2017 NFL preview: Patriots vs the field



Former Pitt start running back James Conner is now the back up back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. (TNS)

After one of the most stunning and unforgettable Super Bowls in recent memory, the 2016-17 NFL season ended the same way it always seems to — with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy as the champions.

For the third time in their five Super Bowl seasons, the Patriots sent the Pittsburgh Steelers packing in the AFC Championship Game, en route to the title. The Patriots and Steelers are stocked with talent again this year, but a new contender is approaching fast in the race for AFC supremacy.

Can anyone prevent the Patriots from forming another dynasty, or will they capture their third Super Bowl in four years? Let’s take a look.

AFC East

Three things in life are certain — death, taxes and the Patriots winning the AFC East.

OK, maybe that’s not exactly how Benjamin Franklin worded his famous quote, but the AFC East is perennially the easiest division to handicap in the NFL, if not all of sports. Even with Brady serving a four-game suspension to start the 2016-17 season, the Patriots breezed to their eighth straight division title on the way to claiming their fifth Super Bowl.

This year, Brady faces no such penalty, and he has a healthy Rob Gronkowski back at tight end — not to mention newly acquired speedster Brandin Cooks at wide receiver. Look for the Pats to run away with their ninth division title in a row.

Predicted division winner: New England Patriots

AFC North

Thanks to its fierce rivalries and bruising nature of play, the AFC North has earned the heartfelt moniker of the NFL’s “Black and Blue” division.

Last year was no different, as the division crown came down to the very last play of a classic Christmas Day matchup between the Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. That night at Heinz Field, All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown fought off a tackle from three Ravens defenders to reach the ball over the goal line and secure the division title for the Steelers. This year should be another three-team battle between the Steelers, Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.

The Ravens may boast the division’s best defense, and the Bengals are loaded with playmakers. But with Martavis Bryant back in the fold, the Steelers should have the best team overall.

Predicted division winner: Pittsburgh Steelers

AFC South

Always one of the more wide open divisions in the league, the AFC South once again has no clear favorite.

The Indianapolis Colts had a stronghold on the division for the first two years of Andrew Luck’s career, but the quarterback has struggled the last two seasons and is still recovering from an off-season shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans have won the last two division titles, doing so last year without three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

The return of a healthy Watt will certainly give the Texans a good chance to three-peat, but the Tennessee Titans may have the better overall roster and should give the Texans a good run for the top spot.

Predicted division winner: Tennessee Titans

AFC West

Expect another three-team race in the rugged AFC West between the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders.

The Chiefs ended the Broncos’ five-year streak of division titles last year, but they had to chase down Oakland to do so. The Raiders had the division all but locked up until star quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16, when the Chiefs took advantage.

Carr has recovered in time for the start of the 2017-18 season, and the Raiders also convinced running back Marshawn Lynch to come out of retirement to play for his hometown team. With Lynch joining Carr and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack, the Raiders have all the tools necessary to take home the division title.

Predicted division winner: Oakland Raiders

NFC East

The most parity-filled division in the NFL, the NFC East hasn’t seen a repeat division winner since the Philadelphia Eagles in 2004. Expect that streak to live on in 2017.

Last year’s division winner, the Dallas Cowboys, enter the season with superstar running back Ezekiel Elliott serving a six-game suspension. Quarterback Dak Prescott had a great rookie season alongside Elliott, but he may fall victim to a sophomore slump without the running back early on.

The New York Giants, meanwhile, still have ultra-talented wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — and they added future Hall of Fame receiver Brandon Marshall to line up alongside him. The Giants also have the best defense in the division and should have an explosive offense to boot.

Predicted division winner: New York Giants

NFC North

The Green Bay Packers have owned the NFC North in the Aaron Rodgers era — don’t expect that to change this year.

The Packers have won five division titles in the last six years, but three times they’ve needed to defeat a division rival in the last week of the season to do so. They did just that last year, beating the Detroit Lions on the road to finish 10-6 after a 4-6 start to the season.

When Rodgers plays like he did during the second half of last season, he’s the best player in the NFL. If he does so for a full season, no one in the North can stop the Packers.

Predicted division winner: Green Bay Packers

NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons ended the Carolina Panthers’ three-year run at the top of the NFC South last year, and nearly parlayed that momentum into a Super Bowl title.

After blowing a 25-point lead to New England in the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history, the Falcons are a prime candidate to suffer from the dreaded Super Bowl hangover. The Panthers could take home another division title, but they’d need quarterback Cam Newton to return to MVP form. And although the New Orleans Saints have struggled lately, they always have a shot with Drew Brees leading the way.

But this year’s team to watch is the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who added the explosive DeSean Jackson to provide a fearsome one-two punch at wide receiver with Mike Evans. All four teams in the South have a legitimate chance at a division crown in 2017.

Predicted division winner: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFC West

Having won three of the past four NFC West titles, the Seattle Seahawks are a virtual lock to make it four out of five in what was the NFL’s toughest division only a few years ago.

The once-mighty San Francisco 49ers could be the worst team in the NFC, and the Los Angeles Rams might be their top competition for that bottom position. While the Arizona Cardinals are only a year removed from a division title, veteran quarterback Carson Palmer looked every bit of 37 last season.

The Cardinals still have a chance if Palmer has one more good year left in him, but the combination of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, wide receiver Doug Baldwin, tight end Jimmy Graham and Seattle’s defense will likely be too much to overcome.

Predicted division winner: Seattle Seahawks

Super Bowl

Raiders 28, Seahawks 24

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