The 2017 season begins in New England. The defending Super Bowl-champion Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs at 8:30 p.m. Sept. 7 (Ch. 2).
How important is a Week One win? Since 1978, when the league went to a 16-game schedule (excluding the strike year of 1982), of the 570 teams winning their season opener, 298 went to the playoffs. Of the 571 teams who lost (there is a different number because the league had only 31 teams from 1999 to 2001), just 137 went to the postseason, making victorious teams more than twice as likely to make it.
The Bills are 23-34 overall on Kickoff Weekend, a record that is the worst in the AFC.
Down to the wire
Games just continue to get closer and closer in the NFL. A record 57 percent (146 of 256) of games in 2016 were decided by eight or fewer points, the most since the NFL adopted the two-point conversion in 1994. That broke the record of 140 games that was set in 2015.
Additionally, there were 72 games in which the winning team trailed at some point in the fourth quarter, breaking the previous single-season high of 70 such games in 1989.
New year, new hope (except in the AFC East)
With apologies to Bills fans living through a 17-year playoff drought, there is plenty of turnover every year in the postseason. Last year, six teams that missed the playoffs in 2015 made the field (Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, Oakland and the New York Giants). Since going to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the postseason the year after missing a spot. Dallas won the NFC East in 2016, marking the 13th time in the past 14 years a team has gone from worst to first in its division.
Of course, the constant turnover rarely includes the top of the AFC East. The New England Patriots’ run of dominance in the division is unprecedented. The Patriots have won the AFC East eight years in a row, passing the L.A. Rams (1973-79) for longest such streak in NFL history. New England is the only team to win 13 division titles in a 14-year span.
The Rams are back-to-back travel champions. Los Angeles will travel a total of 32,600 miles (round trip) for its road games in 2017, the greatest of any team but down slightly from the 35,952 miles it went in 2016.
The Bills rank 22nd in miles traveled at 13,272 – down from No. 14 in 2016 when they went 18,370 miles thanks mainly to three trips to the West Coast. Buffalo will play just once in the Pacific time zone in 2017.
Pittsburgh has the easiest travel schedule, going just 6,694 round-trip miles for its eight road games.
Broncos, Chiefs draw short straws
Based on strength of schedule, the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs have the toughest schedules in 2016. Denver’s opponents had a record of 147-107-2 in 2016, a combined .578 winning percentage. The Chiefs’ opponents wen 147-108-1, just a shade behind at .576.
The news isn’t great for the Bills in that regard. Buffalo has the fifth-toughest strength of schedule, at .561. Of course, given the yearly turnover in the league, strength of schedule shouldn’t be treated as much more than a small harbinger of things to come.
Play by the rules
The NFL announced four rule changes for the 2017 season: They are:
• Overtime: Will be shortened from 15 minutes to 10 minutes. The idea is to improve player safety.
“We think this is an important change,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in May. “Particularly for teams that may be into an overtime situation, and a lengthy overtime situation, and have to come back and play on a Thursday night.”
• Celebrations: The league has relaxed penalties in this area, allowing the football to be used as a prop, players to go to the ground while in celebration and group demonstrations. However, in a statement the league outlined what will still be off limits. That includes, “offensive demonstrations, celebrations that are prolonged and delay the game, and those directed at an opponent.”
• One cut. Rosters used to go from 90 to 75 to 53 players, but now teams cut straight from 90 to 53.
• Injured reserve: Two players can now return to the active roster after being placed on injured reserve, up from one. A player who goes on IR has to sit out for six weeks of practice and eight weeks of games before being allowed to return.
How important is it for offenses to convert on third down? The six best teams in that category last year all made the playoffs. The Green Bay Packers led the way by converting 46.7 percent of their third downs, followed by New England (45.8 percent), Detroit (42.6), Dallas (42.3), Atlanta (42.1) and Pittsburgh (41.1).
“We talk about it continuously,” Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb said. “Being able to break a tackle and picking up a first down is important. We try and do that consistently throughout games.”
The coaching carousel
New coaches in place this season can be found in: Buffalo (Sean McDermott), Denver (Vance Joseph), Jacksonville (Doug Marrone), San Francisco (Kyle Shanahan) and both Los Angeles teams – Rams (Sean McVay) and Chargers (Anthony Lynn).
