(Reuters) - Denver quarterback Peyton Manning makes his highly anticipated Broncos debut against the Pittsburgh Steelers while his hand-picked successor in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck, begins a new era for the Colts on the NFL’s season-opening weekend.
Manning missed last season following neck surgery, leading the Colts to make the painful decision to cut the four-time most valuable player who broke all of the franchise’s major career passing records and led them to their 2006 Super Bowl triumph.
That move was made somewhat easier since the Colts had the number one draft pick to use on Luck, who is widely viewed as one of the most complete quarterback talents to enter the National Football League (NFL) in recent years.
The Broncos believe Manning, 36, has plenty left to offer and so they traded last season’s biggest story - unorthodox but hugely popular quarterback Tim Tebow - to the New York Jets in March, a day after landing Manning.
The 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback has had four operations on his neck and while he has come through pre-season unscathed many will be watching to see how he copes with the significantly more physical nature of regular season football.
The Steelers, who will visit the Broncos for a primetime matchup on Sunday, have seen enough of Manning over the years to know not to underestimate his ability to turn it on when the spotlight is on him.
“Guys like Peyton Manning make their reputations in rising up in moments like this. He has battled some adversity with injury and being in a new city. We should anticipate his very best,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
“He’s mentally talented and physically talented, he has ridiculous football character, he is smart and he works at it, he is a ridiculous competitor.”
The two teams met in the opening round of last season’s playoffs, a game the Broncos won when Tebow tossed an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first offensive play of overtime to pull off the upset.
It will be a strange sensation for Colts fans to see Manning celebrating a touchdown pass in a Broncos jersey but the feeling will pass more easily if Luck makes an accomplished start to his NFL career.
Luck’s first test will be a road game in Chicago where he will need to show plenty of composure against a formidable Bears defense which could feature fit-again Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Urlacher, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last month, says he and the defense featuring the imposing Julius Peppers, will not be distracted by coming up against a quarterback playing his first game out of college.
“Every game is tough to win in the NFL and it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is. Luck may be different because he’s a rookie, it’s his first game and he may be a little excited. But he’s a good quarterback and we have to do what we do,” he said.
The Bears will be a team to keep in mind this season after having boosted their offense by bringing in three-times Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall to hook up with quarterback Jay Cutler, his former team mate in Denver.
The New Orleans Saints have endured a nightmare offseason with the discipline handed down from the league for the bounty scandal leaving them without suspended head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the season.
As well as coping with that case, the Saints also had to handle some tricky negotiations with quarterback Drew Brees who eventually signed a five-year, $100 million deal in July.
The Saints will be up against another rookie quarterback - one of five expected to start this weekend - with much expected of the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III, who was taken second overall behind Luck in April’s draft.
“You try not to get too antsy, the coaches have talked about it (telling me) don’t go out to try and prove anything, just go out and have some fun and that’s the kind of approach I am taking to it,” he said.
Week one matchups also feature a clash between two National Football Conference powerhouses as the Green Bay Packers host the San Francisco 49ers, two teams that fell to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants in last season’s playoffs.
Reporting By Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue