The offense could be improved with wide receiver Brandin Cooks, even if fellow wideout Julian Edelman suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game. The defense could be better with cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
Backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was retained just in case anything happens to Brady, who faces the prospect of playing a full 16-game regular season at age 40. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is back and, at least for now, healthy. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower was re-signed. Cornerback Malcolm Butler was kept despite his displeasure with his contract.
Who’s going to challenge the Patriots? Take your guess. Steelers or Raiders in the AFC? Falcons, Cowboys, Seahawks, Giants or Packers out of the NFC?
All could be formidable. But are any of them in the same class as the Patriots?
It is not difficult to imagine this being a repeat of 2007, when Brady and the Patriots put up otherworldly offensive numbers and came one victory away from a 19-0 season. It took a memorable Super Bowl upset by quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants to prevent those Patriots from securing a place as the no-doubt-about-it greatest team in NFL history.
Could this season bring another run at 19-0?
What else, really, is there for Brady and the Patriots to accomplish? They have done just about everything else.
Even with Edelman’s season-ending knee injury, the NFL is divided into the Patriots and Everyone Else. The defending champs have a chance to be better — and perhaps considerably better — than they were last season, with the additions of Gilmore on defense and Cooks on offense. Talk of a 19-0 season is not far-fetched. Can Brady recapture the magic of 2007 with Cooks playing the role of Randy Moss?
It’s actually difficult to figure out which team is the NFL’s second-best. There simply aren’t many powerful-looking teams chasing the Patriots. The Steelers kept their offensive core of QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le’Veon Bell and WR Antonio Brown intact to make another run at unseating New England in the AFC. The absence of the franchise-tagged Bell from training camp shouldn’t matter. If anything, staying healthy and fresh for the opening of the season should be a positive development for him, and his lack of a long-term deal leaves him playing for next season’s contract.
Coming back from a Super Bowl loss is never easy. Coming back from that Super Bowl loss could be particularly problematic. And the exit of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also could be a significant issue, even with his questionable play-calling while the Falcons were squandering their second-half lead against the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
As long as Aaron Rodgers remains in place at QB, the Packers will have a chance to vie annually for NFC supremacy. Now, it might be nice if they don’t dig themselves such a large early-season hole out of which they must climb this time around.
The Raiders are Vegas-bound but have a realistic chance to make their remaining time in Oakland memorable. They probably would have been the biggest threat to the Patriots in last season’s AFC playoffs if QB Derek Carr had been healthy. Now he’s back and he has RB Marshawn Lynch to help.
The offseason talk about internal strife won’t matter if the Seahawks play well and get back to being among the NFC’s top teams. But if things start to come unraveled even a little bit, any unrest that already existed could become a far bigger issue.
The Cowboys would be a clear-cut NFC favorite if they had RB Ezekiel Elliott available for the entire season. But with Elliott suspended for six games, pending the outcome of his appeal, that front-runner status has been undercut. The early schedule is relatively demanding. And it only takes an extra loss or two to tilt the balance of power in the conference or even within the NFC East, which should be strong.
The ankle injury suffered by WR Odell Beckham Jr. during a preseason game complicates things. The Giants must have Beckham in the lineup and at something close to full speed for this offense, which was underwhelming last season, to function at a level high enough for this team to be a top contender. The defense must maintain last season’s level while Coach Ben McAdoo and QB Eli Manning find a way to make the offense more productive. That is unlikely to happen if Beckham is slowed for any significant portion of the season. Will the Cowboys-Giants opener Sunday night be played without both Elliott and Beckham?
The Chiefs get to see where they stand on opening night when they play the NFL’s season-opener Thursday at New England. The greatest intrigue here is whether Coach Andy Reid will be tempted to go with rookie Patrick Mahomes at QB at some point. Alex Smith has been good but somewhat limited, and history suggests the Chiefs can go only so far with him at QB. The loss of Spencer Ware to a knee injury hurts the offense, but the Chiefs are deep at RB.
With Tom Savage at QB, the Texans probably will be good enough to win the AFC South and perhaps win a game during the postseason. But they won’t be a realistic challenger to the Patriots. The call here would be to go with rookie Deshaun Watson at QB and see if he can develop quickly enough to take the Texans to the next level. The return of J.J. Watt to a defense that ranked first in the league last season will be interesting to watch.
The Lions made Matthew Stafford the league’s highest-paid QB toward the end of the preseason schedule. They probably will need Stafford to be back in the MVP conversation this season to be a factor in the playoff race.
John Elway hasn’t been wrong very often. But he traded up in last year’s NFL draft for QB Paxton Lynch. And now Lynch has been unable, in his second season, to beat out former seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian for the starting job. It’s not time to give up on Lynch or call the move a mistake, but it might be time to begin to wonder just a little bit.
The Bengals missed the playoffs last season and everyone seemed to forget what a laughingstock the team was before Marvin Lewis took over as coach. They’re not as good as the Steelers, but the guess here is Lewis will have the Bengals back in the thick of the division race.
