The 2017 NFL season starts Thursday, with a full slate of games scheduled through Monday night. Here’s all you need to know about the NFC heading into the 2017 season.

Key NFC Questions

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams
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How Will the Cowboys Be Without Ezekiel Elliott?
Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott is appealing his six-game suspension from the NFL after a domestic violence investigation. The 2016 NFL rushing leader plans to play in Week 1 unless the suspension is upheld. Regardless, it’s likely that Elliott will miss some time away from the Cowboys backfield this season. How Dallas performs during that time, especially quarterback Dak Prescott and backup running back Darren McFadden, will be critical to the team’s playoff chances. In a highly competitive NFC East, the Cowboys can’t afford to fall too far behind the other three teams in the division and still rally to make the postseason.

Can the Falcons Move Past Their Super Bowl Collapse?
The Atlanta Falcons were thisclose to a Super Bowl title, then this happened. How does a franchise with a history of disappointments get past its greatest one? It moves into a new $1.5 billion stadium and hopes that quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones have had plenty of offseason therapy. The bigger issue for the Falcons is the other solid teams in their division: New Orleans, Carolina and Tampa Bay. There aren’t many easy wins out there for head coach Dan Quinn.

Is Matthew Stafford Worth All That Money?
Don’t hate on Matthew Stafford. If you were able to quarterback the sad sack Detroit Lions to the playoffs in three of the last six years, you’d want a raise, too. But $135 million? Well, Stafford will need to play like he’s worth that much cash right away. The Lions face early tests against Arizona, the Giants, Atlanta and Minnesota. If they stumble to a 2-6 start, it won’t be long before Detroit fans are making it rain (boos) on Stafford and his teammates.

Most Likely to Win the NFC

Green Bay Packers v Denver Broncos
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Green Bay Packers: As usual, Green Bay returns quarterback Aaron Rodgers and an impressive collection of receivers, backs and ends, including free agent signee Martellus Bennett, all of whom will make life miserable for opposing defenses. If the Packers own defense can find a way to stop other elite teams in January, Rodgers and Co. will be playing a near-home game in Super Bowl 52 in Minnesota this February.

Dallas Cowboys: Dallas seemed like the best team in the NFL for most of last season, but a 34-31 loss to Green Bay in the divisional round prevented the Cowboys from advancing — the second time in three years that the Packers ended their season. Dallas is still very talented, though their defense does allow too much yardage and too many points. If the Cowboys can figure a way to spell Ezekiel Elliott during his suspension, they should make it back to at least the divisional round of the playoffs.

Seattle Seahawks: Seattle still has quarterback Russell Wilson, cornerback Richard Sherman and enough other veteran stars who know how to win games. To be fair, even some decent college teams might be able to figure out how to win two games a year against both the terrible Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. Pete Carroll’s rah-rah routine might someday need a reboot, but the Seahawks still believe it enough to get themselves close to the NFC title game. If they focus, they can go further than that.

NFC Contenders Who Will Fall Short

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons
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Atlanta Falcons: Led by Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman, the Falcons offense will still overpower many opponents. However, NFL teams now have a pretty Super idea on how to beat the Atlanta defense. The pass rush showed it can put pressure on the opposing quarterback, but the rest of the defense has a long way to go before it can shut down the best in the league.

New York Giants: Unless you know a big-mouthed New Yorker, it’s easy to forget that the Giants were a near-juggernaut over the final three-quarters of the 2016 NFL season. Led by a relentless pass rush and an offense paced by quarterback Eli Manning and un-coverable wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Big Blue won 9 of 11 games to close out the year. Of course, New York got clobbered in the playoffs by the Packers, 38-13. Unless the Giants defense has improved its pass coverage, a similar fate could await them this postseason.

Carolina Panthers: The Panthers have reloaded around quarterback Cam Newton, adding running back Christian McCaffrey and speedy wideout Curtis Samuel to the offensive mix. That should be enough to help the 2015 NFC champs get back to the playoffs, but they’ll need to protect Newton more — and get the defense back into the top 10 — to start thinking about a return to the Super Bowl.

NFC Rookies to Watch

Minnesota Vikings v Buffalo Bills
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Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings: No one can fill the void left by legendary former Vikings’ back Adrian Peterson, who is now in New Orleans, but second-round draft pick Dalvin Cook out of Florida State will certainly be worth watching in Minnesota’s offensive scheme.The biggest question may be his durability. If he can take the pounding, he may start reminding fans of the man he replaced. He’s already vaulted past free agent Latavius Murray (Oakland).

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears: With only mediocre Mike Glennon in his way, first-round draft pick Mitchell Trubisky has a very direct path to stardom in Chicago. Even considering the package of picks the Bears gave up to get him, Trubisky has managed to impress in the preseason. Given the team’s eagerness to see their franchise quarterback — and Glennon’s tendency to be terrible — it’s hard to imagine Trubisky holding a clipboard for his entire first year.

Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints: Playing for a team known for its chronically bad pass defense over the past few years, rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore hopes to be a catalyst of change in New Orleans. In preseason action, the former Ohio State Buckeye has shown himself to be a potential shutdown corner. The Saints need a lot more than that to get back to the postseason, but it’s a start.

Player on the Hot Seat: Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Jacksonville Jaguars
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Having added tight end O.J. Howard and receiver DeSean Jackson to his targets this offseason, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston now has all the help he needs to have an MVP-level year. The problem: he may not be an MVP-level player. Winston should benefit from playing in the pass-happy NFC South, but there are enough fearsome pass-rushers on his schedule that will force him to adapt or suffer increased scrutiny from fans and pundits.

Coach on the Hot Seat: Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins

New York Giants v Washington Redskins
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When your franchise has just one playoff win in the past 17 years and it’s owned by Daniel Snyder, every game has ‘hot seat’ potential. Between fan expectations, the ongoing Kirk Cousins drama and the competitive NFC East, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden will likely feel the burn all season long. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago will all have worse years, but the heat will be the worst for Gruden in D.C.

Playoff Picks

Division Champs:

NFC East: Dallas
NFC North: Green Bay
NFC South: Carolina
NFC West: Seattle

NFC Wild Cards: Atlanta and New York

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