After a 4 1/2-month lockout brought about an offseason that was known more for mediation and court appearances than minicamps and organized team activities, the NFL has a reward for its fans: a mini-Super Bowl.
OK, it’s not a title game. But it is a rare treat: a matchup of the past two Super Bowl winners — the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers — opening the 2011 regular season on Thursday night in Lambeau Field.
For the eighth straight year, the reigning Super Bowl champs will host the first game of Kickoff Weekend. But there’s a little more to it as it’s the first time the current champions square off with the team it succeeded when the Packers and Saints meet at 7:30 p.m.
Two Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks will be on the same field for only the fifth time in NFL history — and first since 1993 — when the Saints’ Drew Brees and Packers’ Aaron Rodgers get together.
But there’s more with playmakers, All-Pros and Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball for Saints coach Sean Payton and Packers coach Mike McCarthy and their defensive coordinators, Gregg Williams and Dom Capers.
Add it all up and it’s a big early season test for two teams that are among three or four clubs being talked about as a possible NFC representative in Super Bowl XLVI in February.
It’s a challenge the Saints, who finished second in the NFC South a year ago before losing in the NFC wild-card game to the Seattle Seahawks, know well: They’ll be playing in the NFL opener for the third time in five seasons.
Last season, the Saints opened with a 14-9 win over the Minnesota Vikings, the team it beat to advance to Super Bowl XLIV after the 2009 season. In 2007, the Saints dropped a 41-10 decision to the Indianapolis Colts.
Still, it’s a challenge the Saints, who don’t mind playing in high-profile games, embrace from year to year under Payton.
“We’re up for the challenge to just go up there and do what we can do,” tackle Jermon Bushrod said. “We’re really looking forward to it. We have been thinking about this game since they said we were in it (in March). It’s the last two Super Bowl champions playing an interesting game in a great football environment.”
Brees said his team has gotten used to the media and fan spectacle the game has become, especially when the Super Bowl champion is playing its first real game in its home stadium since winning the title.
“The biggest thing for us is just understanding that we need to hunker down, eliminate distractions, focus on the game and not get caught up in all of the hoopla,” he said. “We understand how excited they’re going to be; they’re going to come out all jacked up just like we did last year.
“We just need to weather the storm and really stay focused on the task.”
That’s easier said than done against the Packers.
They’re still on a major roll after winning their last two regular-season games and surviving three road playoff games to set up a Super Bowl date with the Pittsburgh Steelers, whom they defeated 31-26.
The Saints see a lot of themselves when they look at the Packers with exciting offenses that are tailored to the innovative play-calling of Payton and McCarthy, who was the Saints offensive coordinator from 2000-04, and aggressive, smash-mouth defenses run by Williams and Capers.
“I would say there are a lot of similarities: Both defenses are attack-style defenses, and both offenses are attack-style offenses,” Brees said. “I think there are a lot similarities you can draw here.
“We’re both in the NFC, and we both won the Super Bowl the last couple of years. We both feel like we are poised to make another run at it this year, so it doesn’t get any better than this.”
Despite all the star power and talk about Vince Lombardi trophies, the spotlight is going to shine mainly on Brees and Rodgers, who in only three years as a starter has added his name to most of the conversations that include Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Brees.
“He’s very accurate, his release is fantastic, and he’s very experienced in the system,” Payton said. “So the logical thing you would say is you can’t allow a quarterback like that to be comfortable.
“As this game unfolds, the ability of both teams to protect their passer and allow them to find a rhythm obviously becomes important.”
What’s more important, Brees said, is to remember that it’s one game of 16 on the schedule. While it’s the only game in the league, and everyone will be watching, it counts as one game.
“We see ourselves as a great team and as a contender, and they see themselves as a great team and as a contender,” Brees said. “The fact of the matter is it’s one game, and it just happens to be the first game of the season on a Thursday night on national television.
“You just try to cut through all that and understand it’s just a game — and it’s just one game. We know that if we go out and play our best, we have a great chance to win.”
It’s the same for the Packers and the low-keyed McCarthy.
“I’ve been in this league long enough to know that when people say nice things about you, you should just say thank you,” he said. “I look at this game the same way. It’s a compliment that we’re playing in this game.
“There’s a reason why we’re playing in this game. But really, in my mind and my message to the team is, that’s as far as it goes.”