(Reuters) – The 2017 NFL season begins this week with some old faces in new places, a second team in LA and relaxed touchdown celebration rules, but one thing that has not changed is the New England Patriots’ status as Super Bowl favorites.
The reigning champion Patriots, who host the season opener on Thursday against Kansas City, are powered by 40-year-old Tom Brady who has shown no signs of slowing down despite being well beyond the age when quarterbacks generally lose a step.
Brady’s close friend and trusted receiver Julian Edelman is out for the season with an ACL tear but wideout Brandin Cooks, acquired from the New Orleans Saints in March, and tight end Rob Gronkowski are just a taste of his many passing options.
But the Patriots are not invincible and there are plenty of obstacles between them and a berth in the Feb. 4 Super Bowl in Minnesota, perhaps none tougher than Le‘Veon Bell’s Pittsburgh Steelers and Derek Carr’s Oakland Raiders.
The Atlanta Falcons, whose high-powered offense is led by reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Matt Ryan, will be eager for a fresh start after squandering a 28-3 third-quarter lead in last season’s Super Bowl.
But the NFL is not always sympathetic to losing Super Bowl teams as only two have come back to win it all the following season — the 1971 Dallas Cowboys and 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Aaron Rodgers will be at the helm of a dangerous Green Bay Packers squad as his offensive weapons have matured while his already dangerous arsenal has expanded, which all make the team a favorite to contend.
Former league MVP Cam Newton will desperately try to lift his Carolina Panthers back into contention after they followed their Super Bowl loss to Denver with a horrendous 2016 campaign in which they missed the playoffs.
The Dallas Cowboys have a team built to compete for a Super Bowl but without Ezekiel Elliott, who is awaiting an appeal of his six-game suspension for his alleged role in a domestic violence case, will need to avoid a slow start.
Elliott had one of the most exciting rookie campaigns ever in 2016 when he led the NFL in rushing, and together with young quarterback Dak Prescott helped restore the swagger to a team that won three Super Bowl titles in the 1990s.
The nation’s second-largest city, which had gone 21 years without a team until the Rams left St. Louis for Los Angeles last season, will suddenly have two franchises as the Chargers have since left San Diego for the City of Angels.
A number of familiar faces will by wearing new colors this season as former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch came out of retirement to join the Raiders while 2012 league MVP Adrian Peterson has joined the New Orleans Saints.
But one popular name who will be without a team is former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose refusal last season to stand for the national anthem as part of his protest for racial injustice led others around the NFL to follow suit.
The embattled quarterback is good enough to start for a handful of teams, or at the very least be a serviceable backup, and his supporters claim he is being pushed out because of his political action.
Nearly every season a bottom dweller tends to rise and this season’s most likely contenders to keep that trend alive are the Cleveland Browns and the 49ers, who both did well to fill holes that might allow them to close their divisional gaps.
In a bid to continue its push to grow the game, the NFL will hold a record four games in London and another in Mexico City.
The new season should also feature a whole lot of fun as celebrations for touchdowns and other highlight-reel plays will no longer be flagged or fined by the league for being “excessive.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Andrew Both