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Plenty to prove in 2015 for many of NFL’s key figures

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Nice job, Tom Brady. Peyton Manning, you’re up next.

The 39-year-old quarterback is under pressure to prove his decline at the end of last season was because of  a torn thigh and not time catching up to him like a linebacker firing through the line unblocked.

His boss, John Elway, is trying to take some load off his shoulders just like the Broncos did during Elway’s own Super Bowl runs in the late 1990s when a good ground game and dominant defense paved his path to success.

Even though he won his fourth Super Bowl last winter, Brady was in the NFL’s pressure cooker for eight months because of accusations he cheated to get there by instructing ball boys to deflate footballs below allowable levels in the AFC championship.

Brady added a big win in federal court to go with his triumph in the Super Bowl to nullify his four-game suspension and then opened the 2015 season by leading New England to a 28-21 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday night.

It helped that the Steelers somehow kept losing track of big tight end Rob Gronkowski, who scored three TDs

There are plenty of others who have plenty to prove this season:

FOX FOXHOLE: John Fox‘s Broncos teams kept cratering in the playoffs and he bailed for Chicago, where he’s found a harsh media market and a huge rebuilding project. Fox used to joke that he nearly pulled both hamstrings when he heard Manning was joining him in Denver. He surely wasn’t that excited to work with Jay Cutler, was he?

DEEP DISH: Jay Cutler has played for three head coaches and five offensive coordinators since joining the Bears in 2009. His favorite target, Brandon Marshall, was dealt to the Jets, and now the Bears’ projected starting receivers, Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White, are both hurt.

DeMARCO’S DOUBLES: The league’s top rusher left Big D for Philly, and DeMarco Murray‘s replacements in Dallas are Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle. McFadden was recently a disappointment with the Raiders and Randle has been inconsistent. What helps them both is they’ll be running behind the NFL’s best blocking unit.

GREAT NORTHWEST: Jimmy Graham, Russell Wilson‘s new target, is supposed to be a transformative element in Seattle’s offense. His presence should open things up for wide receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse and open up the deep routes. But the question for Graham is whether he can be a capable blocker for running back Marshawn Lynch and not a liability.

HARDY HARDY: Suspended Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy has ended his court fight and vows he’s going to be a new man once his four-game ban is over. He said he’s determined from now on “to bring glory and pride to my family” and the Cowboys. His 10-game suspension for a domestic violence case was reduced by an arbitrator to four games.

RG3 PART II: Washington QB Robert Griffin III has received medical clearance to return from a concussion he sustained a little more than three weeks ago and is probable for Sunday’s season opener against Miami. Problem is, during his absence, he lost his starting job to Kirk Cousins and RG3 might not even be ahead of Colt McCoy on the depth chart.

CARSON COMEBACK: Carson Palmer is back, giving the Cardinals confidence they can compete with anyone. They were 8-1 last year when Palmer slipped and tore an ACL. Palmer also missed three games with a nerve problem in his right shoulder last year. He said the arm is “as strong as it’s ever been, maybe stronger.”

A LITTLE HELP: Blake Bortles was thrust into action as a rookie in Jacksonville and had 17 interceptions and took 55 sacks. The Jaguars beefed up the roster with Julius Thomas, Jermey Parnell, Stefan Wisniewski and T.J. Yeldon. But Thomas will miss the first three weeks with a broken hand.

BIG TEX: The Texans signed Brian Hoyer in the offseason and he beat out Ryan Mallet. Hoyer started 13 games for the Browns last year and threw for 12 TDs with 13 interceptions. Many wonder if he’s a long-term solution to Houston’s QB woes. He won’t have Arian Foster (groin) for a while and longtime star receiver Andre Johnson is gone. But he does have DeAndre Hopkins.

T-MOBILE: Even though he’s never started an NFL game in four seasons, Tyrod Taylor‘s dynamic dual-threat potential trumped the experience of his two competitors when Rex Ryan named his starting QB. So, Taylor goes from serving as Joe Flacco‘s backup in Baltimore to steward of an up-and-coming Bills team featuring LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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