At the end of last season, it was now or never for veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
After helping the Green Bay Packers become NFL champions in 2011, reaching a second Super Bowl continued to elude him.
Was it time to give it a shot with another team? Now 39, Rodgers felt it was, so the NFL’s four-time Most Valuable Player joined the New York Jets in April.
After 18 seasons with Green Bay, the opening week of the 2023 season will be the first time Rodgers plays an NFL game for someone other than the Packers.
The only quarterback to spend more seasons with one team is Tom Brady, who retired “for good” in February, so this season is the first this century not to feature the record seven-time Super Bowl winner.
That leaves Rodgers as the last of the old guard, but if he is to lead the long-suffering Jets to the Super Bowl, they must get past Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
They edged out the Philadelphia Eagles in a thrilling Super Bowl in February and the two teams are favourites to meet again in the NFL’s championship decider.
This season the big game will be even bigger as Las Vegas is host for the first time, and the road to Super Bowl 58 starts on Thursday (01:20 BST Friday) as the defending champions host the Detroit Lions.
Brad excited to see what Rodgers does
Ever since he was lured to the Big Apple, media and fans have been asking if Rodgers can do with the Jets what Brady did with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In his first season after leaving the New England Patriots, Brady led the Bucs to a surprise Super Bowl win in 2021. They saw Brady as the “missing piece”, just like the Jets see Rodgers now.
Their only Super Bowl win came in 1969 and they haven’t reached the play-offs since 2010 – the NFL’s longest drought – but coach Robert Saleh has turned the Jets into one of the NFL’s best defensive units.
They had last season’s offensive and defensive rookies of the year and have spent big to set things up for their new QB in the off-season, as well as on Rodgers himself.
They’ve brought in the offensive coordinator and two of the receivers Rodgers recently had at Green Bay, plus running back Dalvin Cook.
The Jets also welcomed the Hard Knocks cameras behind the scenes to show how Rodgers is settling in and help build the anticipation for this season.
“I’m excited to see what he does,” Brady said this week. “When he’s got good receivers, it’s pretty dangerous. I think he’s going to have a great year.”
A challenging start could indicate whether the Jets will be Super Bowl contenders as they open at home to the Buffalo Bills on Monday (01:15 BST Tuesday) before facing the Dallas Cowboys, the Patriots and the Chiefs.
Will the Chiefs cement dynasty?
After Rodgers’ blockbuster trade to the Jets, they were given a team-record six primetime games this season. That week-four game with Kansas City will be their first in the late Sunday night slot since 2011.
It will be just the third time Rodgers and Mahomes have met, with Mahomes having now succeeded Brady as the NFL’s biggest superstar on a glorious night in Phoenix in February.
He joined fellow quarterbacks Brady and Joe Montana as the only players to win the Super Bowl, the Super Bowl MVP and league MVP on multiple occasions – and he’s still only 27. The Chiefs have reached three of the past four Super Bowls, winning two.
Now they hope to become the first team to repeat as NFL champions since Brady’s Patriots in 2003 and 2004. And to think many wrote them off last season after star receiver Tyreek Hill joined the Miami Dolphins.
Tight end Travis Kelce picked up some of the slack but otherwise Mahomes leaned more on unheralded members of his offence to get the job done, most notably Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore when the Super Bowl was on the line.
Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy may have moved on but most expect the Chiefs to find a way to Vegas and cement an NFL dynasty.
AFC stars aim to topple Chiefs
Even before Rodgers’ switch to the AFC Conference, it was already stacked with star quarterbacks aiming to topple the Chiefs and take their spot in the Super Bowl.
The Cincinnati Bengals managed it in 2022, before losing to the Los Angeles Rams, and Joe Burrow has recovered from a calf injury in training camp to start the season.
Josh Allen’s Buffalo were last year’s pre-season title favourites and the Bills have Damar Hamlin back after the safety suffered an on-field cardiac arrest in January, while Tua Tagovailoa’s Miami are also fancied.
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ rebuild continued as Trevor Lawrence led them to last season’s play-offs while 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson signed a record contract extension with the Baltimore Ravens in April.
Jackson was soon replaced by Justin Herbert as the NFL’s highest-paid player at the Los Angeles Chargers, divisional rivals of Kansas City in an intriguing AFC West.
It also features the Denver Broncos, hoping for vast improvement under new coach Sean Payton after last year’s huge trade for Russell Wilson, and the Las Vegas Raiders, who now have Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting QB and Brady as a minority owner.
Ojabo set for memorable UK return
Many of those QB stars will be heading across the Atlantic this season, with the NFL’s international series featuring five European games for the first time.
Kansas City-Miami is one of two games in Frankfurt while annual London visitors Jacksonville will be the first team to play two regular season games outside the US in the same season – against Atlanta (Wembley) and Buffalo (Tottenham).
The other London game sees Baltimore face Tennessee, with Nigeria-born Scot David Ojabo eager to impress. The linebacker is yet to play alongside Jackson after an injury-hit rookie year with the Ravens, who have signed veteran receiver Odell Beckham Jr.
“Being back home, being around my family and friends, it’s something that will be memorable,” Ojabo told BBC World Service.
“I’m excited to be on the field with Lamar Jackson and see how far he can lead us, and you can’t ignore Odell Beckham. He’s a modern-day legend of the game so I’m excited to see him too.”
Other mouth-watering match-ups include the NFL’s first Black Friday game and rematches of last season’s Super Bowl and both Conference championship games.
What about the NFC Conference?
Philadelphia beat San Francisco in last year’s NFC championship game and their biggest challenge is again set to come from the 49ers, who have put their faith in Brock Purdy.
After injuries to Trey Lance and Garoppolo, last year’s ‘Mr Irrelevant’ almost led the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Now they’ve not only let Garoppolo leave but traded Lance to the Dallas Cowboys.
Baker Mayfield will be given the first shot at becoming Brady’s successor at Tampa Bay and the three quarterbacks selected in the first five picks of this year’s draft will all start this weekend – Bryce Young (Carolina Panthers), CJ Stroud (Houston Texans) and Anthony Richardson (Indianapolis Colts).
Elsewhere, the Chicago Bears have high hopes for Justin Fields’ second year while Green Bay will have just their third starting QB since 1992 in Jordan Love, whose surprise selection in the 2020 draft has ultimately led to Rodgers wearing a different shade of green this season.