By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - The hard road to the Super Bowl starts on Thursday with the established NFL powers facing challenges from old foes and some fresher faces looking to get their hands on the Vince Lombardi trophy.
The 16-game regular season kicks off with a mouthwatering clash -- the defending champions, the New Orleans Saints, in a re-match of last season's NFC Championship game with Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings.
While both those teams have clear Super Bowl aspirations again - Favre looking for one last push for the prize and the popular Saints keen to repeat their first ever success - there are no shortage of rivals who believe, at this stage, that they have what it takes.
The irony in Favre's latest 'comeback' is that the team he graced for 16 years, NFC North rivals the Green Bay Packers, are picked by many experts as the favorites to win, not only the division, but the Super Bowl.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has matured since taking over from Favre and with an impressive offense, ranked sixth in the league last year, Green Bay and their coach Mike McCarthy are banking on continuity with their young roster.
Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts have been in two of the last four Super Bowls - winning in 2007 and losing to the Saints last year - and they are expected to dominate the AFC South again and likely go deep into the playoffs.
Manning is not only the most accomplished passing quarterback in the league, he has a range of quality options available as receivers which should ensure that the Colts are once again among the highest scoring teams.
If the AFC South is the easiest division to pick, the AFC East is the NFL's version of 'a group of death'.
The New York Jets, with their boneshaking defense, solid running game and larger than life head coach Rex Ryan, have made plenty of pre-season noise, largely through a reality television show that has depicted the colorful language in their training camp.
The addition of wide-receiver Brandon Marshall, a trade from Denver, should be a key missing ingredient for the Miami Dolphins although their young quarterback Chad Henne still has to prove himself as a starter.
The division favorites, once again, are the New England Patriots with the return of quality receiver Wes Welker from injury giving quarterback Tom Brady another inside along with deep threat Randy Moss.
Another fascinating division, as always, is the NFC East where the Washington Redskins hope to benefit from a new quarterback in Donovan McNabb brought in from the Philadelphia Eagles as they aim to improve radically on last year's poor 4-12 record
McNabb's departure has given a chance to his former under-study Kevin Kolb at the Eagles, the quarterback's fourth year in the league but his first as starter comes with instant pressure from demanding fans.
The New York Giants, Super Bowl winners three years ago, have one of the strongest defensive lines in the game and a lift in their offensive performance could produce a challenge this season.
Pressure is on the Dallas Cowboys, who host the Super Bowl this year and hope to be present at the party, a feat no team has ever managed. To do so, they will have to protect their quarterback Tony Romo and he will have to finally deliver the stellar year he has promised.
Fearsome linebacker Ray Lewis and brilliant running back Ray Rice should ensure that the Baltimore Ravens are in the frame but neither of their divisional rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals, can be ruled out.
The Steelers will be without their suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the first four games of the season but they do welcome back outstanding safety Troy Polamalu from injury while the Bengals have added plenty of quality but face a very tough schedule.
The San Diego Chargers should win what is arguably the league's weakest division, the AFC West, but the question remains whether they can finally find their form in the playoffs.
As always, rookie quarterbacks provide a fascinating subplot to the season, with this year's crop featuring two players who won the Heisman Trophy in their Sophomore year.
College sensation Tim Tebow, out of Florida, will have plenty of attention on him at Denver but the classy Sam Bradford who St. Louis drafted after he impressed so much with Oklahoma, will probably see more playing time.