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Jay Skursk’s quick outs: What’s new in the NFL for 2016

Welcome back

The 2016 season begins the same way the last one ended, with the Carolina Panthers taking on the Denver Broncos in a Super Bowl rematch (8:30 p.m. Thursday, NBC). It’s the first time the AFC and NFC champions will play a rematch in Week One of the following season since 1970 (Kansas City vs. Minnesota).

How important is a Week One win? Since 1978, when the league went to a 16-game schedule (excluding the strike year of 1982), of the 554 teams winning their season opener, 288 went to the playoffs. Of the 555 teams who lost (there is a different number because the league had only 31 teams from 1999 to 2001), just 134 went to the postseason, making victorious teams more than twice as likely to make it.

The Bills are 23-33 overall on Kickoff Weekend, but have won the past two years. Additionally, Rex Ryan is 6-1 in season openers, the best record among coaches with more than one year of experience. He’s won five straight games on Kickoff Weekend, which is tied with Denver’s Gary Kubiak for best in the league.

Saying goodbye

High-profile retirements dominated the league’s offseason, leading with Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who rode off into the sunset with a second Super Bowl. Manning’s replacement is Trevor Siemian after Brock Osweiler bolted for Houston in free agency.

Elsewhere, the Raiders’ Charles Woodson, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Carolina’s Jared Allen and Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch all said goodbye, as did Pittsburgh’s Heath Miller, the Jets’ D’Brickashaw Ferguson and the New York Giants’ Jon Beason.

Plenty of close calls

The NFL saw 140 of 256 games decided by eight points or fewer in 2015 – the most in any season since the league implemented the two-point conversion in 1994. A whopping 68 percent of games were within one score in the fourth quarter, tied for the third most in any single season in league history.

Additionally, there were 67 games in which the winning team trailed at some point in the fourth quarter, tied for the third-most such games in single-season league history.

New hope

With apologies to Bills fans living through a 16-year playoff drought, there is plenty of turnover every year in the postseason. Last year, four teams that missed the playoffs in 2014 made the field (Kansas City, Minnesota, Houston and Washington). Since going to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the postseason the year after missing a spot. Washington won the NFC East in 2015, marking the 12th time in the past 13 years a team has gone from worst to first in its division. Of the 43 teams in NFL history to do that, 20 have come in the past 13 years.

Run of dominance

This will come as no surprise, but the New England Patriots have the best record in the NFL over the past 10 seasons – 124-36 – a full 20 wins better than the next-closest team (Green Bay, 104-55-1). New England has made the playoffs nine times in that stretch, with three Super Bowl appearances and one championship. The Patriots have won seven straight AFC East titles, tied for the longest such streak in league history.

“At the end of the day, they find ways to win,” Bills coach Ryan said. “That’s what championship teams do.”

Legion of Boom

The Seattle Seahawks have been to the playoffs for the past four seasons, winning one championship and losing in the Super Bowl. Cornerback Richard Sherman, pictured, and the defense has led the way for the Seahawks, as they’ve led the league in points against in every one of those years. Seattle has given up 245, 231, 254 and 277 points, respectively, the past four years.

“To go four straight years leading the league in scoring defense, that’s a remarkable accomplishment by a bunch of guys dedicated to the program,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “It’s hard to do things over a long period of time that well. That’s a great stat.”

Going back to Cali

The Rams moved from St. Louis back to Los Angeles, marking the long-awaited return of the NFL to the country’s second-biggest media market after 22 years. The team will play in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the next three years until its new, nearly $3 billion facility in Inglewood is finished. That will be the most expensive stadium ever constructed – “NFL Disney World,” as it’s come to be known – and could feature a second tenant. The Chargers have the first crack at moving from San Diego, and if they pass that up the Raiders could move from Oakland.

Road warriors

Fresh off their move to Los Angeles, the Rams will travel the greatest distance of any road team in 2016 – a total of 35,952 miles. The Bills will go 18,370 miles, which ranks No. 14 in the league, a total higher than usual thanks to three West Coast trips – to L.A., Seattle and Oakland.

Falcons, 49ers draw short straws

Based on strength of schedule, the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers have the toughest schedule in 2016. Atlanta’s and San Francisco’s opponents went 142-114 in 2015, a combined .555 winning percentage. The Bills have the 10th-toughest schedule. Buffalo’s opponents went 133-123 last year, a .520 winning percentage. Of course, given the yearly turnover in the league, strength of schedule shouldn’t be treated as much more than a small harbinger of things to come.

