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By JOHN FELTMAN

After one of the greatest Super Bowl comebacks in NFL history, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots enter the 2017 NFL season with one thing in mind: “Repeat.” Overcoming a 28-3 deficit, Brady has most certainly solidified his stature as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. The real question is, will Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons be able to overcome the ghosts of blowing a huge lead in the Super Bowl?

The beautiful part about the NFL is that when the calendar turns to September, each team can forget about their disappointing 2016 seasons and look forward to a brand new season. It’s a clean slate for everyone, and it gives every locker room across the NFL motivation to reach the big dance.

Looking ahead to 2017, there are a lot of teams who will remain elite, along with many teams very much in the playoff mix, and a few teams who should not be slept on. Not to get any fans dreams crushed, but just remember that Tom Brady is still in the league, and unfortunately many AFC teams can already kiss their Super Bowl dreams goodbye.

The Top Dogs: Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys

Don’t put your life savings on this, but these will be the best teams in the NFL in 2017. Aaron Rodgers didn’t look his best in the NFC championship game against the Atlanta Falcons, but let me assure the Packers nation, he is preaching to all of you to RE-LAX. No disrespect to Tom Brady, but Rodgers is the best quarterback on the planet right now, and will look to take his team to the next level. With an 11-touchdown breakout season by wide receiver Davante Adams, Rodgers has a lot of toys to play with on offense. Wide recieivers Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and newly signed tight end Martellus Bennett will provide plenty of explosiveness on offensive side of the ball. If the Green Bay defense can step it up a notch, I guarantee a returning trip to the NFC Championship.

The Dallas Cowboys surprised the entire football world with an incredible 13-3 record in 2016. fourth round draft pick quarterback Dak Prescott took away the throne from Tony Romo and led the Cowboys to a number one seed first round bye in the NFC. With Romo officially retired, it is now Prescott’s team for the foreseeable future. With a tougher schedule this season and running back Ezekiel Elliott facing possible suspension, a lot more weight has been added to Prescott’s shoulders. If he can perform at the level he did this past season, behind that very talented offensive line the sky remains the limit for this Cowboys offense. If wide receiver Dez Bryant returns to his elite form, he will jump back into the discussion as one of the best receivers in the NFL. Barring any traumatic injuries, expect the Cowboys to make a deep playoff run, and remain one of the most exciting teams to watch in the game.

If Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr didn’t fracture his leg, it was clear as day the Raiders were one of the only threats to the New England Patriots in the AFC. Running back Marshawn Lynch came out of retirement to join the black hole, playing for his hometown. Wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper are coming off 1,000 yard receiving seasons as well.  Carr is very talented, and with a disruptive pass-rush on defense this team is poised to make a run to the Super Bowl. Carr is a legit MVP candidate, and expects the Raiders to meet up with the Patriots in the AFC Championship.

As good as the Raiders are, I just don’t see any team coming out of the AFC on top besides the New England Patriots. With wide receiver Brandin Cooks coming over from the New Orleans Saints, Tom Brady now has a legitimate deep threat to throw to. Not that they needed any help on offense, but as long as Brady is under-center, this team will continue to dominate on the offensive side of the ball. Head Coach Bill Belichick always has a bunch of tricks up his sleeves, and always has a very deceiving defensive-scheme every single week. Even with the loss of wide receiver Julian Edelman on an ACL tear, the Patriots will remain as one of the highest scoring teams in the NFL. A trip back to the Super Bowl is firmly in Tom Brady’s grasp.

Legitimate Contenders: Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Atlanta Falcons still remain as one of the NFL’s most dangerous teams on offense, despite a heart-breaking colossal loss in Super Bowl LI. Quarterback Matt Ryan is coming off an MVP season in which he threw for almost 5,000 passing yards and 38 touchdowns. With receivers Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu and the speedster Taylor Gabriel, they certainly make a case for scoring the most points in the NFL this upcoming season. Their defense remains questionable at best, but if the offense can control time of possession then the Falcons are primed for another NFC South division title.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may be the most interesting storyline entering the 2017 NFL season. A team loaded with young talent on offense and defense, it looks primed to make not only a playoff push, but also potentially a Super Bowl run. Free agent signings of Desean Jackson and T.J. Ward add a lot of swagger to this youthful Bucs team. This team is coming off a solid 2016 season, despite barely missing out on the playoffs. Quarterback Jameis Winston is entering his third year as a pro, and will continue to look to hook up with Pro-Bowl receiver Mike Evans on passes down the field all season long. Adding Jackson to the receiving core opens up more opportunity for Evans to have an even bigger season than his 2016 campaign. Gerlald McCoy and the ferocious Bucs defense will be giving opposing offenses nightmares all year long, and I gurantee the Bucs make the playoffs in 2017.

The New York Giants will be a huge threat to the Dallas Cowboys all year long in the NFC East. It could very easily come down the wire on which team wins that division. With the addition of veteran Wide receiver Brandon Marshall, the Giants receiving core solidifies themselves as one of the best in the NFL. We all know how good their defense was last season lead by Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison. But, are their unsolved offensive line problems going to continue? Even if the offensive line doesn’t improve that much, I still expect the Giants in the postseason as a wildcard team or a division champion.

Now something I would bet on is the Pittsburgh Steelers making the playoffs in 2017. With the return of fully healthy “Big B’s” (Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’veon Bell), the Steelers will continue their great offensive success they had a year ago. Also returning is wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who violated the NFL drug policy and was suspended the entire 2016 season. Bryant adds another weapon to Big Ben’s arsenal, and the Steelers offense will be carving up defenses all season long. The ageless wonder linebacker James Harrison leads this gritty Steelers defense, which is certainly good enough to keep them in games. Mark it down now, the Steelers will make the playoffs barring any catastrophic injury.

Sleeper Teams: Carolina Panthers, and the Baltimore Ravens

Many people forget that the Carolina Panthers made it to Super Bowl 50 after a tremendous 2015 season. Last year, the team lost it’s edge on the defensive side of the ball, and quarterback Cam Newton certainly wasn’t his best. Now, rookie running back Christian McCaffery out of Stanford University adds a lot of versatility to this Panthers offense. A team that loves to run the football, not only is McCaffery a tough runner, but he has great open field athleticism and pass-catching ability. Expecting Cam Newton returning to normal form, the Panthers’ offense could be sneaky good this season. A few loose ends on defense from last season should be much tighter this upcoming year, and a healthy linebacker Luke Keuchkly automatically makes the defense much stronger. Do not be surprised if the Panthers once again make the postseason or even give the Atlanta Falcons a run for their money in the NFC South.

The Baltimore Ravens were not that great of a football team last year, leading to a lot of question marks entering the 2017. The Ravens were not quiet this offseason, as they added pieces such as running back Danny Woodhead, and former pro-bowl receiver Jeremy Maclin. People often forget that once upon a time Joe Flacco won this team a Super Bowl, and how gritty of a competitor he could be. The Ravens strong suit was their defense last season, even after being plagued with injuries early. The defense enters the 2017 season fully healthy, and with new weapons on offense for Joe Flacco, this could be a very productive season for the Baltimore Ravens.

John Feltman can reached at john.feltman@theminaretonline.com

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