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Aaron Rodgers seen in preseason action for Green Bay on Aug. 19. ((Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press))

An enormous banner not far from Lambeau Field features the last two Super Bowl MVPs - Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.

Not too long ago, it was far from certain that this glamorous matchup of the past two Super Bowl champions would take place.

But a tumultuous offseason has finally given rise to this star-studded NFL season opener at Lambeau, with Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers taking on Brees and the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.

"It's great to be able to celebrate the return of football. It was a rough offseason with the lockout," Rodgers said. "The fans, I'm sure, were wondering if there was going to be football."

The lockout created a mad scramble among the league's 32 teams to get ready for 2011. Those teams are all targeting Green Bay after Rodgers guided the franchise to its fourth Super Bowl title by throwing for nine touchdowns and 1,094 yards in the Packers' four-game postseason run.

"We're a confident bunch," wide receiver James Jones said. "We truly don't pay attention to who everybody gets, we truly don't care who everybody gets. We believe when we step on that field we're going to win the game, no matter who it is."

Coach Mike McCarthy is dealing with a new set of distractions for his defending champions, starting with the NFL's mammoth pregame concert.

"I think it's the highest compliment to your football team and your organization [to play in this game], but after the smoke clears and the celebration stops, it's a football game," McCarthy said. "This is a celebration for our fans. That's the way I look at it.

"I look forward to playing the Saints. This is the Packers versus the Saints. We're really focused on the game."

Brees and the Saints won't be awed by the festive atmosphere. This is the third time in five years they'll be playing in the league opener, having defeated Minnesota last year in New Orleans and losing at Indianapolis in 2007.

"We've experienced that from a home aspect standpoint, we've experienced it already as an away team," said coach Sean Payton, whose contract was extended through 2015 on Monday. "That first game always has that added excitement about it."

Brees put together his third straight season with at least 33 touchdowns in 2010, leading the NFC with 4,620 passing yards and helping New Orleans go 11-5 to return to the playoffs. The Saints, however, were stunned by Seattle in their first postseason game in their bid to repeat.

They know exactly what the Packers are going through this week.

"The emotions are high, obviously," Brees said. "The NFL does a lot in and around the game with media and the entertainment and all the stuff. It's the kickoff to the season, so the fans and everybody are excited to start the season.

"[If] you're the defending Super Bowl champs, they're going to unveil the flag saying they're the champs. It's a special feeling."

Brees tried to minimize the effect of the lockout by holding players-only workouts that reportedly were the best-attended among all teams.

"We got a lot of young guys ahead of the curve during that process so that walking into camp, it's not that big of a shock to them when they get the playbook and it's that thick and they haven't had a chance to really look at it," Brees said.

"I feel like we've been together because, in reality, we were together."

He'll get a chance to hand off to former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, drafted with the 28th overall pick. Ingram will replace another player who won the Heisman in Reggie Bush, who was traded to Miami.

The Packers went 10-6 for a wild-card berth last year, and they could be even better with some key players back healthy. Dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley and starting running back Ryan Grant are among that group.

"The drive we've got in this locker room is amazing," Finley said. "I think this is going to be a special team right here."

It all starts with Rodgers, who finally put aside the doubts about whether he could replace Brett Favre by leading the Packers to the same amount of Super Bowl victories as the former legend.

"Whether we give or don't give different looks, Aaron Rodgers is a smart guy," Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. "He'll figure it out before the end of the game."