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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Wednesday, September 7, 2011 at 9:29 AM

The NFL season starts Thursday Night when the New Orleans Saints visit the Green Bay Packers in a special prime time kickoff extravaganza. That meeting matches the last two Super Bowl winners, which tells you how much the league wanted to start things off with a BANG so you'd forget the offseason lockout!

There are other great matchups later this weekend, highlighted by Pittsburgh at Baltimore in a playoff rematch, Dallas at the NY Jets in a Sunday Nighter featuring two of the marquee teams in the league, Atlanta at Chicago in a matchup of the top two seeds in last year's NFC playoffs, and games that could get very interesting like Detroit-Tampa Bay, Philadelphia-St. Louis, NY Giants-Washington, and Minnesota-San Diego.

Yes, the lockout will be out-of-sight, out-of-mind by the end of the weekend if it isn't already.

Once the season gets rolling, we'll be buried in specifics...looking at an almost daily basis at the big stories that develop. We wanted to spend today on the big picture. How does the league REALLY shape up entering the 2011 campaign? We don't care what the TV pundits are saying. We don't care about your local columnist. Everyone has their personal agendas, and their predictions are generally shaded by who they've been hyping for years, and who they've been hating on. When, you're trying to pick winners against Las Vegas pointspreads, you need to leave your agendas in the closet and focus on REALITY.

Here are the top Super Bowl contenders as we see them, listed by conference in divisional order:

AFC: New England, NY Jets, Pittsburgh
NFC: Philadelphia, Green Bay

We'll talk about darkhorses in a minute. Those are teams who have best established in our minds that they have what it takes to get the job done. Green Bay just got the job done! Pittsburgh got close last year, and will always be close barring injuries with this defensive approach and their current quarterback. New England probably isn't as likely to go the distance as the betting markets are suggesting. They haven't won a playoff game the last two seasons! But, the Patriots have a coach and quarterback who are established championship factors. The Jets have a Super Bowl defense...and an offense that may continue to improve. Philadelphia improved what was already a very good team with offseason acquisitions.

Now, let's look at a handful of teams who get respect in predictions but haven't really impressed in the postseason. We could call these "breakthrough" teams because 2011 could be the season they finally break through the way Green Bay did last season.

AFC: Baltimore, San Diego
NFC: Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans

Of course, the Saints would be breaking back through since they won the Super Bowl two years ago. But, last year's drop off was so significant (remember that they had a negative turnover differential while facing the 25th ranked schedule) that we can't include them amongst the elite in 2011.

Baltimore fancies themselves as Super Bowl material. Joe Flacco has yet to learn composure in big games. San Diego always has Super Bowl material on the field. Norv Turnver on the sideline consistently underachieves his talent.

Atlanta will spend 2011 trying to prove that last year's regular season wasn't a fluke. They were clearly outmatched by Green Bay in the playoffs, even though the game was in Atlanta. The stats suggest they weren't as good as their 13-3 record would suggest either, meaning a regression to the mean is probably at hand.

Chicago? Jay Cutler got close last year thanks to good fortune in close games and a favorable playoff draw. He hasn't yet established he's a championship caliber quarterback.

AFC: Houston
NFC: Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Arizona

A significant percentage of the league will tell the media that they consider themselves darkhorses for the 2011 season. Make Cleveland and Denver prove it. Make Seattle and St. Louis show they've learned how to play football (sorry, if you go 7-9 against a crap schedule we're not jumping on your bandwagon!) We will at least monitor the Arizona bandwagon because new quarterback Kevin Kolb can fix what ails them. And, that's a coaching staff that has put together a Super Bowl run in recent history.

Houston and Dallas have quarterbacks (and former quarterbacks at head coach) who could certainly inspire runs to the top of their divisions this year. Detroit is a fascinating team because they've drafted size, swagger, and scariness the past two seasons. Minnesota brought in Donovan McNabb to help fix their turnover issues. Minnesota was probably Wildcard caliber last year if you give them a positive turnover differential instead of a minus 11 (they went 6-10 against the 5th toughest schedule). Tampa Bay may have been lucky last year against a weak schedule, or may be on a fast learning curve that continues to lap stragglers.

You know, the NFC has so much going for it this year that we wouldn't be surprised if the "darkhorses" (Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Arizona) outperform the "breakthrough" nominees (Chicago, Atlanta, New Orleans) this season. The races in the NFC North and NFC South could feature some really high quality football.

AFC: Miami, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Tennessee, Denver
NFC: NY Giants, Seattle, St. Louis

It's hard to know where to put Indianapolis right now given the pain in Peyton Manning's neck. They would certainly rank higher if he's able to reach 100% soon. They would certainly rank lower if he's out for most of the season and can't get healthy until 2012. Might be a tough year for the full Manning family given recent trends with the NY Giants and Eli too.

These other teams are talking the talk right now...but we don't see them walking the walk through the course of the full campaign. Maybe one sneaks into the playoffs thanks to good fortune (somebody has to win the AFC South if Manning's out, and it's not certain to be Houston). Miami hits people, and Chad Henne had a good summer. They're still in a killer division. Cleveland is an up-and-comer, and just missed darkhorse status for us. Like Miami, they're behind established playoff teams in their division, making it tough to rise up quickly.

AFC: Buffalo, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Oakland
NFC: Washington, Carolina, San Francisco

Yes, Kansas City was a playoff team last year. They weren't a good team though. They basically had the stats of a .500 caliber squad while playing the 29th ranked schedule. This year's schedule is BRUTAL! Oakland did go 8-8 last year. But, that also came against a very weak schedule (28th). They're capable of upsetting top teams. The negatives still outweigh the positives in a season where the schedule toughens.

In the NFC...Washington is starting Rex Grossman at quarterback, Carolina is starting a rookie, and San Francisco is starting Alex Smith. Enough said.

We'll be watching all the action very closely this weekend. We hope you did your homework during the Preseason by watching as many games as possible and logging all the boxscores. If you did that, you should have a very good sense right now of which quarterbacks are going to thrive this week, this month, and through the well as a very good sense of where the disasters are going to be. The market often does a poor job in the NFL at the extremes. They don't punish the bad teams enough...and they don't acknowledge a true superpower until after they've covered about five in a row.

You have the tools RIGHT NOW to pick winners if you've been doing your homework. If you haven't been, then you have the tools with your computer or telephone because it's so easy to hook up with JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!

Thanks to our scouts, our sources, our stat handicappers, our trend historians, our computer programmers, and our Wise Guy connections, we're able to cover every angle and every storyline week-by-week in the NFL. We'll prove that to you Thursday Night and all weekend as the 2011 season kicks off. You can go day-by-day here at the website to try things out. Or, sign up for the full season at very affordable rates. If you have any questions, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

The Green Bay Packers are defending World Champions. They'll play the prior World Champion New Orleans Saints tomorrow night. The undisputed World Champion of football handicapping EVERY YEAR is JIM HURLEY!

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