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NFL 2014 kickoff: 49ers-Cowboys, Broncos-Colts highlight opening weekend (+ video)

The NFL season kicks off this weekend, featuring the 49ers and Cowboys, Broncos vs. Colts, and Chargers at Cardinals.

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NFL fans might have sleepily arisen from their off-season hibernation a few weeks ago when the preseason began. But this weekend, they get jolted back to life with a full slate of Week 1 games and a slew of can’t-miss matchups between league heavyweights.

The San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos certainly believe that it is their time, while the Dallas Cowboys, San Diego Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, and Indianapolis Colts hope to take a step forward and build off last year's finish.

Two such heavyweights, which have historically been featured prominently over decades of football, match up at 4:25 p.m. Eastern time when San Francisco travels to AT&T Stadium to face the Cowboys on Fox. The Cowboys enter the 2014 season desperate to make the leap into the playoffs after once again playing their way to 8-8 and missing out. The 49ers will feel like they might have missed golden chances after losing Super Bowl XLVII to Baltimore and last season's NFC Championship game at Seattle.

Known for having one of the stingiest defenses in the league the past several seasons, the 49ers may struggle out the gate this year as two key contributors start on the sideline. Aldon Smith is suspended for off-the-field transgressions, while last season’s Defensive Player of the Year, NaVorro Bowman, continues his recovery from a serious knee injury. Another 49er defender, Ray McDonald, was arrested early last week on a domestic violence charge but is expected to play Sunday.

Dallas quarterback Tony Romo sees no reason to believe the 49ers will see a decline in defense, telling reporters at the Sacramento Bee, “No one player makes that defense. They’re a collection of outstanding individual talent with a very good scheme that can create issues.”

Still, look for a high scoring affair as the Cowboys finished the 2013 season last in yards allowed and are missing three key contributors on defense: Sean Lee to injury, Jason Hatcher to the Washington Redskins, and DeMarcus Ware to Denver.  

The Broncos are hoping that Ware is one of the missing pieces that will guide them to a Super Bowl victory after their stunning thrashing at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks this past February. Their season begins at home as they welcome Peyton Manning’s former team, the Indianapolis Colts, on "Sunday Night Football" at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on NBC.

Manning, who comes off a historic season in which he set records for touchdowns and yards, has a slightly new cast of players as the team hopes they can position themselves to reach another Super Bowl. The offense added shifty slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders and handed over full-time starting duties to running back Montee Ball. On defense, the Broncos hope pairing Ware with All-Pro linebacker Von Miller will result in a devastating pass rush.

The Colts, who travel to Denver as major underdogs, will try to keep the game close and hope for some Andrew Luck magic to pull out an upset. Luck, who has impressed in his short career, has an incredible 14-2 record in one-touchdown games in his career, the second best mark by any quarterback having played at least 16 games as tracked by Grantland.com. Only, guess who? – Peyton Manning’s 15-1 record during 2008-2009 was better.

Broncos free safety Rahim Moore praised Luck earlier this week, telling Bleacher Report, “He’s talented. You look on film and study his idiosyncrasies, and it’s impressive. He looks like a guy that’s been in the league five, 10 years. He’s their franchise.”

Colts fans will hope that the game stays tight and that Luck’s record in close games does not come down to luck, but skill.

The last game of the week features two teams that are hoping to build off successful 2013 seasons as the San Diego Chargers travel to Arizona to face the Cardinals on "Monday Night Football" at 10:20 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN. The jury is still out on whether both of these teams can make the leap to championship contender. This Week 1 game will be an interesting test.

Some of the more sophisticated analysis points towards both teams staying level or achieving more this coming season. New metrics allow fans to understand how important and valuable the yards their team or players generate are, and compare these to baseline figures. One such stat created by Football Insiders is DVOA, “Defense-Adjusted Value over Average,” which is explained on their site:

“DVOA is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10.”

DVOA is adjusted for each opponent and measured as a percent. For example, a team that has an offensive DVOA of 20% is 20% better than the league average. In 2013, San Diego finished the season 2nd in DVOA at 23.7%, only 3% less than the record setting Broncos. On the flip side, led by young playmaker Patrick Peterson and veteran leader Karlos Dansby, the Cardinals finished 2nd in Defensive DVOA, behind only the Seahawks and ahead of the Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco.

We will not know until a few games into the season whether last year’s DVOA is a sign of things to come or fool’s gold, but fans should tune in Monday night to see for themselves, because nothing beats the real thing. 

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