The NFL cycle is vicious -- just ask Bill Belichick. Which is why, just 72 hours removed from the Patriots storming back to win Super Bowl LI 34-28 over the Falcons in the most dramatic Super Bowl comeback ever, we can start to look ahead and see who the Patriots will play in Week 1 of the 2017 NFL season.
New England, as is NFL tradition, will host someone in Foxborough, Massachusetts, on the Thursday night of Week 1. The Hall of Fame Game is currently set for Aug. 3, 2017, (a Thursday) so our best guess for the Patriots' first game and NFL kickoff would be Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017.
We also know all the Patriots' home opponents -- Texans, Panthers, Falcons, Chargers, Chiefs, Bills, Dolphins, Jets -- so let's rank them from least to most likely.
T-6. Buffalo Bills/Miami Dolphins/New York Jets
Realistically the NFL just isn't going to drop a divisional game in the first week of the season. It would make the game exciting, sure, but if you look at the past four years it hasn't been the case. Carolina at Denver, Pittsburgh at New England, Green Bay at Seattle, Denver "at" Baltimore -- the last time the NFL plugged a divisional game into Week 1 was the Cowboys at Giants in 2012.
5. Houston Texans
These two teams played twice in the past year and both times the Patriots prevailed pretty handily. There is a very good chance that Brock Osweiler remains prominently involved with Houston's offense. He has a massive cap hit for 2017 and isn't going anywhere, which could make this a pretty unattractive matchup to start the season.
The goal of the kickoff isn't to reward the team that won the Super Bowl with a speed bump, it's to create a competitive game between two quality teams on a national stage. The last time Houston and New England met, in the AFC divisional round just a few weeks ago, the Texans kept things close for a while but were historically huge underdogs heading in. The Patriots managed to grind out a win by 18 points and still cover -- that's how terrible Osweiler was.
The NFL does not want a blowout on its hands. We reserve the right to move the Texans here if they do something drastic at quarterback, like framing Andrew Luck for an "accidental" skiing accident involving Osweiler this offseason.
4. Carolina Panthers
There have been a some entertaining games involving the Panthers and Patriots. Carolina has star power on both sides of the ball thanks to Cam Newton at quarterback and Luke Kuechly at linebacker. There are two reasons they're behind the Chiefs (well, three, but more on the third one below): They play in the NFC and they played on opening night last season.
It's a really brutal move to have the Panthers, who are playing a fourth-place schedule in 2017, open up the season in New England. Asking a team with a top-10 pick to open up the season in New England? That doesn't make any sense. As good as Carolina was in 2015, it wasn't good in 2016 and there's no guarantee the Panthers bounce back. The NFC thing is a factor too; the NFL appears more interested in scheduling intra-conference matchups for these games.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
The NFL wants to make this game sexy. It wants to appeal to multiple fan bases. It wants to make this game a major attraction on a national stage. It does not want to spend millions promoting TOM BRADY vs. ALEX SMITH, even if it would've been a battle of the No. 1 and No. 2 seed in the AFC from 2016. Kansas City would give the Patriots a good game, what with Andy Reid having all that time to prepare. But the last time the Chiefs were on the national stage, they lost a playoff game to a team that didn't score a single touchdown. That really happened.
One major caveat here has the Chiefs ahead of the Panthers: Kansas City seems like a candidate to upgrade the quarterback position. If it were to go out and acquire Tony Romo, it would almost bump it up to the top of this list because of the intrigue in seeing the former Cowboys quarterback walk out onto the field in a red uniform. That would trump even a rematch of Super Bowl LI.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
We're still having trouble remembering to write "Los Angeles" before the Chargers, which is as good a reason to put them on here as any. After all, there are a lot of logistical issues in moving to L.A. for a football team. The NFL made sure the Rams traveled early and often last season, putting them on the road for three of the first four weeks in the 2016 season. The NFL is very much interested in promoting shiny new things involving Los Angeles and the Chargers certainly qualify, even if they're the proverbial stepchild of the marriage between the league and the country's second-biggest market.
Putting the Los Angeles Chargers on national television to open the season? It has some pizzazz. This is also a potential bounce-back team. It would fit with their history to have a great season when they move to L.A., and there's plenty of talent on both sides of the ball here, not to mention the star power of Philip Rivers at quarterback. This would be a fun matchup and offer the Bolts a half bye before their next (and first home?) game.
1. Atlanta Falcons
And finally the most obvious option possible.
Just like last season, this would offer the NFL a rematch of the Super Bowl, which is the sort of drama the league dreams of when it plots out the schedule. The only real downside we can see is that there was no drama leading up to Patriots-Falcons in the actual Super Bowl; would there actually be any sort of drama building for the first week of 2017?
Kyle Shanahan is out for the Falcons, taking over the head coaching job with the 49ers. But Steve Sarkisian is in now as offensive coordinator, so the Falcons should still be a high-octane offense and a handful to deal with. Dan Quinn has shown a sharp acumen for building a roster and acquiring young talent, which means the Falcons defense could also take a step forward before 2017.
The world's going to be curious about whether the disastrous gagging of a 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI results in a hangover for the Falcons and this would be a very strong early litmus test.