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Path back to the Super Bowl for Patriots, Falcons

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The storylines surrounding the two Super Bowl LI teams have diverged over the past two months.

After hoisting their second Lombardi Trophy in three years, the Patriots are seemingly determined to enter win-now mode. After splurging on wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and a revamped backfield, New England will enter the 2017 season as the consensus favorites for another Super Bowl appearance.

For all of the certainty over the Pats' prospects, the Falcons have been surrounded by skepticism since blowing a 25-point lead in the biggest game of the franchise's half-century history. Forget the "Super Bowl hangover" narrative. Losing unmatched offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a more tangible concern for Atlanta's chances of repeating in the NFC South.

Now that the 2017 schedule has been released, let's examine the path back to the Super Bowl for each conference champion.

Road to a Patriots Return


Based on several metrics, Football Outsiders has reached the conclusion that the Patriots boast the NFL's easiest schedule in 2017. Based on common sense, we realize the Super Bowl champions have an inherent advantage in that they don't have to play against the loaded New England outfit. With health as a caveat, they won't face a single opponent with a stronger roster.

Bill Belichick's squad also enjoys six matchups versus the depleted Jets, the perennially rebuilding Bills and the wild-card Dolphins in a division owned by the Patriots.

Outside of the AFC East, though, the Pats won't face any pushovers. The Chiefs, Saints, Texans, Panthers, Buccaneers, Falcons, Chargers, Broncos, Raiders and Steelers all have realistic playoff aspirations this season.

The Dec. 17 clash with Pittsburgh could loom large for playoff seeding.

Any conference powerhouse hoping to overtake the returning champs should be prepared to make a run before the Patriots close out the season with home games versus the Bills and Jets. From Halloween until the Christmas Eve bout with Buffalo, New England plays in Gillette Stadium just once -- Nov. 26 versus Miami.

Road to a Falcons Return


If Dan Quinn's club is a serious threat for a Super Bowl return, the season opener at Chicago should function as a mere prelude to the potential Sunday Night Football shootout with the Packers in Week 2. After edging Green Bay in a 33-32 thriller in late October, Atlanta cruised to a 44-21 victory three months later in the NFC Championship Game.

The NFC South draws the AFC East for inter-conference play, which means the Falcons should benefit from the same advantage the Patriots have been exploiting for two decades. The obvious exception is the Super Bowl LI rematch at New England on Oct. 22.

Atlanta's first-place schedule also brings a potential midseason pitfall with back-to-back games versus Dallas and at Seattle.

After running that gauntlet, the Falcons will close out the season by doing battle with division rivals in five of the final six weeks. In fact, they will face the upstart Bucs and the high-flying Saints two times apiece in that span.

If the Falcons are going to repeat atop the division, they will have to knock off the Panthers -- the NFC South champs from 2013 to 2015 -- in the season finale. That showdown will take place in Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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