Who could possibly find fault with another glorious night of pro football? It's a great chance to watch teams that might not be televised in your neck of woods and another excuse to bust out a six-pack and helmet-full of chips and guac.

Big Easy bounties

Bountygate has dominated the headlines since March. We don't yet know how the Saints will react in the wake of the scandal, but we do know how the team's staff and roster have been affected.

Sean Payton has been suspended for the entire season, the first coach in modern NFL history to be benched for any reason. Assistant/linebackers coach Joe Vitt was named the team's interim bench boss, but he has also been suspended (six games). So, when the Saints face the Redskins on Sunday, they'll answer to offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who will be in charge until Vitt's suspension ends. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was hired on in the same capacity in St. Louis in January, has been suspended indefinitely.

Barring any changes due to appeal, Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma (suspended for the season), defensive ends Will Smith (four games) and Anthony Hargrove (now with the Packers, eight games) and linebacker Scott Fujita (now with the Browns, three games) all received disciplinary action.

The Saints became the new "America's Team" after their triumphant return to the Superdome brought smiles to the faces of local residents who were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Will Drew Brees & Co. still be league-wide favorites, or have fans turned on the team after learning of its alleged underhanded practices? Will conspiracy theorists make noise if a Saints player puts an especially hard hit on an opposing team's quarterback? How will opponents react to big hits from a New Orleans defender? The Saints should be among the league's best, but we may very well see their history doom their future.

Tim Tebow
Mark Sanchez, right, has the starting QB job with the Jets, but will Tim Tebow take his place this season?

The Real Quarterbacks of New Jersey

Cat fights are commonplace on "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," but Jets fans know the real reality TV in the Garden State happens further south, in Florham Park. The drama is sure to heat up between GQ cover boy/shirtless wonder Tim Tebow and GQ cover boy/(alleged) Eva Longoria beau Mark Sanchez. Can Sanchez play well enough to keep the starting gig? How many losses will the Jets suffer before fans are clamoring for Tebow?

One thing is for sure: The New York Post won't be hurtin' for headlines as long as these Jersey beefcakes are battling for reps. As for the Jets' chances, you know what they say: "If you've got two quarterbacks, you don't have one."

Hired hands

A handful of NFL teams will have a new head coach (or two or three, in New Orleans' case) roaming the sidelines. It can be tough to keep track of who's where these days, so here's a quick list of the new guys on the job:

Mike Mularkey, Jacksonville Jaguars
Romeo Crennel, Kansas City Chiefs
Joe Philbin, Miami Dolphins
Jeff Fisher, St. Louis Rams
Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dennis Allen, Oakland Raiders
Chuck Pagano, Indianapolis Colts

Catch (all) 22

Ever wonder what your team's safety was up to when the linebackers were busy stopping a run? Or what the weak-side wide receiver was doing while his counterpart on the other side was running a deep route? Well, for the first time, the NFL is offering fans a chance to see all 22 players on the field on every play, instead of just those players caught by the limited camera angles on TV.

Fans who buy one of two special packages (Game Rewind or Game Pass) on will be able to see every player in every play of every game from the All-22 and High End Zone angles. Fans and talking heads who already loved grilling guys for a blown coverage or a missed play will love the feature, but players may get frustrated when the uninformed masses assume too much about what they see.

New York Giants
Let a new season of trash-talking begin!

Opening-night understudies

Replacement referees will work the NFL's first week of games and could stay on longer if the league and the NFL Referees Association can't come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. Many of the substitutes in stripes have stumbled in the preseason; we'll see if they've learned enough to do a serviceable job in games that count. The NFL used replacement officials for Week 1 of the 2001 season before an agreement was reached. Here's hoping this year's battle ends as quickly.

The T.Ocho Show will not go on

The Tebow-Sanchez drama may help fans adjust to losing two of the NFL's biggest personalities. Terrell Owens, who sat out all of last season after tearing his ACL in April 2011, was in camp with the Seahawks but released in late August. Chad Johnson/Ochocinco/Johnson signed with the Dolphins in June, but was released in early August after being arrested on a domestic battery charge.

If this does turn out to be the end of the road for these guys, the field will be a lot quieter and the celebrations a lot tamer. Fans of diva wide receivers will just have to hope Buffalo wideout Stevie Johnson steps up his swagger. Perhaps a post-touchdown Molson or bowl of poutine in the end zone when the Bills take on the Seahawks in Toronto? Think about it, Stevie.

There are plenty more juicy NFL headlines worth reading up on before the season begins in earnest: Peyton Manning to the Broncos, rookie QB standouts, Michael Vick's health and the return of big-name players like Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles.

Just don't bury your head in the internet for too long -- you might miss Mariah Carey's five-song pregame performance Wednesday night from 30 Rock, and that would be a shame.