The 2017 NFL’s season has well and truly kick-started, now that the draft and offseason moves are in the rearview mirror. There is a clearer picture now of which teams may perform better than they did last year. With that said, let’s take a look at the flipside – Patriots, Steelers, Packers – which division winners from 2016 will be most vulnerable this season? We’ll count down from the least vulnerable.
8. New England Patriots – AFC East
It seems every year, the Patriots are a force to be reckoned with. Taking the title for a ninth straight year after having already ruled the AFC East 14 times in the last 16 seasons, would be a difficult feat – but not impossible for this team. However, it doesn’t help the team to have a very challenging schedule, which they do this season. After a Week 9 bye, they will say “bye” to their hometown and play five of six games on the road. They’ll play a Sunday night game in Denver, face the Raiders in Mexico City, then play Miami at home. Three away games will follow at Buffalo, Miami and Pittsburgh. Even the strongest team could succumb to such a schedule.
7. Seattle Seahawks – NFC West
Seahawks defense can be a threat again with the return of Earl Thomas, whom they lost to a broken tibia last season. Eddie Lacy is in top form and will be the power rusher the Seahawks need. Last season, Russell Wilson went from strength to strength and is now a top flight passer. Seattle’s offense could really pick up this year. With the drafting of Ethan Pocic (guard) being a valuable addition to the O-line headed by Oday Aboushi and Luke Joeckel. Timing is everything – their Week 6 bye, plus finishing the regular season with two of three games on home soil will certainly be a relief.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers – AFC North
The Three B’s are still going strong. Le’Veon Bell clocked up 1,268 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in 12 games. Antonio Brown has had at least 100 catches in four consecutive years. Ben Roethlisberger had his best season in a long time. According to Gil Brandt of NFL.com, Pittsburgh drafted well with T.J. Watt capable of being a starter and JuJu Smith-Shuster, James Conner and Colin Holba being valuable contributors. With defensive end Stephon Tuitt and linebacker Ryan Shazier leading, the Steelers’ defense was strong. Pittsburgh just has to keep up the good performance and they should find themselves in the playoffs.
5. Green Bay Packers – NFC North
The Packers pulled off a tremendous comeback in 2016 – starting with 4-6 but ultimately reaching the conference title game. A major reason for this was Aaron Rodgers possibly being the best stretch quarterback, according to Mike Tirico and Mike Florio of NBC Sports. Rodgers’ teammates thrive off of his confidence, which returned in full force last season. The secondary has undergone significant upgrades with second-round picks Josh Jones and Kevin King supporting veteran Davon House. Former receiver Ty Montgomery is expected to make a splash as running back. While Jamaal Williams and Martellus Bennett just have to keep up with their 2016 performances.
4. Atlanta Falcons – NFC South
ESPN’s Brandt has plenty of faith in quarterback Matt Ryan’s abilities, “coming off an unbelievable year”. Atlanta will miss the expertise of former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who guided their offense to the No. 1 spot. But with so much talent on the field, there should be few bumps in the transition. Only good things can be said about the Tevin Coleman/Devonta Freeman running back duo. And Julio Jones is still one of the league’s best receivers. The defense should improve greatly with draft signings Takkarist McKinley and Duke Riley, and free agent Dontari Poe.
3. Dallas Cowboys – NFC East
Dallas doesn’t have a reputation for having two strong consecutive seasons. But there’s still hope – provided Dak Prescott and Ezekial Elliot can repeat their explosive performances last season. Their offensive line lost some key figures (Ronald Leary and Doug Free). So offensive coordinator Scott Linehan will need to make some clever moves. The biggest thorn in the Cowboys’ side is that dreaded schedule with numerous away games, and seven games against playoff teams.
2. Kansas City Chiefs – AFC West
Analysts were perturbed by the Chiefs’ using draft capital on quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who won’t be a starter until the distant future. Their improvements from last season are minor. The team received more praise for second round selection Tanoh Kpassagnon, who is projected to be a promising pass rusher. In comparison, the rest of AFC West improved post-draft. So Kansas will have to rely on their well-coached offense and defense to keep them ahead.
1. Houston Texans – AFC South
Their defense was surprisingly dominant last season, which contributed to them winning nine times. Houston has been commended for their first-round pick of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who was touted as one of the top five in the 2016 quarterback class, with good long-term potential. Tom Savage has been regarded as a slightly better performer than Brock Osweiler, so at least the quarterback situation holds hope. Another reason to remain optimistic – the return of J.J. Watt. Whether he will pick up where he left off remains to be seen. Houston needs a repeat performance from their defense though, if they want to remain top of the AFC South.
NFL’s most vulnerable teams in 2017
The Patriots, Seahawks, Steelers and Packers seem the least vulnerable of the 2016 division winners, and are capable of performing well again this season. But with some teams improving after the draft, and other teams relying on the talent they already have, they all seem fairly balanced. Anything is possible.
by Yvonne Hew – contributor