Aaron Rodgers

While students begrudgingly swing back into their textbook routines, there is one glimmer of hope that should bring a smile to even those who have two exams on a Monday morning or chemistry lab on a Friday afternoon.

As the foliage transforms, we welcome back America’s most popular sport, American football (not to be confused with summer-time favorite futbol).

In truth, football never really left; it has evolved from a sport most known for its snowy battles to an omnipresent force in the sports world. The NFL combine, draft, and free agency, among other events, have made the National Football League a year-round experience.

The 9-billion dollar industry has come under fire in recent months for its inconsistent handling of player discipline. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s most egregious error was his suspension of Ray Rice for two games, when Rice’s documented domestic abuse warranted a response at least four times as strong.

Former NFL players and fans have criticized the NFL’s concussion settlement, noting that Goodell seems content to cover up the proven detrimental consequences of playing football.

While the outrage at Goodell and the league has been appropriately loud, do not expect fans’ indignation to remain so strong.

Although the NFL deserves their criticism, the honest truth is that most fans will be distracted by the flair of Peyton Manning touchdowns and Seattle’s Legion of Boom’s hard hits to maintain their level of interest in off-the-field issues.

In the spirit of being distracted by on-field football, this column will serve as your NFL guide and ranking for this upcoming year’s top-10 teams.

10. Falcons: Only one year removed from a 13-3 season and a trip to the NFC championship, Atlanta is a prime candidate for a rebound season. The team’s 4-12 season last year was an anomaly: a result of many injuries and bad luck. The Falcons should be back this year, led by Matt Ryan and an offense full of weapons, including Roddy White and Julio Jones. If the defense can stay healthy, expect the Falcons to contend again in the competitive NFC.

9. Bengals- After handing red-headed hero QB Andy Dalton a $100million contract, the Bengals are counting on their quarterback to break through and win a playoff game after going 0-3 in his first three seasons in the postseason. With a very strong defense led by Geno Atkins and a good offense surrounding him, anything less from the Red Rifle would be a disappointment. Either way, Cincinnati should win the AFC North.

8. Eagles- Chip Kelly has been lauded as an offense revolutionary, introducing the “fast-break offense” to the league. Two questions surround the Eagles: can Nick Foles reproduce his turnover-free performance from last season and can the Eagles defense do enough? Count on the Eagles to be the best team in the NFC East.

7. Colts- Andrew Luck and his late-game heroics have covered up many of the Colts’ issues for the last couple years. While Indianapolis will continue to be good with Luck at the helm, their defense will miss Robert Mathis for the first four games and may not be strong enough for the Colts to go far in the playoffs. Still, the Colts should have no issue winning the weak AFC South.

6. Patriots- New England has been good for so long that fans forget that the Patriots’ last Super Bowl victory was over ten years ago. Tom Brady has subtly shown signs of slowing down with age, but defensive additions Darelle Revis and Brandon Browner should improve New England’s porous pass defense from a year ago. The Patriots should easily be the second best team in the AFC.

5. Packers- Since Green Bay’s Super Bowl victory in 2011, the Packers have been unable to regain their mojo, in part due to some poorly timed injuries. With Aaron Rodgers as one of the best quarterbacks in the league and receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, the Packers will score plenty. B.J. Raji and the defense are stout enough to get the ball back to their prolific offense. Green Bay should win a challenging NFC North division, holding off the Bears and Lions.

4. Saints- New Orleans is set for a deep run in the playoffs; Drew Brees and the offense will run up the score with new speedster Brandin Cooks. The defense is a bend-not-break type and will force plenty of turnovers. This team will be dangerous and the Saints have one of the best home-field advantages, en route to another AFC South crown.

3. 49ers- San Francisco and their fancy new stadium, Levi Stadium, should be strong as usual on defense, led by intimidating All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis. On paper, the Niners’ offensive attack should be strong, led by versatile QB Colin Kaepernick and tight end Vernon Davis. The Niners have come tantalizingly close to a Super Bowl victory in the last three seasons. Unfortunately for San Francisco, they are likely not the best team in their own division and will face another tough path to the championship.

2. Seahawks- The Super Bowl champs have maintained much of their existing roster and given defensive studs Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman big raises. The Legion of Boom and a defensive line that consistently pressures the quarterback combine to make the Seahawks formidable. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch lead an underrated offense with clutch, turnover-free play. Along with their home-field advantage, the Seahawks are the favorite to go to the Super Bowl once more.

1. Broncos- While it may not make much sense to rank the Super Bowl runner-up as the number one team, the Broncos have reloaded and improved their team more than the Seahawks have. Record-setter Peyton Manning and the record-breaking offense of the Broncos, led by Demaryius and Julius Thomas, should be formidable again. Demarcus Ware, TJ Ward, and the return of Von Miller will make the Broncos a more balanced team, with a tougher defense than last year. Denver should be the class of the AFC for the second consecutive year.

The NFL is back.

Commence your wasted Sundays languishing over your fantasy football teams that would have definitely won that week if (insert here) had not been injured.

– By Ethan Morris