The National Football League season begins again today, with the formerly forlorn San Diego Chargers in first place in the AFC West, the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants still trying to win their first game, Bo Jackson ready to make his football debut, Jim McMahon throwing, Eric Dickerson practicing with the second team, and the best football players in the game finally back on the field after a 24-day strike.

Stadiums once more will be full or close to it and fans presumably will come back to their television sets. As Forrest Gregg, head coach of the Green Bay Packers, said last week: "All I heard {the last month} was union and management, union and management. Now I want to hear some pads crack."

Gone, and some would say, not missed, is a rather dubious chapter in NFL history that will not soon be forgotten.

Rod Martin, a striking Raiders' linebacker, certainly won't forget that his brother Ricky crossed a picket line a few miles south in Orange County to play for the Rams. Rod, at least for a while, had hard feelings and said he wouldn't speak to "my brother, the scab."

Then there was the case involving another pair of brothers, Niko and Peter Noga. Peter, one of the last players cut in preseason by the St. Louis Cardinals, came back as a replacement. He played the same position as his older brother Niko -- middle linebacker -- and even wore Niko's number, 57. Unlike the Martins, however, the Nogas are still speaking and reportedly are closer than ever.

Ron Fazio, a tight end who played college football at Maryland, won't forget. When he was cut from the Philadelphia Eagles roster back in the summer, veteran John Spagnola took Fazio under his wing, and even offered him a job in his "All Pro" fitness club. Fazio jumped at the chance to play as a replacement, which offended Spagnola. Now Fazio isn't playing football. And he's out of his job at Spagnola's club.

Not all the clubs are comfortable with trying to integrate the leftover replacement players with the strikers. The New York Jets, for example, have established a separate locker room facility for replacement players and those who crossed the picket line. While the regulars have reclaimed their lockers, the others dress at a racquetball court that serves as a closet for the Jets' spare equipment. It's as if the replacements and nonstrikers are intruders.

"I feel a little alienated; everybody in here does," rookie nose tackle Scott Mersereau said. "That's the way I expected it to be."

But the emphasis Sunday and Monday night will be on the veterans, the players who lost an average of $60,000 before coming back to work without a new collective bargaining agreement.

No team in the NFL is more desperate than the Giants, who are 0-5. The Giants, beginning with today's game against the Cardinals in East Rutherford, N.J., seemingly would have to win at least nine out of the remaining 10 games scheduled to make the playoffs. "I believe that everybody here still thinks we can get to the playoffs, but we must go one game at a time . . . to give ourselves a chance," punter Sean Landetta was quoted as saying.

Three weeks of replacement ball left the AFC far from decided. The five teams in the East are separated by a single game, as are the four teams in the Central. The Western Division is a little helter-skelter with the Chargers on top with a 4-1 record, having won all three replacement games. The Kansas City Chiefs lost all three to drop to 1-4 and into last place. But the Chiefs start the third season against San Diego, with a chance to tighten that division.

The NFC has three teams with some reason to be concerned about getting back into the playoff picture. Besides the Giants, the Rams thought they'd be Super Bowl contenders, but their only victory so far came from the replacements. Now comes the news that Dickerson wants to be traded and might play behind Charles White.

The Vikings, another team expected to be a contender, are 2-3 but only two games behind the Central Division-leading Bears. The only NFC teams that significantly helped themselves in the replacement games were Dallas and Tampa Bay (both 3-2) and the Redskins (4-1). But the Buccaneers, who played the Bears in the last game before the strike, get Chicago again today. The Bears had their undefeated season ruined last week, but they get McMahon back for at least part of today's game.

The Cowboys, who are being booed at home and threatened on the road, could be in for several weeks of trouble. Philadelphia Coach Buddy Ryan has said he wants his players to knock the Cowboys off their high horse. And after that, Dallas gets a visit from the Giants.