Last 2 Super Bowl winners open NFL 2011 at Lambeau.

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After nearly a five month layoff that threatened an on time start of the 2011 season and a one month free agent feeding frenzy to assemble 53 man rosters, the NFL season starts for real this Thursday.

The season kicks off with the past two Super Bowl champions – Green Bay and New Orleans – facing each other on the not-yet-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.

The bulk of the games will take place on Sunday, Sept. 11 and the NFL will have some solemn ceremonies to observe the 10th anniversary of what was the darkest date in our nation’s history.

Last season saw 13 teams win 10 or more games and another 13 lose 10 or more. Only a half dozen teams were in the .500 range, winning 7, 8 or 9 games.

Often praised as a league of parity in which the slogan “on any given Sunday…” often applied, such was not as often the case in 2010 and the same might hold true in 2011.

Before getting to a preview of the opening week’s games, here’s a brief look and forecast as to how this season may play out, including a forecast of the dozen teams to make the playoffs and who might wind up playing for the Super Bowl title in Indianapolis next February.

At the start of a new season it is always easiest to make a case for most, if not all, of the teams that made the playoffs the previous season to do so once again.

But history teaches us a far different lesson. Since the NFL went from 10 playoff teams to 12 in 1990 only slightly over half (6.3 on average), have made the postseason the following year.

Only once have as many as eight teams repeated their playoff appearance of a season earlier and also only once have as few as four teams repeated. Eight teams that made the playoffs in 1994 also made them in 1995.

The only instance of four teams making the playoffs occurred in 2003, the second season of division realignment. This saw the playoff field changed from six division winners and six Wild Cards to eight division winners and four Wild Cards.

Similarly in the 20 seasons since playoff field expansion on average only 2.2 division winners repeated. Since the expansion to eight divisions in 2002 on average there have been three division winner repeats.

Because of the lack of parity in 2010 as noted above, and the effects of the lockout, we might see more divisional and playoff repeaters than those averages suggest. But that might not necessarily be true either.

After all, there is a fine line between winning or losing in the NFL and barely making the playoffs versus barely missing. In fact, in 2010 there were a pair of teams that missed the playoffs despite 10-6 records – Tampa Bay and the New York Giants.

That very thin line exists because the NFL plays a short 16 games schedule over which one win or loss can have a significant impact.

In the AFC New England appears to be the clear favorite. The Pats were 14-2 in 2010 and made some upgrades to their defense that let them down in the playoffs. Interestingly the Patriots have not won a playoff game since they took their perfect 18-0 mark into the Super Bowl which they lost to the Giants which was way back in 2007. The Jets are the main threats to the Patriots in the East but New England has the better overall talent.

Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the best in the AFC North but don’t be surprised if Cleveland challenges both of those playoff teams from a season ago. The Browns have a new coach but had some impressive efforts in 2010 that suggest better things are ahead.

The AFC South could see a change at the top as Indianapolis failed to win at least 12 games last season for the first time since 2002. QB Peyton Manning missed all of preseason and may miss some games at the start of the regular season with a neck injury that’s been slow to heal. Houston is a very talented team that has not been able to get over the hurdle of winning important games, especially late in the season. That could change this season.

San Diego is by far and away the best team in the West and their failure to make the playoffs in 2010 is yet another indictment against head coach Norv Turner who has been an outstanding offensive coordinator but seems over his head as a head coach. His track record from his days in Oakland and Washington lend further support to that statement. Still the AFC West is the Chargers to lose

The NFC East may be one of the top divisions in all of football with Philadelphia the team to beat. The Eagles won it last season and bolstered their roster on both sides of the football this summer. Dallas was a disappointment in 2010 but Jason Garrett, who took over in mid season, has the respect of the players. The Giants have a history of strong starts followed by December fades and Washington will show improvement in Mike Shanahan’s second season as head coach. It would not be a surprise if no team in this Division finishes with a losing record.

Defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay is the team to beat in the NFL North. If things balance out and the Packers are relatively healthy in 2011 this could be an even better team this season. Chicago’s playoff viability will largely depend on their defense while Detroit is poised to move up with an improved defense and an emerging offense led by QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson. If Stafford can avoid the injuries that plagued him in his first two seasons the Lions could make the playoffs as a Wild Card.

The AFC South was strong at the top in 2010 with 3 of its 4 teams winning double digit games. Atlanta earned the top NFC seed with its 13-3 record while the Saints followed up their Super Bowl winning season of 2009 with a solid 11-5 record. Tampa Bay showed the greatest improvement, going from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6 in 2010, missing the Playoffs due to tie breakers. And it was a legitimate improvement with five of their 10 wins by double digits. All three teams should contend again.

The NFC West had Seattle in the playoffs with the first losing record in NFL history, 7-9. Seattle will struggle to contend to reach .500 in 2011. San Francisco was a disappointment but should benefit from the coaching change that now has Jim Harbaugh on the sidelines following a very successful stint at Stanford. But the contenders for the Division title should be up and coming St Louis and Arizona, following the Cards’ acquisition of QB Kevin Kolb to address their major shortcoming of last season.

AFC division winners: New England, Pittsburgh, Houston and San Diego. Wild Cards: NY Jets and Baltimore.

