Lockout Behind Them, NFL's Regular Season Starts

The NFL regular season kicks off Thursday night with the New Orleans Saints traveling to Green Bay to take on last year's Super Bowl champions, the Packers.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Unemployment, recession, politics, revolutions - all of that will take a back seat for a few hours this evening, at least if you're a die-hard football fan.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: You'll be listening to a theme like this and then you'll be watching as the NFL regular season gets under way. Tonight, the previous two Super Bowl champs face off. The Green Bay Packers host the New Orleans Saints. And to talk about that game and the upcoming season we've brought in NPR's Mike Pesca.

And Mike, the labor dispute in the NFL is over. We're actually going to have some on-the-field action. Even President Obama made things convenient for football fans. He scheduled his speech on jobs around this game tonight.

MIKE PESCA: Yeah, the season - you mentioned labor. It's not only that. I think it's a little different than a few seasons past. I mean, last year Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback, was suspended for off-the-field indiscretions, if not illegalities. The year before that there was the cloud of Michael Vick's return.

There's none of that this year. It's cleared for just the game of football. And I think right now this Packers-Saints game is going to focus football fans' attention in a way that last year and the year before that and for a few years hasn't been as intently focused on the game itself.

GREENE: So a fresh start, if you will.

PESCA: Yeah.

GREENE: Well, let's start with the defending Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers. They beat my Pittsburgh Steelers, I should mention. It was a nail biter. But are they the favorites to repeat this season?

PESCA: Usually it's very hard to repeat in the NFL. It hasn't happened since the New England Patriots did it in back-to-back years in - after the 2003-2004 season. The reason is that teams are basically equal. And usually after a team wins a Super Bowl they lose players to free agency. There's a net loss.

But the other reason is that when a team wins a Super Bowl, they usually got pretty lucky in terms of injuries. But that did not happen with the Packers. In fact, the Packers were extremely unlucky in terms of injuries. So if you look at that, if they actually - if their luck evens out and if they have many fewer injuries than last year, I think they do have a strong shot at repeating.

The big impediment to the Packers returning to the Super Bowl is their conference foe, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles made so many excellent free agent signings during the off season. And they're an offensive team. So they're stocked and they could, especially with their quarterback Michael Vick, and if he stays healthy, they could really challenge the Packers out of the NFC.

GREENE: OK. So the Eagles and a Packers team that might be even scarier this year if they remain healthy. Let's go from the NFC to the AFC. Who's looking good?

PESCA: Well, let's keep with the green-clad teams. And the Jets are the only team that have made the conference championship games the last two years. And they have an exciting coach, Rex Ryan, and a great defense. But in their division, the New England Patriots are actually favored to be the team that comes out of the AFC to go to the Super Bowl. And of course there's that certain black and gold clad team that plays in a stadium named for ketchup that you know and root for. And yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers should be strong again.

GREENE: Well, that's good to hear. Any surprises? I mean, I know people in Detroit are going to say please don't jinx us, but the Lions did have an undefeated preseason. Do they have any hope?

PESCA: Yeah. Well, the jinx there is remember a couple of years back when they didn't win a game all year? Guess how their preseason went that year? They were undefeated.

GREENE: Undefeated then and very defeated during the regular season.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Right. But no, I do think the Lions - and a lot of people do think the Lions could be a surprise team.

And the other team - maybe the Houston Texans. I mean, they're a team that has great offense. And if their defense is just passable and OK, they could be the surprise team, especially if Payton Manning, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, does not return from injury. He will not be playing in week one. He had off-season neck surgery. And if they Colts wane, it could be to the Texans' benefit.

GREENE: All right. Well, as we like to say, are you ready for some football? It's NPR's Mike Pesca.

Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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