This isn't how things work with a normal NFL team.
When a normal NFL team loses its top wide receiver for the season in August, football fans understandably question the aerial attack's viability.
But this isn't a normal NFL team. This is an NFL team with the single greatest quarterback and head coach in the history of the game.
Forgive me if I sound unoriginal. In fact, I see the final game of this season being a rematch of the final game of last season. That's right. You can flip the calendar to Feb. 4 and mark it down right now: Patriots vs. Falcons at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. And yes, I see Brady and Belichick lifting the Lombardi Trophy once again.
Don't believe me? Well, allow me to explain the logic, starting with the NFC side of things ...
Now, let's get one thing straight right off the bat: The Super Bowl hangover isn't just hot air. The team that loses on the NFL's biggest stage consistently struggles in the following season. As I pointed out in a column a few months back ... Since 2000, half of the Super Bowl losers missed the next postseason entirely. Just two made it back to the conference title game. NONE returned to the Super Bowl.
Except, wait a second: No, they aren't.
I loved chatting with Ryan last week -- the reigning NFL MVP talked about the great energy in practice and collective focus on every day's work.
"We're past it at this point," Ryan told me of Super Bowl LI. "There's a little bit of it that's always gonna drive you."
I know some of you are rolling your eyes, thinking these Falcons will NEVER get over such an epic defeat. But I believe Ryan. I believe in his leadership. And you know I believe in this team's immense talent.
Ryan explained to me how new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is adjusting to what worked so well last year in Atlanta. That's wise. After all, the Falcons averaged an NFL-high 33.8 points per game in 2016. And they return nearly every single starter on offense. Right guard is the only real starting spot with a newbie, following the retirement of Chris Chester. The rest of the O-line -- which was rock solid last year -- remains intact. And of course, Ryan is flanked by playmakers on all sides. This begins with Julio Jones -- an absolute freak of nature who stands out in a league comprised of athletic marvels -- but he's not the only pass catcher of note. Last season, Mohamed Sanu proved to be a fine WR2 last season, Taylor Gabriel established himself as a potent deep threat and tight end Austin Hooper provided enticing flashes in Year 1. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the best backfield duo in the NFL: Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
Defensively, the Falcons really improved down the stretch last season. Now, this young, fast unit is ready to really take a step forward. Hard-hitting safety Keanu Neal anchors a solid defensive backfield, while speedy LBs Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell hold it down on the second level. Up front, the Falcons boast the league's reigning sack king (Vic Beasley) and a disruptive DT who gave the Pats absolute fits in the Super Bowl (Grady Jarrett). Atlanta also added athletic big man Dontari Poe in free agency, as well as pass rusher Takkarist McKinley and LB Duke Riley in the draft. (Riley, by the way, was one player Ryan encouraged me to keep my eye on for this season.) This unit is teeming with talent.
But no NFC team is better, pound for pound, than Atlanta. And I believe the Super Bowl hangover is actually a chip on the shoulder for this team -- one that'll drive the Falcons back to Super Sunday. I know it goes against history, but as I wrote back in May, Atlanta is ready to buck the trend. Now, when it comes to actually getting over that final hump and slaying the great beast of New England? Yeah, that's a whole other ball of wax ...
As we get back to the Patriots, though, let me get one thing straight right off the bat: The Julian Edelman injury is big. I don't want anything I said at the beginning of this column to downplay the impact there. Edelman is Tom Brady's favorite receiver. Edelman is Brady's Linus blanket, his comfort zone. And there's a reason for this: Edelman is a great Patriot. Think about all of the big third downs he has converted. Think about the big postseason plays he's made -- you know, like this one in February. In fact, Edelman is the franchise leader in postseason catches and yards. You can't duplicate his rapport with Brady. I find the conversation about replacing Edelman to be offensive. Danny Amendola isn't in the same league. Edelman is indispensable, given what he provides to New England.
Here's the thing, though: Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are the ultimate deodorant. It stinks for Edelman that he can't play all year after tearing his ACL. It stinks for Brady and the offense. But the GOATs will cover up that stench. They'll find a way to reshape this offense so it hums along in Edelman's absence. How do I know this? Because they just pulled off a similar feat.
Rob Gronkowski is a future Hall of Famer. He's one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history. (You can make an argument that he is the greatest tight end in NFL history.) Gronk's an irreplaceable force of nature. And yet, the Patriots just won a Super Bowl with Gronkowski missing the majority of the season.
Now Gronk's back in the mix -- rejoining Amendola, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Dion Lewis and Super Bowl hero James White in Brady's toy box. New England also added a legit No. 1 receiver in Brandin Cooks (still can't believe the heist the Pats pulled off there), as well as Dwayne Allen, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. Think Brady will be able to do a little damage with this arsenal?
On the defensive side of the ball, yes, the pass rush remains an area of concern. Kony Ealy's Pats tenure ended before it started. Rob Ninkovich is retired. Chris Long is in Philadelphia. Rookie Derek Rivers is out for the year with a torn ACL of his own. It's a thing. But Bill Belichick is also a defensive savant -- his unit is always greater than the sum of its parts. Trey Flowers became a force in the back half of last season and truly arrived on the Super Bowl stage, with 2.5 sacks and six tackles. Will anyone be surprised if the 24-year-old follows that up with a big 2017 campaign? And I still can't get over how, after all of the Malcolm Butler back and forth, New England is going to actually employ both Butler and Stephon Gilmore. This defense will be just fine.
And here's the real question: Who can beat New England in the AFC?