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