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CHICAGO (AP) — Sweetness. Ditka. Papa Bear.

The NFL is beginning its 100th season in a city that follows football with a fevered intensity.

The league is throwing a birthday party that includes a free fan festival and concert and culminates with one of its biggest rivalries: Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers visiting Khalil Mack and the Chicago Bears on Thursday night.

The beginning of the regular season comes with the league still dogged by questions about safety and other issues.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck retired last month at age 29, stripped of his love for the game by years of injuries.

Officiating remains a big concern — just ask New Orleans about what happened in the NFC championship against the Los Angeles Rams — and legalized sports gambling is moving into football cities all over the country.

But even with those potential storm clouds, nothing captures the attention of U.S. sports fans like the NFL.

In the age of Netflix and other streaming services, NFL games dominate TV ratings every year. Fantasy football has become an annual pastime in homes and offices across the country.

While stars such as Tom Brady and Drew Brees are nearing the end of their careers, a promising young crop of quarterbacks that includes NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield appear ready to step into the limelight.

The popularity of the NFL was perhaps best illustrated by sports talk radio this summer in Chicago, where the Bears' situation at kicker — yes, kicker — was a frequent topic of conversation months after Cody Parkey came up empty on a potential game-winning field goal in a playoff loss to Philadelphia.

The Bears prepared for their prime-time showcase against the Packers by unveiling statues of Walter "Sweetness" Payton and George "Papa Bear" Halas outside of Soldier Field on Tuesday. Former Bears coach and Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka was on hand for the ceremony.

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