Super NFL opener

The last two teams to capture the Super Bowl open the 2011/12 NFL season Thursday night on NBC when the New Orleans Saints travel to Wisconsin to play the Green Bay Packers.

Most sports books monitored by the SportsOptions odds product have the Packers listed as four-point home favorites, with the total set at 47 points.

Green Bay appears better on paper right now than it did last year on the way to a Super Bowl title. After all, the Packers participated in the championship game without key injured players such as Jermaichael Finley, Morgan Burnet, Ryan Grant, Nick Barnett, Mike Neal, Brandon Chillar and Brad Jones.

Neal is the lone member of that group who may not play in Thursday’s opener. The big defensive end is listed as “questionable” with a knee injury.

Other Packers listed as “questionable” include CB Devon House (ankle), TE Ryan Taylor (ankle), WR James Jones (knee) and LB Frank Zombo (shoulder).

Quarterback Aaron Rogers is coming off a breakout season despite suffering two concussions. Improving the running game, with James Starks at the forefront, will be a must for head man Mike McCarthy if he hopes to keep Rogers healthy for the entire campaign.

The Packers finished ninth in total offense last season at 358.1 yards per game, and fifth defensively at 309.1 yards per outing. They were second in points allowed (240) and fourth in turnover differential (plus 10).

Green Bay began this year’s preseason campaign with a 27-17 loss at Cleveland before reeling off three straight wins against Arizona (28-20), Indianapolis (24-21) and Kansas City (21-20). That translated into a 1-2-1 ATS mark, with the ‘over’ cashing on all four occasions.

New Orleans followed its 2009 Super Bowl championship with last year’s first-round playoff loss to a Seattle squad that finished the regular season with a losing record.

Nevertheless, the Saints still posses one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Drew Brees, one of the best offensive minds in coach Sean Payton and one of the best defensive coordinators in Gregg Williams.

They also have the same nucleus of players who jumped out to a 13-0 start en route to that 2009 championship run.

The New Orleans running game was decimated by injuries last season, which turned the club into a one-dimensional team. After all, the Saints were down to their eighth tailback by season’s end. They are hoping the addition of rookie Mark Ingram and renewed heath can alleviate that problem.

The Saints’ secondary collapsed in the playoff loss to Seattle, which was disappointing considering how well they played all year. They were fourth in total defense, allowing 306.2 YPG, and seventh in total points allowed (307).

New Orleans ranked sixth offensively with a 372.5 YPG average, and third in passing with an average of 277.6 yards per pass.

However, the Saints were a poor 26th in turnover differential with a minus-six.

The Saints alternated straight-up and spread wins and losses during their recently completed four-game preseason. They registered wins and covers against San Francisco (24-3) and Oakland (40-20) in the first and third week, while suffering SU and ATS losses to Houston (27-14) and Tennessee (32-9) in the second and fourth week. The ‘over’ cashed in three of the four outings.

New Orleans and Green Bay have not met since the 2008 campaign when the Saints pounded the Packers 51-29 as one-point home favorites. The combined 80 points soared above the 51 ½-point closing total, enabling the ‘over’ to cash in each of the last five matchups.

The Packers are 7-2 ATS in their last nine games in the role of a favorite and 20-8-1 ATS in their last 29 overall outings. They finished last season by going 5-1 ATS in their last six home encounters. The ‘over’ also went 5-1 during those last six home contests.

The Saints went 1-4 ATS in their last five road games last season, with the ‘over’ also going 4-1. They were 2-5 ATS in their last seven overall outings. However, the Saints are 4-1 ATS in their last five contests as a road underdog between 3 ½ and 10 points.

Thursday night’s weather forecast in Green Bay calls for clear skies and light winds, with temperatures in the low 60s.

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