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New faces eager to shine as league enters post-Peyton era

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The loss of some star power to retirement and a suspension to one of the NFL's greatest players has done little to dampen excitement for North America's favorite game ahead of a season that will mark the league's return to Los Angeles.

When the reigning champion Denver Broncos host the Carolina Panthers in a Super Bowl rematch on Thursday, it will kick off an NFL season unlike any seen in decades, where the only sure bet is that the league will enjoy its usual ratings bonanza.

Gone are Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson, Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch as the quartet, who have a combined 54 seasons between them, led a parade of big-name players who hung up their cleats in 2016.

SEE MORE: Which NFL team has the toughest schedule in 2016?

As for Tom Brady, one of only three quarterbacks with four Super Bowl wins, he is serving a four-game ban as part of the "Deflategate" scandal that will force him to miss the first quarter of the regular season.

The absence of such talent leaves big shoes to fill and there are many eager to take their place, including flamboyant Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and dynamic Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, both of whose teams are among the favorites to reach February's Super Bowl in Houston.

Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks

Even a number of first-year players are expected to show their worth, most notably Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is a popular pick to be the offensive rookie of the year despite not yet playing a down in the regular season.

Elliott will need to excel starting in Week One if the Cowboys, who at $4 billion top Forbes' list of the world's most valuable sports teams, are to overcome the loss of Tony Romo and erase memories of a dreadful 2015 season.

Romo, the lifeblood of the Cowboys, suffered a broken bone in his back during the preseason and could be out of the lineup until November. The injury thrusts rookie quarterback Dak Prescott into the starting role.

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32. Cleveland Browns

2015 record: 3-13

The Browns added Robert Griffin III into the mix to be the primary shotcaller in the post-Johnny Manziel era, and beginning Week 5, Josh Gordon will presumably be back on the field. It's a new era in Cleveland with former baseball exec Paul DePodesta in charge, but it may be a while until they actually bear the fruits of this rebuild.

(Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images)

31. San Francisco 49ers

2015 record: 5-11

After an unsuccessful run in Philadelphia, Chip Kelly was brought in to help transform the 49ers. Despite efforts to move him, QB Colin Kaepernick could theoretically thrive in Kelly's fast-paced system -- but talent elsewhere is tough to come by.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

30. Tennessee Titans

2015 record: 3-13

Tennessee added DeMarco Murray to its backfield and drafted OT Jack Conklin to help both Murray and Marcus Mariota, so there should be some improvements -- but the Titans are still ways away from competing.

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

29. San Diego Chargers

2015 record: 4-12

The Chargers added Joey Bosa to their defensive corps through the draft, but it will still be hard for them to score -- Melvin Gordon, after a subpar rookie campaign, is recovering from microfracture surgery.

(Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)

28. Detroit Lions

2015 record: 7-9

Calvin Johnson is no longer in the mix for Matthew Stafford, which means Golden Tate will need to step up big time if they hope to avoid a huge tail-off in the passing game.

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

27. Miami Dolphins

2015 record: 6-10

Adam Gase will have some shiny new toys on both sides of the ball: Arian Foster and Mario Williams were both brought in via free agency, and Laremy Tunsil was drafted in the first round to beef up the offensive line. But Miami won't be able to take the next step until Ryan Tannehill proves he's a legitimate starting NFL quarterback.

(Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)

26. New Orleans Saints

2015 record: 7-9

Nick Fairley and Roman Harper have been added to help out a woeful defense, but Drew Brees doesn't have much to work with on his side of the ball.

(Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Verizon)

24. Los Angeles Rams

2015 record: 7-9

A full season of Todd Gurley being the premiere Rams back is intimidating, but banking on first-year quarterback Jared Goff to come out strong right out of the gate may be asking a bit ambitious.

(Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2015 record: 6-10

Second-year QB Jameis Winston looks to be in the best shape of his life, and his connection with WR Mike Evans should only strengthen as they gain experience together. Tampa Bay seems to be building an encouraging team.

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

18. Jacksonville Jaguars

2015 record: 5-11

The Jags, at times, looked much better than their 5-11 record last year, and could compete for a potential playoff spot this season. With Blake Bortles able to utilize T.J. Yeldon, Denard Robinson, Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson on offense -- and with some infusion of young talent on defense -- Jacksonville should be fun to watch.

(Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

15. New York Giants

2015 record: 6-10

If NFL games were 50 minutes long instead of 60, last year's Giants would have had one of the best records in the league -- and Tom Coughlin would likely still be the head coach. Bob McAdoo is in charge now, and Victor Cruz could finally make his return to the field this season, flanking Odell Beckham in his third season. The defensive additions of Janoris Jenkins and Olivier Vernon should make an immediate impact.

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

14. Dallas Cowboys

2015 record: 4-12

Tony Romo is 36, but a fully healthy season from him could mean the difference between a division title and last year's four-win campaign. Ezekiel Elliott should contribute mightily right away, giving Dallas a great chance in a division that's completely up for grabs.

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

10. New York Jets

2015 record: 10-6

The Jets finally got their man in Ryan Fitzpatrick, who enjoyed the most success of his career as a Jet last season. With Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Matt Forte headlining the offense -- while Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Darrelle Revis hold down the other side of the ball -- the Jets could be contenders again after missing out on the playoffs last season despite winning 10 games.

(Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

9. Minnesota Vikings

2015 record: 11-5

If it weren't for an embarrassing missed field goal, the Vikings would've made it to the second round of the postseason last year. With most of the squad returning, the defense still sturdy and QB Teddy Bridgewater a year more mature, Minnesota should be in contention for the postseason once again.

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

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CHAMPIONSHIP-CALIBER TEAM

No team has won back-to-back Super Bowls since the Patriots did it in 2004 and 2005 and while Denver will be without future Hall of Famer Manning, they are still a championship-caliber team powered by one of the NFL's best defences.

The Seahawks, who came within one pass of repeating as Super Bowl champions in 2015, have been perennial contenders over the last four seasons and, despite the loss of powerhouse Lynch, will boast a team stacked with talent on offense and defense.

While losing a player of Brady's caliber would be a blow to most teams, the talented Patriots remain favorites to win the AFC East division title for an eighth consecutive year.

NFL/

One team who could not withstand the loss of their starting quarterback were the Indianapolis Colts, who missed the playoffs last season as Andrew Luck sat out the second half of the 2015 campaign with various injuries.

But Luck, coming off the worst season of his career, is back to full health and will be determined to remind any doubters why he is considered one of the game's best quarterbacks.

The Arizona Cardinals hope to build on a franchise-record 13-win season that ended a victory shy of a trip to the Super Bowl. With most of the team's key players back, led by quarterback Carson Palmer, Arizona look poised for another deep playoff run.

There is also plenty of excitement on the West Coast since North America's biggest sport is back in the country's second-largest TV market. After 21 seasons in St. Louis, the NFL's Rams are back in Los Angeles, where they played from 1946 to 1994.

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