Will New England be able to defend its SBLI title as Tom Brady continues to age? Who will be the Patriots’ chief competitors this season? The answer lays close to home.
Adam Lindner | Sports Editor
Thursday evening, the Kansas City Chiefs will face the reigning Super Bowl LI champion New England Patriots at 8:30 p.m. in Foxborough, Massachusetts, effectively ushering in the NFL’s new season.
Even as a new season commences, much remains the same, including many of the teams that are regarded as favorites.
Perennial AFC kingpin New England looks as strong as ever, even with its seemingly-ageless quarterback Tom Brady entering this season at 40 years old. An argument can be made that Brady may struggle to endure an entire 16-game slate, as last year he returned from a controversial — yet, in the end, rejuvenating — four-game suspension only to inherit a 3-1 Patriots team in Week 5.
New England went on to finish the regular season 14-2 and made light work of AFC challengers Houston and Pittsburgh during the postseason.
Super Bowl LI went on to become one of sports’ most unbelievable comebacks, as the Patriots overcame a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 deficit midway through the third quarter of play to the Atlanta Falcons. Following Atlanta’s last score with 8:31 left in the third quarter, New England scored 31 unanswered points en route to a 34-28 OT victory.
With his fifth Super Bowl victory, Tom Brady passed all-time greats Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana for the most Super Bowl victories of all-time for a starting quarterback.
In the offseason, New England chose to actively upgrade their roster instead of simply standing pat, notably adding star wide receiver Brandin Cooks in a trade with the New Orleans Saints.
Ironically, during a preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Aug. 25, Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman suffered a torn ACL in his right knee,
rendering him out for the upcoming season.
While Cooks and Edelman will have to wait at least one year to share targets in New England together, the addition of such a fast and skilled wide receiver to Tom Brady’s repertoire in Cooks all but negates the loss of Edelman for the Patriots. While it’s unfortunate that New England will be without one of their main emotional leaders in Edelman, Cooks will make up for all that Edelman provided running routes for Brady.
Supplemented by a stellar offensive line, a talented cast of running backs that includes Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis and James White, a fiery, undrafted wide receiver that blossomed last season in Chris Hogan and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots are well-positioned to reign supreme in the AFC East once again en route to a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs this season.
Barring injuries to key components this year, the Patriots remain a favorite to win Super Bowl LII.
Elsewhere in the AFC, top teams made moves necessary to improve their rosters in addition to New England.
Coming off of a disappointing 36-17 defeat to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last winter, the Pittsburgh Steelers were notably aggressive in upgrading their team this summer.
Usually quiet during free agency, the Steelers made a splash this August when they signed two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden to a three-year, $27 million contract after he was released by the Cleveland Browns.
In recent seasons, Pittsburgh’s secondary has been a significant weakness for the team, and with 35-year-old franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger uncommitted to playing football beyond this season, the Steelers’ brass began to act is if the team’s championship window is closing swiftly; at least, the championship window of the current iteration of the Steelers.
In the 2016 NFL Draft, Pittsburgh began to address their needs for defensive backs by selecting cornerback Artie Burns out of Miami (FL) and safety Sean Davis from Maryland with their first- and second-round picks.
Burns and Davis both made progress as rookies, and Davis played so well that he was named the Steelers Rookie of the Year for the 2016 campaign.
This offseason, Pittsburgh drafted Tennessee cornerback Cameron Sutton in the third-round, and added Haden and Buccaneers’ safety J.J. Wilcox through free agency and a trade, respectively.
If the Steelers’ three main offensive contributors — quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown — can stay healthy, as well as wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who returns from a year-long NFL suspension due to violating the league’s anti-drug abuse policy, Pittsburgh will have the ability to keep pace on the scoreboard with anyone.
It remains to be seen if the moves that the Steelers made to shore up their secondary this offseason will suffice. Haden, who has been prohibited by concussion issues over the course of the past few seasons, is now 28 and on the back end of his prime.
It’s likely that New England and Pittsburgh will meet in the AFC Championship once again, and the Steelers’ defense will face the ultimate test in trying to halt New England’s offensive attack, led by Tom Brady and newly-acquired Brandin Cooks.
Meanwhile, the NFC is wide-open, as reigning NFC Champion Atlanta will be accompanied at the top by counterparts Seattle, Green Bay and Dallas, among other teams.
Star Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension was recently upheld by an arbitrator, but he will be eligible to play Week 1 against the New York Giants regardless. The NFL prefers to avoid eligibility questions for a Sunday game extending beyond Tuesday, citing it as an issue of competitive advantage. Therefore, Elliott will be eligible to play Sunday night vs. the Giants, but then not again until Week 9 vs. the Kansas City Chiefs. However, reserve backs Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris should help to negate the temporary loss of Elliott from Weeks 2-7 for the Cowboys.
New Orleans awaits the debut of Adrian Peterson in a Saints uniform, and Green Bay, a perennial favorite in the NFC North, appears as well-equipped to challenge for the NFC.
Seattle remains a favorite in the NFC West thanks to their stout defense and the trusty play of quarterback Russell Wilson. The Giants are must-see TV as long as Odell Beckham, Jr. is in uniform, and this season he’ll be complemented by Brandon Marshall.
Casual fans and pundits alike can debate all that they please about the upcoming NFL season, but if Super Bowl LI taught us anything, it’s that we have no meaningful idea of what may transpire next.
Just ask Atlanta.
Super Bowl LII Predictions:
Sports Editor Adam Lindner:
Dallas 34, Pittsburgh 31
Editor-in-Chief Leah Devorak:
Minnesota 28, Miami 14
News Editor Raymond Arke:
Kansas City 24, Green Bay 21