Despite an anxious off-season that featured a four and a half-month lockout amid labour unrest between the NFL owners and players, the 2011 campaign will begin much like any other in recent years.
In other words, it will be very difficult to predict the Super Bowl winner.
The race to reach Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis in February is set to be as wide open as ever.
Off the top of my head, I can think of eight or nine teams who have a genuine shot at championship glory this season, and that's not even taking into account the obligatory dark horse or two that seems to emerge from nowhere each year.
I'll continue my look ahead to the 2011 season in the AFC with teams listed in my predicted order of finish within their respective divisions.
New England Patriots
The combination of future Hall of Famers at head coach (Bill Belichick) and quarterback (Tom Brady, pictured) gives the Patriots a chance to win every time they step on the field. They enter the year as many people's Super Bowl favourites having made considerable improvements to a roster that recorded 14 wins and two losses in 2010. I wonder how much they can get out of veteran receiver Chad Ochocinco, but I still see the Pats winning the AFC title this year.
New Orleans @ Green Bay
1.00am, Fri, Sky Sports HD2
>Pittsburgh @ Baltimore
5.30pm, Sun, Sky Sports HD3
NY Giants @ Washington
9.00pm, Sun, Sky Sports HD3
New York Jets
Outspoken head coach Rex Ryan insists his team is ready to take the next step having fallen at the AFC Championship Game stage in each of the past two seasons. Ryan is a players' coach who gets the best out of his roster. The addition of wide receiver Plaxico Burress gives Mark Sanchez (pictured) a nice red zone target but I do wonder if the Jets upgraded their roster enough during the off-season.
The Dolphins return a defense that was among the best in the NFL from a year ago and that unit will keep Tony Sparano's club respectable. Running back Reggie Bush (pictured) adds playmaking skill to the offense and wide receiver Brandon Marshall has enjoyed a strong preseason. But I doubt the Dolphins have enough class at the quarterback position with Chad Henne to be a playoff team.
The Bills are rebuilding and it is going to take a while before they are truly competitive again. Their offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL and while the defense - including linebacker Shawne Merriman (pictured) - should be improved, it is still a sub-par unit.
It will be hard for the Ravens to topple the Steelers and I expect both teams to make the playoffs from this division. Joe Flacco has more athletic targets to throw to with Lee Evans and rookie Torrey Smith adding speed alongside Anquan Boldin. Ray Rice (pictured) should have a big year at running back and linebacker Ray Lewis will lead an always-tough defense. This well-run team will be a contender.
Pittsburgh's defense is aggressive and productive, but it is also old with an average age well in excess of 30. That should not be a problem this season, but some fresh blood needs to be introduced at some point. Offensive line is always a concern but 'Big' Ben Roethlisberger (pictured) has lots of offensive weapons, including emerging young receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to compliment veteran Hines Ward and the speedy Mike Wallace.
The Browns are slowly heading in the right direction and have a good-looking young quarterback in Colt McCoy (pictured). But they just don't have enough talent across the board. Rugged running back Peyton Hillis is going to wear defenses down in 2011 but this is not a Browns team ready for the playoffs just yet. Give them a couple of years and they could make their passionate fans proud.
The Bengals are preparing to take their lumps in 2011 as they line up with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton under center. It is going to be virtually impossible for a rookie passer to shine in the NFL this season given the fact that so much of the off-season was wiped out by the lockout. Dalton and rookie wideout A.J. Green offer hope for the future, but don't expect too much now.
Is one of the most frustrating teams in recent NFL history ready to make the playoffs for the first time? It seems the Texans are talked about as dark horses year after year and they always disappoint. Now they appear stocked to make a run at the division title and they'd better or head coach Gary Kubiak could be out of a job. The offense, featuring quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster (pictured) and wide receiver Andre Johnson, has been good for years. Now the once-porous defense has been given a major make-over, offering Texans fans genuine hope - again!
The Colts have made the playoffs an NFL-best nine times in a row but whether they can turn that into 10 depends on the health of star quarterback Peyton Manning (pictured). The four-time NFL Most Valuable Player underwent neck surgery in May and only began limited practice at the end of August. That prompted the Colts to tempt 38-year-old passer Kerry Collins out of retirement. The Colts are not quite a one-man team, but there is not a club in the NFL that would suffer such a drastic drop-off in talent if their quarterback were to go down.
Head coach Jack Del Rio insists his Jags are "ready to take control of the division" but they seriously struggle to slow opposing attacks and they rely too heavily on running back Maurice Jones-Drew on offense. That would not be such a problem if it were not for the fact that Jones-Drew has limped through much of the preseason while recovering from off-season knee surgery. Del Rio is running out of time in Jacksonville and can consider himself well and truly on the hot seat.
The Titans don't appear set to contend in 2011. The club finally parted company with troublesome quarterback Vince Young in the off-season and drafted Jake Locker in the first round to be the guy for the future. The guy for this season is veteran Matt Hasselbeck (pictured), who has struggled to stay healthy for the past couple of years with the Seattle Seahawks. One happy man in Tennessee will be star running back Chris Johnson, who inked a new four-year contract worth $53.5 million on the eve of the new season.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers had a down year in 2010 but I expect them to come storming back in 2011. Philip Rivers remains one of the truly elite quarterbacks in the league and has a fine trio of receiving targets in wideouts Vincent Jackson (pictured), Malcom (correct) Floyd and tight end Antonio Gates. The defense is strong and the special teams simply cannot be as awful as it was a year ago. The Chargers are set to re-establish themselves as the class of the division.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are the reigning AFC West champions but a tougher schedule could easily see them slide back towards the middle of the pack. Matt Cassel has not looked very impressive at QB during the preseason but he has a strong rushing attack to lean on with Jamaal Charles (pictured) and Thomas Jones. KC are not about to go from first to worst, but they do face a tough challenge to repeat this season.
The Silver and Black have some strong points but they could find themselves undone by having a young offensive line and a secondary that has been seriously depleted by losing All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency. Running backs Darren McFadden (pictured) and Michael Bush will provide the offensive punch for a team that should finish in the middle of the pack.
Veteran coach John Fox will have his work cut out to make the Broncos contenders this season. Kyle Orton keeps proving his doubters wrong at quarterback but their defense is pretty poor. There is some hope for the future, however, as outside linebackers Elvis Dumervil (pictured) and rookie Von Miller could form quite a devastating partnership. They will be well worth keeping an eye on in 2011.
Neil's AFC picks
Division Champions: New England, Baltimore, Houston and San Diego
Wild Card Berths: Pittsburgh, New York Jets
Super Bowl Representative: New England