The 2017 NFL Season doesn’t feel like any that has gone before it. As a league that typically surpasses all others both in complexity and competitive parity — and in which mere inches often mean the difference between success and failure — the NFL can usually be counted-on to provide a plethora of gripping plots that serve as lenses through which we view, interpret, and prognosticate on the season ahead. But not this year. In 2017, there is really only one question that matters: Can anybody stop the Patriots?
Following last year’s Super Bowl that saw New England put on the type of comeback that seemingly only Boston teams can, the Patriots have re-assumed that same aura of invincibility that accompanied them in 2007. With a division comprising the rebuilding-Jets, the rudderless-Bills, and the Jay Cutler-led-Dolphins, the Patriots are expected to make light work of their AFC East rivals. Bill Belichick’s team do have to face the Raiders and Falcons, but both games will be played at Foxboro, and their Week 9 trip to Denver won’t be as tricky as it has been in previous years — Trevor Siemain is, as we know, no Peyton Manning. The Over/Under of 12.5 regular season wins could very well be tempting, particularly if their 5/1 Super Bowl odds are little expensive for your taste.
Of course, none of this is to say that New England are on the verge reaching Bayern Munich- or PSG-levels of league dominance. Such competitive stagnation would be unthinkable in the NFL, and anything can happen in the Win-Or-Go-Home playoffs. But it’s nonetheless true that if we look around the league and examine New England’s rivals, it’s difficult to pick out a franchise that has the necessary pieces in place this year to contend.
The second-favourite Green Bay Packers (10/1) certainly have the quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, but their longstanding inability to attract premium free agents has left them with holes on the defensive side of the ball. The Packers offensive-line looked good last year (and came up big in the clutch), but it remains to be seen whether they could outlast the Patriots’ rough-riding defense that finished no.1 last year in points allowed. The absence, however, of an elite pass-rusher in New England would give Rodgers & co. the opportunity to put up points, but it’s easy to see Brady and the Patriots’ offense simply toying with a porous Packers defense. Green Bay would be a nice match-up for New England in the Super Bowl, but it would likely be a shoot-out — and you don’t want to go into a shoot-out against Brady (just ask Matt Ryan).
If last year’s Super Bowl told us anything, it’s that these Patriots are never dead — even when they have a 0.5% chance of winning a game (yes, that’s a real statistic from the 3rd quarter of Super Bowl LI). Atlanta, of course, didn’t have the bottle to finish them off last year, and neither did the Seattle Seahawks a couple of years earlier with the “interception heard around the world”. The year’s Seahawks — who sit at 11/1 to win the Super Bowl and just 5/1 to get there — don’t seem to have gotten over Malcolm Butler’s interception that cost them what would have been a second consecutive World Championship in 2014. Talks of locker-room unrest have plagued Pete Carroll’s otherwise talented ball club, and questions remain about whether there is enough on the O-line to let Russell Wilson take Seattle’s aging golden generation on one more deep run. Seattle look good to win over 10.5 games and capture the NFC West crown, but whether they can really roll with the Packers and Cowboys in the playoffs is a different matter altogether.
So, if the NFC can’t provide a match for New England, can anyone step up from the AFC and prevent Brady and Belichick from reaching an 8th Super Bowl? If anyone can, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite talks of an early retirement last year, Big Ben Roethlisberger is back and looking to capture his 3rd ring. Sitting with the over-hyped Cowboys at 12/1 to win it all, the Steelers are certainly one of the teams to beat this year. Roethlisberger is expected to spearhead a juggernaut of an offense, but the question is whether the 5 time All-Pro can stay healthy. We can be sure that if New England don’t make it to the Super Bowl, it will be the Steelers representing the AFC in Minnesota, but stopping Brady’s offense in the Championship Game will be a tall order for a Pittsburgh defense that lacks big time play-making ability.
All told, this looks like the Patriots year. But then again, this is the NFL and “any given Sunday” is less a marketing ploy than it is an accurate description of why this is the world’s most gripping and profitable sports league. While we should all expect to see Brady to lifting the Lombardi Trophy in Minnesota come February 4, we shouldn’t be shocked if Rodgers or Roethlisberger get in his way.