Lynn, of course, worked the final game of the 2016 season as the Bills’ interim head coach after Rex Ryan was fired. Marrone, meanwhile, gets his long-awaited second shot as a head coach after he quit on the Bills following the 2014 season. He worked the last two games of 2016 as the Jaguars’ interim head coach.
Points on points on points
A total of 11,661 points were scored in 2016, the third-highest total for a single season, behind the 11,985 in 2013 and just off the 11,680 in 2015.
Nine teams scored at least 400 points in 2016 – Atlanta (540), New Orleans (469), New England (441), Green Bay (432), Dallas (421), Arizona (418), Oakland (416), Indianapolis (411) and San Diego (410). Atlanta’s total was the eighth-most in history.
The highest-scoring teams in each conference made the Super Bowl, with the Patriots defeating the Falcons. Atlanta faces long odds in getting back to the title game. No team has lost in the Super Bowl and returned the following year since the Bills did it – three times – in the 1990s.
On the move
The NFL waited 22 years to put a team in Los Angeles, a streak that ended in 2016 when the Rams bounced from St. Louis to the country’s second-biggest media market.
The league didn’t even wait a year to go back to the L.A. well, with the San Diego Chargers moving up Interstate 5. The Chargers will play in Carson’s StubHub Center, which will make for an interesting setting considering that maximum capacity is expected to be about 30,000.
The Atlanta Falcons also move into a new home, as the NFC champions will play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Road trip alert: The Bills will visit both new homes in 2017.
We’re no strangers to that here in Buffalo, and there will be plenty of it around the NFL in 2017. That’s because the 2018 quarterback class is expected to be one of the best in recent years, with the possibility of as many as five taken in the first round and potentially three in the top 10.
That list includes Southern California’s Sam Darnold (the early favorite to be the No. 1 pick), UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Washington State’s Luke Falk and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph – assuming all of those players declare for the draft.
The New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers are early “favorites” to land the No. 1 pick, and both teams have a massive need at quarterback. The Cleveland Browns might also be near the top of the draft, although they selected Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer in the second round in May.
In what is a highly unusual scenario, there might be franchise quarterbacks available in free agency after the 2017 season. Washington’s Kirk Cousins, New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo and New Orleans’ Drew Brees are all quarterbacks heading into the final year of their contract.
Cousins is playing on the franchise tag for the second straight season and figures to cash in next year, either with Washington or possibly with San Francisco, where he would be reunited with Shanahan. It will be interesting to see what the Patriots do with Garoppolo. They could put the franchise tag on him and try to trade him, or perhaps keep him around as Tom Brady’s eventual successor.
Brees closing in on milestones
Speaking of Brees, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer who is entering his 17th season continues to put up some dizzying numbers.
The 38-year-old needs 290 completions to pass Peyton Manning for second-most in NFL history. He needs 465 to pass Brett Favre’s record of 6,300. Brees had 471 completions in 2016, his single-season best. If Brees leads the league in completions again in 2017, it will be the sixth time he’s done so in his career, breaking a tie with Dan Marino for the most in history.
Brees can also join Manning (539) and Favre (508) as the only quarterbacks to throw for 500 touchdowns if he reaches 35 this year. Doing so would also extend his record streak of consecutive seasons with at least 30 touchdown passes to 10, breaking a tie with Favre and Manning.
• Sept. 7, 10-11: Kickoff Weekend
• Oct. 31: Trade deadline
• Dec. 31: Final day of regular season
• Jan. 6-7: Wild-card playoffs
• Jan. 13-14: Divisional playoffs
• Jan. 21: Conference championships
• Jan. 28: Pro Bowl (Orlando, Fla.)
• Feb. 4: Super Bowl LII (Minneapolis, Minn.)
U.S. Bank Stadium in Minnesota will host Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, 2018. It will be the first Super Bowl in Minnesota since … Washington defeated the Bills, 37-24, in Super Bowl XXVI on Jan. 26, 1992 in the MetroDome.
“It was evident to me and my brother Zygi that the other NFL owners were extremely impressed with everything Minnesota had to offer, and we have no doubt they will be even more excited with what the community will deliver in February 2018,” Vikings owner/president Mark Wilf said.
Future Super Bowl sites include: Atlanta (2019), Miami (2020), Tampa (2021) and Los Angeles (2022).