NFL Preview: Packers Vs. Saints

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Melissa Block talks with NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman about the start of the professional football season. The first regular season game is taking place Thursday night — the New Orleans Saints are in Green Bay to take on the Packers. It's a matchup of the previous two Super Bowl champions.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: For football fans, the wait is over. The NFL season gets underway tonight in Green Bay, Wisconsin, at Lambeau Field, where the defending Super Bowl champion Packers are hosting the New Orleans Saints, the previous Super Bowl champs. To talk about the first game of the year and the season ahead, we're joined by NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman.

And, Tom, the Green Bay Packers are entering the season as the reigning champs, as we say. What are their chances of repeating?

TOM GOLDMAN: Well, I think pretty good. Everyone is afraid to pick the Packers because it's so hard to repeat as a Super Bowl winner. It's only happened once in the last dozen years. But Green Bay won the Super Bowl last season after losing two key offensive players to injury for much of the season. Those players are coming back: running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley. They're back. They're healthy. Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback. They have a strong defense. What's not to like, Melissa?


BLOCK: I don't know. Tom, you mentioned injury to offensive players and that brings us to the Indianapolis Colts. They are starting their season without their superstar quarterback, Peyton Manning. He went in today for neck surgery. How badly is he hurt?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. He did. That's kind of shocking, late-breaking news today. He had surgery in late May to repair a bulging disc in his neck and, as you say, he went in today for his third surgery in the last 19 months. He had what's described as a single level anterior fusion, which means they took out the damaged disc to relieve pressure on a nerve and then they filled in the space where the disc was with bone from another part of the body.

Now, the team says he should be able to fully resume his career, but that rehab is typically an involved process. The Colts aren't estimating when he'll be back. They're going to keep him on the active roster until they have a clear picture of his recovery process. But, really, Melissa, Peyton Manning is the Indianapolis Colts, so suddenly, 2011 looking like a very challenging year, to say the least.

BLOCK: Tom, there are going to be some changes to the game on the field this year, including the kickoffs. What's happening?

GOLDMAN: Well, yeah. The most visible change is moving the kickoffs up from the 30 to the 35 yard line. This means more kickoffs will go into the end zone preventing run-backs. And the NFL thinks running the ball back and teams covering those run-backs, it's become too dangerous. Now, this is part of the League's push since last year to make the game safer for players, prompted, of course, in large part, by the recent publicity about the effects of head injury in football.

This off-season, the League tightened rules even more to protect players. The NFL threatened to, but didn't suspend anyone last year. Officials vow to do that this season with guys who break the rules, especially so-called repeat offenders.

BLOCK: But, Tom, if the changes that you're talking about are designed to make the game safer for players, prevent head injury, for example, why are some players grumbling that they don't like these changes?

GOLDMAN: You know, some of them think that Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, is legislating toughness out of football. The Pittsburgh Steelers' all pro defensive back, Troy Polamalu, summed up the anger this way in an article in Sports Illustrated. He said, when you start conforming to these rules, you take away the aspect of fear, and overcoming fear is what makes us men. It's what challenges us. You take that away, you kind of make the game for everybody.

BLOCK: Last question, Tom, has to do with fantasy football and a change at NFL stadiums this year. The League has ordered teams to post fantasy statistics at all home games. Why are they doing that?


GOLDMAN: I know. I'm heading to the stadium because of that. As popular as it is, the NFL realizes that football experience for more and more people involves watching at home on huge TVs, high-def TVs with their laptop in hand, checking fantasy stats and not paying a lot of money for tickets. This is a nod to fantasy's importance, but it's also a way to keep the fans going to games. That's very important for the NFL.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Tom Goldman. Tom, enjoy the game.

GOLDMAN: Thanks.

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