By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - With the bitter wrangling over money now resolved and the charade of pre-season games over, the NFL finally gets down to real business this week when the race to the Super Bowl begins.
The 2011 season starts in spectacular style on Thursday at Lambeau Field where the Green Bay Packers host the New Orleans Saints in a battle of the past two Super Bowl champions.
When the Packers claimed the Vince Lombardi Trophy earlier this year, talk was already focused on whether the 2011 season would even happen since players and owners were miles apart on a new collective bargaining agreement.
To the consternation of so many who have a stake in the $9 billion NFL empire, labor talks collapsed in March, a lockout was declared, the players' union was decertified and lawyers for both sides took over in a bitter legal battle.
So instead of the usual chatter about draft picks, trades and free-agent signings, fans were instead fed a diet of news about courtroom dockets, bravado and brinksmanship and the very serious threat of losing an entire season.
In the end though, to the relief of the TV networks, sports bar owners, chicken wing producers and fans who make the NFL the most popular sports league in the United States, the sides reached an agreement to end a months-long lockout that halted all league activity.
That forced the usual offseason procedures and formalities to be crammed into a shorter period but it was just enough for general managers to bring in the players they wanted and for head coaches to get the work done on the practice field.
It has been a steep learning curve for the eight new head coaches starting this season either with new teams or, in the case of the Dallas Cowboys' Jason Garrett, the same team after having been handed the job on a permanent basis.
Quarterback Cam Newton, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft after winning the Heisman Trophy as the most outstanding player in college football, will be pushed into the starting role for the Carolina Panthers despite not having the benefit of mini-camps and quarterbacks camp to learn the pro game.
Newton, the latest college sensation to face the skepticism of the hard school that is the NFL, is one of many fascinating storylines in what promises to be an intriguing season.
The Packers feel they have a shot at becoming the first team to win two straight Super Bowls since the 2005 New England Patriots with quarterback Aaron Rodgers directing an offense that includes an experienced receiving corps and starters returning from injury all across the roster.
The New York Jets, who fell one win short of a Super Bowl appearance for the second straight year, added receiver Plaxico Burress in hopes of getting over the hump and backing up the big-talk from head coach Rex Ryan.
But their division rivals, the New England Patriots, have won the AFC East the past two years and beefed up their roster by trading for a pair of headline-grabbing players in receiver Chad Ochocinco and lineman Albert Haynesworth.
The Atlanta Falcons, with quarterback Matt Ryan on the cusp of becoming one of the game's elite, and Super Bowl runner-up Pittsburgh Steelers are two other teams to watch out for this year while the San Diego Chargers are being tipped to make a strong impression on the playoffs.
The Philadelphia Eagles, who recently signed quarterback Michael Vick to a six-year, $100 million deal, are bubbling with confidence that they can win their first Super Bowl while the Saints hope to show on Thursday that, with Drew Brees still outstanding at quarterback, they can go all the way again.
But just like every season, there will likely be surprises with new teams stepping up and old favorites falling by the wayside in the fierce fight to reach the championship game in Indianapolis on February 5.
(Editing by Frank Pingue; To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)