The 2017 NFL season kicks off on Thursday night, with the Kansas City Chiefs traveling to Foxboro for a clash with the 2016 Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots. Here are the teams and story lines to watch once the games finally get started.
In the AFC, it all begins and probably ends with the Evil Empire known as the New England Patriots. As long Bill Belichick is anywhere near the Patriots’ sideline and Tom Brady is bowing under center, New England is a virtual lock for the AFC East Title and the odds on favorite to advance to the Super Bowl.
The most interesting team in the AFC West might be the Oakland Raiders. With Derek Carr coming into the season healthy and ready to make up for lost time, the Raiders might lack the element of surprise they had going for them last year, but they have enough playmakers to contend in the West. And if there’s anything left of Marshawn Lynch’s beast mode status, they could go even further.
The other two AFC Super Bowl contenders both come from the always bruising Central Division. The Baltimore Ravens beefed up an already elite defense during the offseason and could make a run at the Patriots if QB Joe Flacco can have even a decent season. A similar situation holds true in Pittsburgh– a defense with the talent to get them there and a QB who may or may not have another championship run in him.
Over in the NFC, no less than six teams could be called legitimate or long shot Super Bowl contenders. The balance of power in the conference seems to have shifted to the NFC East, with both the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles in this year’s title conversation. And even if Ezekiel Elliott’s six game suspension stands, with the Cowboys’ offensive line, Dak Prescott, and Dez Bryant shouldering the load, Dallas could in the mix as well.
Look for Green Bay to come out of the gate strong under the leadership of Aaron Rodgers and an improved defense. These two elements should be enough to hold off Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions for at least one more year, but the Packers have been a bit erratic the last few years.
The Atlanta Falcons come in as heavy favorites to win the NFC South, despite their still nauseating Super Bowl meltdown, but some observers see the Jameis Winston and his hard charging Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a legitimate challenge.