Six AFC quarterbacks will start their seasons in primetime on Kickoff Weekend, determined to begin the year on a winning note.
"Well, it's like any race," says Broncos head coach JOHN FOX. "How you come out of the starting blocks is important."
NBC's Sunday Night Football will feature quarterbacks PEYTON MANNING of the Denver Broncos and BEN ROETHLISBERGER of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High (8:20 PM ET). Manning, who enters his 15th season, will debut in a Broncos uniform, while Roethlisberger enters his ninth campaign focused on another title run in Pittsburgh.
In the first Monday Night Football game of the regular season, quarterbacks ANDY DALTON of the Cincinnati Bengals and JOE FLACCO of the Baltimore Ravens will meet at M&T Bank Stadium (7:00 PM ET, ESPN). Flacco is 4-0 on Kickoff Weekend and hopes to remain unbeaten in season openers. Dalton looks to register a division win as Cincinnati hopes to capture the AFC North for the first time since 2009.
The second game on Monday night will feature a showdown between AFC West rivals as CARSON PALMER and the Oakland Raiders host PHILIP RIVERS and the San Diego Chargers at O.co Coliseum (10:15 PM ET, ESPN). Palmer leads an Oakland team that has won nine of its past 12 against division opponents Rivers, who is 26-10 (.722) as a starter against the AFC West, hopes to improve that mark.
A team-by-team look at the quarterback position in the AFC in 2012:
JOE FLACCO, who enters his fifth year, has led the Ravens to the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, including two AFC Championship appearances. The strong-armed quarterback holds franchise career passing records in completions (1,190), yards (13,816) and touchdowns (80). Flacco will target a wide receiver duo of ANQUAN BOLDIN and TORREY SMITH, who is poised to build on a promising rookie year. All-Star running back RAY RICE will be a factor on the ground and out of the backfield.
An eight-year veteran from Harvard, RYAN FITZPATRICK will play a pivotal role in the Bills' bid for their first postseason berth since 1999. Fitzpatrick registered career highs in completions (353), passing yards (3,832) and touchdowns (24) last season. In his third year directing head coach CHAN GAILEY's offense, Fitzpatrick will rely on wide receiver STEVIE JOHNSON, who finished with a team-leading 76 receptions for 1,004 yards and became the first Bills wide receiver to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
ANDY DALTON is focused on surpassing his accomplishments from a productive rookie season. Dalton led the Bengals to the playoffs and tied for the fourth-most touchdown passes (20) and the fifth-most passing yards (3,398) among rookies in NFL history. A second-round selection (No. 35 overall) in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dalton will continue to build chemistry with second-year wide receiver A.J. GREEN. Dalton and Green became the first rookie quarterback-wide receiver duo in NFL history with 3,000+ passing yards and 1,000+ receiving yards.
The No. 22 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, BRANDON WEEDEN was named the starting quarterback by head coach PAT SHURMUR during training camp. The Oklahoma State product set school career passing records in yards (9,260) and touchdowns (75). As a senior in 2011, Weeden passed for 4,727 yards with 37 touchdowns, the most in both categories in a single season in Oklahoma State history.
Acquired by the Broncos in March, PEYTON MANNING will open a new chapter in his career in Denver. Manning currently ranks third all-time in career completions (4,682), passing yards (54,828), and touchdown passes (399). He needs 286 completions and 22 touchdown passes in 2012 to surpass Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO (4,967 completions, 420 TDs) for second place all-time in each category. Manning can also become the first quarterback to pass for 4,000 yards in 12 different seasons.
Playing in only 10 games in 2011 due to a right foot injury, Texans quarterback MATT SCHAUB will play a pivotal role as Houston defends its AFC South title. The nine-year veteran is the Texans' all-time leader in completions (1,382), passing yards (16,903) and touchdown passes (92). He will look to wide receiver ANDRE JOHNSON and running back ARIAN FOSTER, who averaged a league-high 141.6 scrimmage yards per game (1,224 rushing, 617 receiving) last season.
The ANDREW LUCK era is set to begin in Indianapolis under first-year head coach CHUCK PAGANO. Luck amassed a 31-7 (.816) career record at Stanford, the most wins among starting quarterbacks in school history. The No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft will find comfort in the passing game with veteran go-to wide receiver REGGIE WAYNE, who leads the NFL with 11,708 receiving yards since 2001. Luck will also have a familiar target at his disposal in rookie tight end COBY FLEENER from Stanford.