The Eagles have fortified the offense around their second-year QB, Carson Wentz, and they presumably will have tackle Lane Johnson available all season after he missed much of last season while on suspension. Assuming that Wentz is better, this offense will be better and the team should be better as a whole. But it still might be difficult to leapfrog the Giants and Cowboys in the division.
It has been tempting just about every year of late to pick the Buccaneers as the team that will break through in the NFC. Is this the year that it actually will happen, in QB Jameis Winston’s third season? Winston certainly has the receivers. The arrival of WR DeSean Jackson provides a big-play element that could make the Tampa offense very good.
The ailing back of QB Joe Flacco kept him out of the entire preseason. Much of the offseason and training camp was marred by a series of injuries and speculation about whether Colin Kaepernick would be signed. It hasn’t made for a stress-free time or a particularly promising outlook as the Ravens try to get back into the postseason after their first set of back-to-back non-playoff seasons under John Harbaugh. But the young pass rushers should help the defense, and the secondary could be a strength.
A turbulent offseason that included the firing of Scot McCloughan as GM has given way to what feels like an unsettled season, given the uncertainty surrounding the future of two-time franchise-tagged QB Kirk Cousins. Even so, the Redskins could be pretty good. Pretty good, however, probably won’t be good enough in the rugged NFC East.
The Titans have done things the right way, constructing a team around their young franchise QB, Marcus Mariota. They gave Mariota a running game and devoted resources to the offensive line. Now they’ve tried to bolster his receiving corps. It’s not inconceivable that they could overtake the Texans and win the division.
They may or may not be wanted in L.A. They may or may not be able to make inroads as they battle the Rams for the hearts — and dollars — of the city’s football fans. Whatever the case, the Chargers actually might have a pretty decent team. Pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, in particular, should be entertaining to watch.
The Panthers are only one season removed from making a run at an unbeaten regular season and reaching the Super Bowl. Why does that seem like such ancient history now? Cam Newton first must prove he’s healthy, then regain something resembling his previous MVP form for the Panthers to matter again.
Adam Gase got one productive season out of Jay Cutler in Chicago. Can Gase work his QB magic again with Cutler? Either way, it’s next to impossible to envision the Dolphins either overtaking the Patriots or falling below the Bills and Jets in the AFC East.
Does Carson Palmer have one more very good season left in him? The Cardinals need the 2015 version of Palmer if they’re going to be a threat to the Seahawks in the NFC West. That might be asking too much, though.
Will this season’s Vikings more closely resemble the version that began last season 5-0 or the one that went 3-8 thereafter? Adrian Peterson is gone and Sam Bradford remains the QB. Whether either of those is a good thing remains to be seen.
There’s simply no way to know how things will go this season with Andrew Luck. Scott Tolzien opens the season as the starter at QB and the timetable for Luck’s return remains unclear. As a result, there’s no way to have much of an idea whether the Colts have any realistic hopes of being in the mix to win the AFC South.
If any team should have signed Colin Kaepernick, it’s the Jaguars. Blake Bortles continued to provide on-field evidence he is not the answer. Chad Henne was given a chance to start the third preseason game, but the Jaguars went back to Bortles. Does anyone really think that going to Henne would fix things? There is some decent talent on offense, and plenty of promising young players have been brought in on defense. But until the Jaguars get things repaired at QB, it won’t matter.
Does Adrian Peterson have anything left? It shouldn’t take long to find out, with the Saints’ opening game coming against the Vikings. Second-year WR Michael Thomas becomes the top target for QB Drew Brees with Cooks now in New England.
So all Sean McVay has to accomplish in his first season as an NFL head coach, at age 31, is to make Jared Goff a franchise QB, make the Rams relevant for something other than occupying L.A. and now, apparently, find a way to make Mike Martz happy. Anything else?
Mike Glennon or Mitchell Trubisky? It’s Glennon over Trubisky, at least for now. But is there a good option there at QB? At least the Bears can lean on RB Jordan Howard, who returns after an impressive rookie season with more than 1,300 yards rushing.
The first-year tandem of John Lynch at GM and Kyle Shanahan at coach needn’t be in any particular hurry, given their six-year contracts. This season is about making progress and putting as many pieces in place as possible for the presumptive arrival next offseason of a potential franchise QB, whether that’s Kirk Cousins or a prized rookie chosen in the NFL draft.
The trade of WR Sammy Watkins to the Rams left the Bills facing questions about whether they’d given up on this season. And they’re not even the worst team in their own division.
The Browns should be able to put a better team around the QB. That’s not saying much, of course, following a one-win season. But at least it’s something. The problem is, will the play at QB be any better? Is rookie DeShone Kizer, named the starter entering the season, the future there? If the Browns get to the end of the season and don’t have at least some idea about the likelihood that Kizer can fill the QB void, that will be a major failure.
Does it really matter if the Jets are tanking the season, as some allege? Whether it’s intentional or not, this has the look of a dreadful team. Josh McCown opens the season as the starter at QB after barely playing during the preseason. There’s simply no reason not to play Christian Hackenberg and find out if he’s an NFL starter or even a backup for the franchise QB who could arrive via next year’s draft.