Key statistic

One stat commonly referenced by NFL coaches is turnover differential. The reasoning is solid. Of the top seven teams in that category last year, six made the playoffs, including the NFC champion Panthers, who led the league at plus-20. The other teams in the top seven included Kansas City (plus-14), Cincinnati (plus-11), Arizona (plus-9), New England (plus-7) and Seattle (plus-7). Those teams had a combined record of 73-23.

The Bills finished tied for eighth in turnover differential in 2015, at plus-6.

Going global

The NFL will hold its first game in Mexico City since 2005 when the Raiders and Texans play a Monday Night Football game there Nov. 21. There will also be three games held in London, including the first held at Twickenham Stadium, where the Rams and Giants play Oct. 23.

Additionally, the Minnesota Vikings made history by selecting wide receiver Moritz Bohringer in the sixth round of the NFL Draft, making him the first player ever taken out of a European league who did not play college football in the U.S.

Bohringer first played competitive football in 2013, and last year was with the Schwabish Hall Unicorns of the German Football League.

The coaching carousel

New coaches can be found in: Miami (Adam Gase), Philadelphia (Doug Pederson), Tampa Bay (Dirk Koetter), Cleveland (Hue Jackson), San Francisco (Chip Kelly), the New York Giants (Ben McAdoo) and Tennessee, where Mike Mularkey stays on permanently after finishing the 2015 season as interim head coach.

Offensive explosion

A total of 11,680 points were scored in 2015, the second-highest total for a single season, behind the 11,985 in 2013.

Nine teams scored at least 400 points in 2015 – Carolina (500), Arizona (489), New England (465), Pittsburgh (423), Seattle (423), New York Giants (420), Cincinnati (419), New Orleans (408) and Kansas City (405) – tying the 2009, 2012 and 2014 seasons for the second-most all-time. Those nine teams combined for a .667 winning percentage and seven of those clubs qualified for the playoffs.

“To see how explosive we are and the points we’ve scored is special,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “You don’t know if you are going to be a high-scoring team when you start, but that had a lot to do with our success. When teams have been together awhile, it allows them to have continuity to develop offenses and have it morph into fitting around each other’s skill sets, then good things happen.”

No more probable

The usual designations of “probable,” “questionable,” “doubtful” and “out” on a weekly NFL injury report have been tweaked for 2016.

Namely, there is no such thing as “probable” anymore. The league found that about 95 percent of the players with that designation in recent seasons did play, so it eliminated it. Teams who did list a player as probable, only to have him not play, were investigated by the league.

According to the NFL, the “questionable” designation will now mean that “it is uncertain as to whether the player will play in the game,” and “doubtful” means that it is “unlikely the player will participate.”

Don’t be surprised, then, if the “doubtful” designation eventually goes the way of “probable,” leaving us with just “questionable,” which, when you think about it, we all are.Milestone watch

Don’t be surprised if a couple receiving records go down in 2016. The league remains as pass happy as ever, and there are supremely talented wideouts like Atlanta’s Julio Jones, Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and maybe, just maybe Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins who could challenge to make history.

Calvin Johnson’s 2012 record of 1,964 receiving yards in a single season was close to falling last year, as Jones put up 1,871 and Brown had 1,834. When Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was in the lineup, however, Brown averaged 133 yards per game, which projects to more than 2,100 over a 16-game schedule, which would make him the first receiver ever to surpass 2,000 yards in a single season.

Marvin Harrison’s single-season receptions mark of 143 is also in sight. Jones and Brown both had 136 catches in 2015.

Key dates

• Sept. 8, 11-12: Kickoff Weekend

• Nov. 1: Trade deadline

• Jan. 1: Final day of regular season

• Jan. 7-8: Wild-card playoffs

• Jan. 14-15: Divisional playoffs

• Jan. 22: Conference championships

• Jan. 29: Pro Bowl (Orlando, Fla.)

• Feb. 5: Super Bowl LI (Houston)

Houston will host its third Super Bowl and first since 2004. Only four cities – Miami and New Orleans with 10 each, Los Angeles with seven and Tampa Bay with four – have hosted more.

Future Super Bowl sites include: Minnesota (2018), Atlanta (2019), Miami (2020) and Los Angeles (2021).

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