BLAINE GABBERT, who started 14 games in 2011, will direct a new offense under the tutelage of new head coach MIKE MULARKEY. Gabbert will rely heavily on All-Star running back MAURICE JONES-DREW, who had an NFL-best 1,606 rushing yards last season. In the passing game, tight end MARCEDES LEWIS, wide receiver LAURENT ROBINSON, who was signed via free agency, and fifth-overall pick JUSTIN BLACKMON will serve as Gabbert's top receiving targets.
A former seventh-round pick by New England in the 2005 NFL Draft, MATT CASSEL enters his fourth season as the Chiefs starting quarterback. Cassel led Kansas City to an AFC West title two years ago and registered career highs with 27 touchdown passes and a 93.0 passer rating. With high hopes in 2012, Cassel will look to wide receivers DWAYNE BOWE and JON BALDWIN in the passing game. On the ground, a running back duo of JAMAAL CHARLES and PEYTON HILLIS will solidify the Chiefs rushing attack.
Selected eighth overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, RYAN TANNEHILL will become the first Dolphins rookie quarterback to start the club's first game of the season in franchise history. He will be directed by his former Texas A&M head coach and new Dolphins' offensive coordinator MIKE SHERMAN. Tannehill will rely on running back REGGIE BUSH, who posted a career-best 1,382 scrimmage yards (1,086 rushing; 296 receiving) in 2011, to make an impact in both the passing game and on the ground.
TOM BRADY enters his 13th year with a 124-35 (.780) record -- the best winning percentage of any NFL quarterback in the Super Bowl era with at least 100 starts. Last season, Brady led New England to an AFC-best 13-3 record and passed for 5,235 yards, becoming one of four players in NFL history to reach 5,000 passing yards in a single season. Brady also recorded 39 touchdown passes in 2011 (50 in 2007) and joined Pro Football Hall of Famer DAN MARINO (48, 1984; 44, 1986) as the only players in NFL history with multiple seasons with at least 39 touchdown passes.
NEW YORK JETS
MARK SANCHEZ looks to flourish under new offensive coordinator TONY SPARANO in 2012. After finishing one win shy of the Super Bowl in two of the past three seasons (2009, 2010), Sanchez is focused on returning the Jets to the playoffs in his fourth NFL season. Last year, Sanchez registered career-bests in completions (308), passing yards (3,474) and touchdown passes (26). He also recorded six rushing touchdowns, tied for the most among AFC QBs last year (TIM TEBOW, six).
Veteran quarterback Carson Palmer is focused on returning the Raiders to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Acquired via trade from the Bengals in October 2011, Palmer started nine games for the Raiders, averaging 293 passing yards per game and a career-best 8.6 yards per attempt as a starter last season. The veteran will target young receivers DARRIUS HEYWARD-BEY, JACOBY FORD and DENARIUS MOORE to stretch the field.
A proven winner since entering the NFL in 2004, BEN ROETHLISBERGER owns an 80-33 regular-season record (.708) as a starter, the second-best winning percentage among active NFL quarterbacks (minimum 10 regular season starts). Entering his ninth NFL season, the Steelers' offensive captain has passed for 26,579 yards, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback TERRY BRADSHAW (27,989) for the most passing yards in Steelers history.
Since becoming the Chargers' starting quarterback in 2006, PHILIP RIVERS has led the club to four AFC West titles and ranks second in the NFL with 24,137 passing yards during that span (DREW BREES, 28,394). Last season, Rivers passed for 4,624 yards and joined PEYTON MANNING and Brees as the only QBs in NFL history to pass for 4,000+ yards in at least four consecutive seasons. In 2012, Rivers (24,285) needs 2,654 passing yards to surpass JOHN HADL (26,938) for the second-most passing yards in franchise history (DAN FOUTS, 43,040).
JAKE LOCKER won the starting quarterback job after an open competition during training camp. The eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft played in five games as a rookie and passed for 542 yards with four touchdowns versus zero interceptions and a 99.4 passer rating. Locker will target veteran wide receiver NATE WASHINGTON, who led the team in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,023) and touchdown catches (seven) last season, along with a young cast of wideouts.
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