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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, September 12, 2011 at 10:41 AM

ESPN is back with its annual doubleheader to kick off the 2011 season. New England visits Miami in the first game in an AFC East showdown, followed by Oakland and Denver from the AFC West. All four teams have interesting storylines in play entering the campaign. Only one, New England, has legitimate championship hopes. But, the other three all believe they can make the playoffs even though none did last year.

Let's take a quick look at the challenges facing each of tonight's four teams as they embark on their 2011 journeys.

The Patriots have pretty much solidified their position as 'best regular season team imaginable' in recent seasons…as long as Tom Brady is healthy. They pile up the points. They run up the score with little concern about sportsmanship or how mad it makes whoever they're playing. They went 14-2 last year…and had many pundits comparing the late season squad to the team that made a run at history a few years ago.

Regular season history…that's what this team has had to settle for lately because Tom Brady hurt his ankle in the Super Bowl year…then the team was stunned in the playoffs by the one defense that's not afraid of them (the NY Jets).

It's odd that true relevancy may not come into play for New England's results until January. If Brady stays healthy, this is a team that could easily pop another 14-2 on the league…or even make a run at a sweep. They've brought in some new talent in the offseason that will help shore up weaknesses. The Bellichick/Brady era has mastered the risk/reward challenge…helping the team to +28 in turnover differential last year.

New England knows how to win. Unless Miami pulls a shocker tonight (which isn't out of the question for a Monday Night divisional home underdog), you have to assume it's business as usual for the Pats. They're a Super Bowl contender that has to prove they can string together playoff wins when things aren't quite perfect for them.

As we mentioned during our summer series of previews, Miami was basically a Wildcard caliber team last year in the AFC.

7-9 record
-12 in turnover differential
2nd toughest schedule in the league

If you go 7-9 against a brutal schedule, you probably go 8-8 or 9-7 against an average schedule…and you make the playoffs easily if you have Kansas City's 2010 schedule. Turnovers are part luck and part understanding the risk/reward challenge inherent in the sport. Chad Henne wasn't always smart…but there was some bad luck in that -12 differential.

The bad news for Miami is that New England and the NY Jets are in their division…and those teams are more legitimate playoff teams. The Dolphins are basically the Tampa Bay Rays of the AFC East!

It should be noted that Tampa Bay has reached the baseball playoffs and gone deep. You CAN make it past the powers if you out smart them and outhustle them. Chad Henne is getting raves for his 'growth' as a quarterback since the end of last season in terms of leadership in camp then decision-making in the Preseason games. His teammates seem to have his back. We'll find out tonight whether this is the end of the beginning for a nice Henne career…or the beginning of the end of the Tony Sparano era as head coach. We've heard pundits predict Miami will make a shocking run at the playoffs. We've heard Sparano as a popular pick in the 'first coach fired' pools.

Tonight's result will at least nudge one of those themes along.

It's easy to forget that last year's Raiders went 8-8. They were just two games out of first place in their own division, and three games out of a Wildcard spot. They've been a relatively awful team for so long that they're always capable of catching opponents and handicappers napping.

When you're in a weak division, you're always within striking distance of the playoffs (see Seattle last year). Oakland made a coaching change after last year, putting Hue Jackson in charge. To the degree the Preseason offered guidance on Jackson and his team…they were decent when quarterback Jason Campbell was in the game, but pretty awful with the backups. There's not much depth here. And, the defense is likely to be worse since their stud from 2010 is now playing in Philadelphia.

The general assessment of analysts is that Oakland is unlikely to match year's 8-8 record. Oakland seems to think they can deal with San Diego and have a shock the world campaign in the AFC West. Tonight's game will tell us a lot about what's ahead. The betting markets initially had Oakland as the better team when the first pointspreads went up this summer…with Denver favored by less than the standard home field advantage. Sharp action drove Denver to -3, and may drive it higher before kickoff.

New coach. Solidified quarterback roles. And, what looks to be a more mature approach overall could lift the Denver Broncos back to relevancy very quickly.

Kyle Orton isn't an elite quarterback…but he's better than what a lot of other teams are putting on the field. If you just get out of his way and let him do what he can do…you can move the ball and get points on the board. It's a disgrace that Tim Tebow was considered a threat to his position. The new regime realizes that. And, it's starting to sink in with the Broncos fan base too.

John Fox is a proven winner at head coach. Carolina, home of his prior job, was regularly in the playoff mix when healthy. They even reached the postseason with Jake Delhomme! To call Fox an upgrade over Josh McDaniels is a huge understatement in terms of running a roster.

Denver may not be ready to win the West right now…or even to reach the .500 mark. They're very likely to be better than last year's 4-12 record. What we learn tonight will give us a great sense of how the rest of 2011 is going to play out for the Broncos and for the AFC West overall.

You regulars know we can't talk specifically about our picks in these games here in the NOTEBOOK. That information is for our paying customers. We definitely have a big play planned barring midday developments. And, the reasoning behind that play comes from the fact that we've confidently answered one of the issues discussed above thanks to our on-site sources. This is as specific as we'll get…something about either the mindset of Miami or Oakland (for better or for worse) has triggered
a possible MONSTER.

Link up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK this afternoon to get our special Monday Night kickoff feature. You don't want to be on the wrong side of this one! Be sure to check out our baseball too. Every BIG JUICY WINNER you pass is like leaving money on the table that should go in your pocket!

Among the baseball games we're looking at tonight:
NY Yankees at Seattle
LA Angels at Oakland
Arizona at LA Dodgers
Philadelphia at Houston

Game day releases are always available right here at the website for credit card purchase. We have great seasonal rates as well. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453. You get the most bang for your buck with the seasonal packages, particularly if in the two-sport combinations.

Sunday was an eye-opener in the NFL for many TV pundits, pseudo-experts, fans, and fantasy players. The surprises have just started. And, with legendary handicapper JIM HURLEY, THE WINNING IS JUST BEGINNING!



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