NFC division winners: Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans and St. Louis. Wild Cards: Atlanta and Philadelphia. Detroit and Tampa Bay each just fall short.

AFC champion: New England (defeating San Diego)

NFC champion: Atlanta (defeating Philadelphia)

Super Bowl: New England 34, Atlanta 23: Patriots cover what should be a 4 to 5 point line and going OVER a total that could be in the 51 to 53 point range.

Of course this is the NFL where the unexpected can, and often does, happen. Check back in December to see if these forecasts still has a shot.

Here’s a look at the games of Week 1.

THURSDAY

Saints +4 at Packers (47): Both teams have pretty good defensive talent but the offenses have big play capability. There’s a real good chance these teams will meet again in January and sometimes the “square” play that seems way too obvious is still the one that works. OVER.

SUNDAY

Steelers +2½ at Ravens (36½): Five of the last six regular season meetings have been decided by a FG and the sixth was decided by 4. In those last six meetings the teams have averaged just 33.2 points per game. Keep your eyes open to see if the line moves to 3 or if the Total rises to 37. UNDER.

Lions +2 at Bucs (41): There will be a lot of support for the Lions in this game but the value lies with the hosts. The Bucs have been overshadowed within their division by both the Falcons and the Saints. BUCS.

Falcons -3 at Bears (41): Although the Falcons are likely to be the better of these teams come December, right now it’s September and the lack of respect accorded the Bears may be a bit premature. BEARS.

Bills +6½ at Chiefs (40½): KC starting QB Matt Cassel is considered doubtful which would mean lightly tested Tyler Palko would get the start. Ryan Fitzpatrick proved more than capable at QB for the Bills, who have a pair of solid running backs. An attractive take much of the season’s first half. BILLS.

Colts +7 at Texans (45): Indy QB Peyton Manning is likely to miss this game with his neck injury which would mean veteran Kerry Collins is in and the streak of 227 consecutive starts is done. Until the Texans prove they can handle the favorite’s role against their familiar foe the generous points are worth taking. COLTS.

Eagles -5 at Rams (44): St. Louis is a team on the rise that made some key additions to strengthen both sides of the football. The Eagles have plenty of talent although there are concerns with their less than fully healthy receiving corps. The Rams are good enough to keep this close and getting more than a FG is attractive. RAMS.

Bengals +6½ at Browns (36) The Browns could take a huge leap forward with improving QB Colt McCoy already supported by a solid running game. The Bengals will be relying on rookie QB Andy Dalton and a supporting cast that is without their two leading receivers who combined for 139 catches and 1,814 yards. In back to back weeks last season the Browns won at New Orleans and defeated New England each by double digits. BROWNS.

Titans +3 at Jaguars (39): Both teams have outstanding running backs although Tennessee’s Chris Johnson missed most of training camp in a holdout before signing last week. The talent level is fairly even but the hosts enter the season with greater stability and continuity. JAGUARS.

Giants -3 at Redskins (38): Few teams have been hit as hard by injury as have the Giants. Mike Shanahan in his second season appears more settled even though the QB situation with John Beck and Rex Grossman will be fluid. Though just 6-10 last season, the ‘Skins’ final three losses were by just 1, 3 and 3 points. REDSKINS.

Panthers +7 at Cards (37): It figures to be a long season for Carolina as the Panthers will be relying on rookie QB Cam Newton. Arizona addressed its major shortcoming at QB by trading for Philly backup Kevin Kolb as the lockout ended. The defense is well coached and should create problems for Newton. CARDS.

Seahawks +5½ at 49ers (38): Seattle decided against keeping long time QB Matt Hasselbeck and opted for ex-Minnesota QB Tarvaris Jackson who’s performance was rather undistinguished while with the Vikings. 49ers QB Alex Smith has been labeled a bust but perhaps under Jim Harbaugh’s tutelage might develop down the road. Both QB’s are mistake prone. Could be sloppy. UNDER.

Vikings +9 at Chargers (41): Minnesota appears to be a team in transition after signing QB Donovan McNabb. They do have perhaps the best RB in the game in Adrian Peterson but his effectiveness could be hampered unless the passing game develops. San Diego’s explosive offense may be more than Minnesota’s decent defense can handle. CHARGERS.

Cowboys +4½ at Jets (41): The Jets have lost back to back AFC Title games in Rex Ryan’s first two seasons as head coach so the expectations are quite high entering 2011. Dallas is the NFC counterpart of San Diego, with a wealth of underachieving talent. Dallas is talented enough to win straight up which makes getting more than a FG an attractive option. COWBOYS.

MONDAY

Patriots-7 at Dolphins (45): The Patriots offense is stronger although it’s hard to see QB Tom Brady duplicating his efforts of 2010 when he tossed 36 TD passes yet had just four interceptions! Miami is off of back to back 7-9 seasons and does not appear significantly improved entering this season. New England enjoys most of the edges, but has to show defensive improvement is real. OVER.

Raiders +3 at Broncos (40): Oakland figures to be down this season after several key personnel losses on both sides of the football and a new head coach. Denver has a new head coach, ex-Carolina coach John Fox, and also welcomes back defensive stud Elvis Dumerville who missed 2010 due to injury after he recorded 17 sacks in 2009. Denver should be highly motivated. BRONCOS.

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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