It's the opening week for the 59th season of Buffalo Bills football. The Bills open at Baltimore Sunday with plenty of intrigue after ending the playoff drought eight months ago.
Here are the top storylines to follow as Buffalo gets ready to take on the Ravens:
1. FRESH START FOR NATHAN PETERMAN
It will be Nathan Peterman's third NFL start and his first in this new Bills offense. Peterman was outstanding in training camp, emphatically earning the chance to start. Sean McDermott, when asked about the factors that went into Peterman winning the job, talked about off-field intangibles—a reflection of how impressive Peterman is as a leader.
"I've been impressed with his mental toughness and his command of the offense," McDermott said Monday. "The way he's generated yards and points in the preseason as well and the way he's developed to this point."
The Bills don't talk about Peterman's physical skill set or his athleticism, when they list his attributes, at least not right away. They start with his mental makeup and his knowledge of the offense.
McDermott says he's come a long way from last season.
"I've learned a lot, went through a lot, studied a lot this offseason," Peterman said, "I worked really hard fundamentally, as well. I've got to continue to do that. Like I said, there's a lot of challenges and I've got to keep making steps."
2. RE-START FOR JOE FLACCO
On the other side, Baltimore veteran quarterback Joe Flacco is looking to reboot his career. He was worst in the NFL among starters in yards per attempt last year (5.72) and only completed 13 passes of 25 yards or more (30th in the NFL).
Going into his 11th straight season as Baltimore's starting QB, the Ravens are counting on Flacco to rebound to his Super Bowl form. They hired James Urban as the quarterbacks coach after going last year without a coach for Flacco and the other quarterbacks. And they're encouraged by Flacco's play during the preseason.
3. NEW COORDINATORS GO HEAD-TO-HEAD
Bills fans are eager to see what Brian Daboll has in store for the Buffalo offense. In his first preseason game last month, Daboll showed a variety of formations and personnel packages against Carolina with Peterman knocking off plays at a fast pace. That pace, and versatility, went away in the next three preseason games. It may have been an effort to keep those components under wraps until the regular season. We'll find out this week.
Daboll's offense will work against a Baltimore defense playing its first game with Don "Wink" Martindale as coordinator. Martindale was promoted from linebackers coach when longtime coordinator Dean Pees retired (and later resurfaced as Tennessee's new defensive coordinator).
The Ravens bring back most of the starters from a 2017 defense that had the league's best turnover differential last year (+17) and the most takeaways (34).
4. DOES BUFFALO'S INVESTMENT ON DEFENSE PAY IMMEDIATE DIVIDENDS?
Much of Buffalo's preseason has been focused on the quarterback battle. But the best chance for tangible improvement comes from the other side of the ball.
The Bills have three free agent additions on the defense: defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, defensive end Trent Murphy, and cornerback Vontae Davis. All three are expected to play important roles in a revived Buffalo defense.
The same could be said for three rookie draft picks on defense: linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, and cornerback Taron Johnson. If the Bills are going to make dramatic improvement from last year's 26th ranked defense, the six players mentioned above will have to be important factors. We'll get a good gauge this week on how much to expect from the newcomers.
5. DOES SHADY HAVE A SHOT AT 12K?
He only participated in 13 preseason snaps this year, so LeSean McCoy's preeminence in the Bills offense may not be top of mind. But he remains the Bills best offensive weapon and a Pro Bowl caliber performer.
Shady will be ready this week to resume his chase for 12,000 career rushing yards. He's 1,908 yards away and at age 30, it will be an uphill climb to get there. Thirteen of the 16 running backs in NFL history with 12,000 or more yards are Hall of Famers, so it's an attractive target for McCoy.
6. RAVENS READY FOR RECEIVERS TO BREAK THROUGH
Baltimore beefed up its receiving corps in the offseason. The team had to—the Ravens were dead last in yards per pass attempt in 2017 (5.3) and Raven wideouts caught a total of only 11 touchdowns.
Ozzie Newsome went to work signing Michael Crabtree from Oakland, John Brown from Arizona, and Willie Snead from the Saints. Baltimore no doubt is eager to see how much improvement it might get from the new group.
7. IS THERE A ROLE FOR LAMAR JACKSON TO PLAY?
The Heisman Trophy winner two years ago, quarterback Lamar Jackson was the final pick in the first round last April. The former Louisville standout was outplayed early in preseason by veterans Joe Flacco and Robert Griffin III. But Jackson rebounded with a couple of good preseason games down the stretch.
For the first time since 2009, the Ravens are keeping three quarterbacks on the roster. But is Jackson the No. 2 quarterbacks or is RGIII?
"I'm not saying," Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said Monday.
With more than 1,000 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons at Louisville, there may be another role or two for Jackson to fill on the Ravens offense, even if he doesn't line up at quarterback. Some pre-draft analysts looked at him as a potential wide receiver candidate. We'll see where the Ravens potentially line him up on Sunday.
8. BILLS NEED TO BE BETTER ON THE ROAD
The nine wins the Bills racked up in 2017 only included three wins on the road. And the Bills play five of their first seven games away from home this year.
They can't afford to get off to a slow start on the road if they're to have any success this year.
The Ravens went 5-3 at home last year. And two years ago, they started their season at M&T Bank with a 13-7 opening day win over the Bills – the last meeting between these two teams. Historically, the Bills are 1-4 against the Ravens in Baltimore and hope to turn their luck around in Baltimore this week.