NFL season preview: Steelers to send Green Bay packing in Super Bowl LI

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NFL season preview: Steelers to send Green Bay packing in Super Bowl LI

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) scores a touchdown as he leaps over Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan (59) in Super Bowl 50. (TNS)

Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) scores a touchdown as he leaps over Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan (59) in Super Bowl 50. (TNS)


Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) scores a touchdown as he leaps over Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan (59) in Super Bowl 50. (TNS)



Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart (28) scores a touchdown as he leaps over Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan (59) in Super Bowl 50. (TNS)

By Steve Rotstein / Sports Editor

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When the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers square off on Thursday night, it will be exactly seven months since the Broncos defeated the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, 24-10.

The Super Bowl rematch to kick off the 2016-17 NFL season will mark the first time since 1970 the previous year’s Super Bowl opponents have played the first week the following year.

A lot has changed for both teams since Feb. 7, as future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning announced his retirement and the Panthers traded away All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman.

As for the rest of the league, this is how you can expect the new season to play out:

AFC East

Since Tom Brady became the New England Patriots’ starting quarterback during the 2001 season, the Patriots have won the AFC East division in 13 out of 15 seasons –– including the past seven in a row.

This year, Brady faces a four-game suspension to start the season because of Deflategate, and unlike last year, he’s actually going to serve his time. Still, it’s tough to imagine another team in the division, either the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills or Miami Dolphins, having a strong enough season to dethrone the Patriots. If anyone has a chance to do it, it’s the Jets.

Predicted division winner: New England Patriots

AFC North

Speaking of suspensions, the Pittsburgh Steelers are dealing with a couple of their own. All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell is going to miss the first three games of the season for missing a drug test while dynamic wide receiver Martavis Bryant will miss the entire season for failing a drug test.

It’s not the first time the Steelers have lost Bell and Bryant to suspensions, and they do still have the best wide receiver in the game in Antonio Brown and a very capable backup running back in DeAngelo Williams. The suspensions will open the door for the Cincinnati Bengals to repeat as AFC North champions, but the Steelers will be the best team in the division once Bell returns.

Predicted division winner: Pittsburgh Steelers

AFC South

Last year’s AFC South champion Houston Texans have won three of the last seven division crowns while the Indianapolis Colts have won the last four. Both the Texans and Colts have a shot to win it again this year, but neither is the favorite.

Led by an explosive young offense featuring quarterback Blake Bortles and wide receiver Allen Robinson, the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars enter the season as the odds-on favorite to win the AFC South. Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans may be a long shot, but don’t be surprised if they make a run at the division title this year as well.

Predicted division winner: Jacksonville Jaguars

AFC West

The Denver Broncos are the reigning Super Bowl champions, but after losing quarterback Peyton Manning to retirement –– along with his very capable backup, Brock Osweiler, to free agency –– they won’t even be the best team in their division this year.

Expect the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders to battle it out for the AFC West crown while the Broncos finish just behind them in third place. The Chiefs return running back Jamaal Charles and feature playmakers all over the defense while young stars Derek Carr, Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack will make the Raiders a force for years to come.

Denver might still have the best defense, but both Oakland and Kansas City have more experienced quarterbacks and more well-rounded rosters.

Predicted division winner: Kansas City Chiefs

NFC East

As usual, the NFC East is a wide-open division that anybody can win.

Now that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo is expected to miss at least half the season with a back injury, the New York Giants have the most accomplished quarterback by far in two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning –– as well as the best player in the division in wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

Last year’s division winner, the Washington Redskins, added cornerback Josh Norman in an attempt to slow the Giants down. Expect the New Year’s Day matchup between the Giants and Redskins in the last week of the regular season to decide this year’s NFC East title.

Predicted division winner: New York Giants

NFC North

The Minnesota Vikings ended the Green Bay Packers’ streak of four straight division titles last season, but the Vikings’ chances to repeat took a big hit after losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the season with a torn ACL and dislocated knee.

Minnesota traded for Sam Bradford to replace Bridgewater, but he has a history of being injury-prone. Even if he can stay healthy, the Packers are easily the best team in the division this year with two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.

Predicted division winner: Green Bay Packers

NFC South

Last year’s NFC South champion Carolina Panthers started the 2015 season 14-0 before finishing 15-1 and eventually falling to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50. Led by reigning NFL MVP Cam Newton, the Panthers return top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from an ACL injury to the highest-scoring offense in the league.

Carolina’s offense will be scary, but the strength of their team is the defense –– featuring All-Pro linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The Panthers should be far and away the best team in the division again in 2016.

Predicted division winner: Carolina Panthers

NFC West

The Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals, arguably the top two teams in the NFC, should lead a two-team race again to decide the NFC West champion. Both teams have high-powered offenses led by Pro Bowl quarterbacks, but both are known more for their hard-hitting defenses.

No matter which team wins the division, expect the second-place finisher to make it into the playoffs as a Wild Card team with a chance to make a deep postseason run. The health of talented second-year running backs David Johnson of Arizona and Thomas Rawls of Seattle will play a big role in deciding which team comes out on top.

Predicted division winner: Seattle Seahawk

AFC Wild Card Round

Chiefs over Raiders

Jaguars over Bengals

NFC Wild Card Round

Seahawks over Vikings

Cardinals over Giants

AFC Divisional Round

Patriots over Jaguars

Steelers over Chiefs

NFC Divisional Round

Panthers over Cardinals

Packers over Seahawks

AFC Championship Game

Steelers over Patriots

NFC Championship Game

Packers over Panthers

Super Bowl LI

Steelers 31, Packers 27

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