Broncos, Ravens Pick Up Where They Left Off In NFL Opener

The NFL season kicks off Thursday night, with reigning champs the Baltimore Ravens taking on the Denver Broncos. Pro football has some new rules and the league just settled a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit with players.

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The country's obsession with professional football resumes tonight. Defending Super Bowl champs, the Baltimore Ravens, are in Denver to play the Broncos in the NFL's season opener. It's a match-up of two great teams, a drama fraught with revenge and insult. As NPR's Tom Goldman reports, tonight's storyline should carry fans away from the sport's ongoing concussion controversy, though not too far.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The thin air in Denver is thick with revenge. It was eight months ago - it seems like yesterday - that the Ravens and Broncos played a memorable playoff game in Denver. It featured a late game-tying touchdown pass by Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco that left an unidentified fan videoing the moment, wailing for Broncos nation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No, no. Are you (bleep) kidding me?

GOLDMAN: Baltimore won 38-35 in double overtime. For Flacco, it was part of his postseason coming out party that earned him a whopping $120 million contract that he's had to defend in interviews like this one on ESPN.

JOE FLACCO: I feel like I'm worth what I'm worth. And I feel like I'm the same guy whether we won it or whether we didn't.

GOLDMAN: Flacco still can't catch a break. Denver fans have been angry about the big Joe Flacco banner the NFL put up at the Broncos stadium before tonight's game right next to the banner of Denver's beloved quarterback Peyton Manning, the Peyton Manning who's supposed to take the Broncos to this season's Super Bowl. As defending Super Bowl champs, the Ravens should be bathing in the love of a season-opening home game. But they're in Denver due to a scheduling conflict with baseball's Baltimore Orioles.

Still, the NFL made an appearance in Baltimore yesterday as Commissioner Roger Goodell continued his campaign to make health and safety a priority in the dangerous, violent sport of pro football. A week after settling a massive concussion lawsuit with former players, Goodell was on hand for an event titled Head Health Challenge II. It's a callout to researchers and a promise of up to $10 million to submit innovative ideas on how to protect the brain in sport.

Meanwhile, the new NFL season begins with the latest concussion-related rule change. The so-called crown of the helmet rule essentially prohibits players beyond the line of scrimmage from lowering their heads and using their helmets as a weapon.

DR. KEVIN GUSKIEWICZ: It's going to be an interesting rule. I'm concerned a little bit that there's too much subjectivity to this.

GOLDMAN: Kevin Guskiewicz is a concussion researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

GUSKIEWICZ: How do you know a player's not sort of recoiling, as I call it, to sort of help protect themselves from either fumbling or from injuring themselves as they're about to be hit?

GOLDMAN: Guskiewicz thinks it'll be an interesting first half of the season to see how game officials call the new rule. Football fans everywhere from fantasy players to face-painters in the stands think it'll be an interesting first half of the season simply because it's the first half of the season, finally. Tom Goldman, NPR news.

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