This is where the fun is. At long, long last.
The preseason games are over, the rosters are set and the NFL season opens on Thursday night with the Kansas City Chiefs visiting the defending champions, the New England Patriots.
The Patriots will raise a fifth banner at Gillette Stadium, bringing to mind their ridiculous comeback from a 28-3 deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 34-28 in the first overtime Super Bowl.
Let’s not forget the Patriots started that 14-2 season without quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games, due to his suspension for Deflategate.
Kansas City is a worthy opponent for the opener. The Chiefs were the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs but fell 18-16 to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs. They won five of their last six to finish 12-4 and steal the AFC West away from the Oakland Raiders.
The Patriots are favored to head to the Super Bowl again, and why not? They’ve won the AFC East 13 of the last 14 years and their divisional foes all have fatal flaws.
The Buffalo Bills, for example, couldn’t find the playoffs with a GPS. Haven’t been since 1999. Not going this year. The New York Jets have no quarterback and almost no roster. And the Miami Dolphins have a terrible schedule that begins with three games away from home, their actual opener at Hard Rock Stadium postponed by Hurricane Irma. They also lost quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the season and have turned the offense over to Jay Cutler, who was retired.
The Pats made some aggressive moves in the offseason. They traded for speedy receiver Brandin Cooks, which seemed prescient when they later lost Julian Edelman to a knee injury. And they traded for receiver Phillip Dorsett, a No. 1 pick in 2015 who will grow into their system. Their biggest loss could be versatile defensive standout Rob Ninkovich, who retired shortly after training camp began.
So it begins. At 8:30 p.m. ET on Thursday night (NBC), the Patriots begin yet another quest. You either love them or you hate them, and those are the best reasons to watch them.
Post By: Larry Weisman, a longtime sportswriter for USA TODAY, blogs for Twistity.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrLarryWeisman