Post lockout, the two teams featuring in the season-opener are also top contenders.
Saints and Packers in the Super Bowl mix
The effects of the NFL's labour dispute may not be all that evident when the season kicks off tomorrow night with the last two Super Bowl champions, New Orleans and Green Bay, meeting at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Both teams emerged from the lockout without much damage, putting them among the early favourites to reach the Super Bowl.
The Saints are a veteran squad bolstered by free agency and the strong leadership of Drew Brees, their quarterback. No team had better attended off-season workouts while the league and players' association were negotiating a new labour agreement.
"We got a lot of young guys ahead of the curve during that process so that walking into camp, it's not that big of a shock to them," Brees said. "I feel like we've been together because, in reality, we were together."
Green Bay gets back a handful of players who missed last season because of injuries, enhancing a squad that won the Super Bowl without them. Most notable will be Jermichael Finley, the dynamic tight end, and Ryan Grant, the starting running back, who provide even more help for Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback who was the Super Bowl MVP.
"The drive we've got in this locker room is amazing," Finley said. "I think this is going to be a special team right here."
The league survived a frenzied post-lockout period featuring wild bidding wars for veteran free agents, compressed pursuits of undrafted rookies and hurried training camps.
Not starting the season, for the first time in two decades, is Brett Favre, the quarterback who this time has retired for good, it seems.
Also among the missing are Terrell Owens (the unsigned and injured receiver), Carson Palmer (the unhappy and unofficially retired quarterback) and Randy Moss (the retired receiver). Peyton Manning, another great quarterback, had surgery on his neck in May, and was not activated by the Indianapolis Colts until last week.
His consecutive starts string of 227, including the play-offs, is the second longest in NFL history for quarterbacks behind Favre and could be in jeopardy.
Other quarterbacks have been on the move. Donovan McNabb is starting anew in Minnesota, Matt Hasselbeck is now in Memphis, Vince Young left Nashville for Philadelphia, where he will back up US$100 million man (Dh367m) Michael Vick, and Kevin Kolb will be the new starter in Arizona.
Other new faces to watch in different places include Reggie Bush in Miami, Chad Ochocinco in New England, and Nnamdi Asomugha, the grand prize of free agency in Philadelphia.
The Eagles, already a solid Super Bowl contender, revamped their squad and have been declared the champion of free agency, for what that's worth. They added the cornerback Asomugha, defensive linebacks Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin to their defence, receiver Steve Smith, running back Ronnie Brown and Young to their offence.
"Whatever it takes to try to get there, that's what we're going to do," Joe Banner, the team president, said of the Eagles' Super Bowl-or-bust mentality. "The expectations are high internally as well as externally, and I think that's a good place to be."
A tough place to be is anywhere that new coaches are trying to install their systems, learn about their players and, somehow, win games following a wasted spring and half of summer. Ron Rivera in Carolina might have the biggest challenge as he takes over the NFL's worst team of 2010.
It won't be easy for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Pat Shurmur in Cleveland, Mike Munchak in Tennessee, Hue Jackson in Oakland, John Fox in Denver, Jason Garrett in Dallas and Leslie Frazier in Minnesota. At least Garrett and Frazier got in some time as interim head coaches a year ago.
Their jobs seem secure for at least one season. Veteran coaches under the most pressure will be Tom Coughlin with the New York Giants, Jack Del Rio with Jacksonville, Gary Kubiak with Houston and Tony Sparano with Miami.
For months, there was some doubt if games would even be played as scheduled. Instead, the only victim of the longest work stoppage in NFL history was the exhibition Hall of Fame game.