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Analysis: 2017 Patriots opponents

Explaining which clubs New England will face, and where, in the 2017 regular season.

2017 Patriots Opponents

Away: Steelers, Bucs, Saints, Raiders, Broncos, Bills, Dolphins, Jets
Home:Texans, Panthers, Falcons, Chargers, Chiefs, Bills, Dolphins, Jets

After a historic win by the Patriots in Super Bowl LI, the 2016 NFL season is now officially history as well. It's time to start focusing intently on 2017.

Although the complete list of dates and times will not be announced until mid-April, there is some certainty about New England's 2017 schedule, beyond which opponents the champs will face in the upcoming regular season. For starters, as the reigning Super Bowl winners, the Patriots will open the NFL's regular season with the traditional Thursday night contest after Labor Day. Who they'll face must still be determined, but we'll take an educated guess later in this column.

Meanwhile, as always, six games remain constant. The Patriots will host their three AFC East rivals, the Bills, Dolphins, and Jets, and travel to Buffalo, Miami, and New York to take them on in their hometowns. Eight of the other 10 contests are subject to the NFL's rotating schedule formula, which is designed to ensure that every club in both conferences plays one another at least once every four years, with the venues alternating between home and road games.

In 2017, New England is scheduled to take on all four members of the NFC South, just as they did four years ago in 2013. Next season, the teams that visited New England in 2013 – the Buccaneers and Saints – will play host to the Patriots in Tampa Bay and New Orleans, respectively, while the Panthers and Falcons (who hosted the Patriots in 2013) will make the trip up to Foxborough.

It seems logical that Atlanta would be considered for the opener, having just faced New England in the Super Bowl. Starting the new season with the two teams who ended the last one will likely be the top choice of the league's schedule makers, as it was in 2016 when the Panthers visited Denver in a rematch of Super Bowl 50. It's possible, however, that another visiting opponent could get selected for the Thursday opener, but the Falcons remain a safe bet.

Like the NFC South, the AFC West quartet is also next up on the Patriots' rotating schedule. Three years ago in 2014, New England played the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium, and the Chargers and Chiefs in San Diego and Kansas City, respectively. In 2017, those venues will be reversed. The Chargers (now based in Los Angeles) and Chiefs will travel to New England, while the Patriots visit the Raiders and Broncos. 

As a result, it is purely coincidental that the Patriots will travel to Denver for the third straight regular season, just like it was when the Broncos made three straight trips to New England from 2012-14 and the Indianapolis Colts did from 2004-06. 

That Raiders game, incidentally, will take place in Mexico City's Estadio Azteca as part of the NFL's International Series. This had been widely reported during the final weeks of the 2016 season, but only made official by the NFL during Super Bowl Week in Houston. The game will mark the Patriots' first International Series contest since 2012 (London) and could end up being a de facto home game, since New England enjoys a large, devoted following throughout Mexico. The Patriots organization actually has experience in this stadium, having beaten the Dallas Cowboys in a 1998 preseason affair there.

Lastly, the final two Patriots foes are determined based on the final standings in each division. Those spots are always filled by one team in each of the two AFC divisions that aren't subject to the triennial rotation. One is a road game, the other a home game, and both teams must finish in the same place in their respective divisions as the Patriots did in theirs in the previous season.

Because the Patriots are defending AFC East Champions (for a record eighth straight season), they will face the 2016 winners of the AFC South and North, the Texans and Steelers. Again, the locations are determined by the rotating system. Three years ago, New England visited the then-AFC South champs, Indianapolis, and hosted the reigning AFC North winners, Cincinnati.

The venues will flip-flop in 2017, meaning the Patriots will host Houston (as they did in the 2016 regular season) and pay a visit to Pittsburgh for a second consecutive year (the Steelers were part of New England's full slate of AFC North opponents this season).

As noted at the outset, precise dates and times for all 16 games will be slotted in the spring and announced by the NFL sometime in mid-to-late April, prior to the NFL Draft.

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