MIAMI (Reuters) - The pain of the first blows of training camp are now a memory and the phony battles of pre-season football are finished with -- on Thursday, the NFL gets down to the real thing again.
The Pittsburgh Steelers as defending champions are the team to beat once again but with quarterback Tom Brady back from injury the New England Patriots will be aiming to return to their former dominance.
As always there are no shortage of teams fancying their chances of a run to the Super Bowl with San Diego and Philadelphia along with the New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts all getting some pre-season backing.
The Dallas Cowboys have a new stadium, the New York Jets an exciting rookie quarterback in Mark Sanchez and there are some important absences, most notably Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy who has retired.
There are also some familiar faces returning.
Former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick is controversially back after serving jail time for his role in a dogfighting ring and he will play second fiddle, initially at least, to Donovan McNabb at the Philadelphia Eagles.
The latest Brett Favre off-season soap opera ended once again with the former Green Bay quarterback changing his mind about retirement and returning for another year, this time with the Minnesota Vikings.
The Steelers, who open the season on Thursday at home to last season’s surprise package Tennessee, claimed a record sixth Super Bowl in Tampa in February with their dramatic late win over surprise finalists Arizona and coach Mike Tomlin has the key ingredients of that success still at hand.
Powerful quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and agile wide-receiver Santonio Holmes, who combined to win the championship with 35 seconds remaining, are a superbly effective offensive combination.
If there is a more devastating pairing than the Steelers duo then it is found in New England where Brady and Randy Moss will be back together.
Brady suffered a serious knee injury in last season’s opener and without him the Patriots lost the AFC East to the Miami Dolphins. With their quarterback fit again, coach Bill Belichick will expect a return to the kind of form that gave them a 16-0 regular season record two years ago.
While the Giants, with a rock solid defense and Eli Manning at quarterback, are the best of the Big Apple, city rivals the Jets will be fascinating to follow with Sanchez, a big hit in college football with the University of Southern California, working under new head coach Rex Ryan.
Ryan, whose father Buddy was a noted NFL head coach, takes his first head coach job after impressive work as defensive coordinator at the Baltimore Ravens.
There is no shortage of personalities or storylines for the new season but on a tactical level it will also be fascinating to see how widely used last year’s innovative ‘wildcat’ offense will be.
The play -- with the snap being taken by a running back and the quarterback either out wide or on the bench -- was introduced by the Dolphins coach Tony Sparano but quickly adopted by other teams adding a little college football variety to the normally conservative approach of NFL teams.
Editing by Sonia Oxley