One of the most anticipated games on the NFL's 2017 schedule is within sight.
By the time kickoff rolls around Sunday night, it will have been 259 days since the New England Patriots erased a 28-3 third-quarter deficit and crushed the hearts, spirits and minds of the Atlanta Falcons, 34-28 in overtime, to win Super Bowl LI. The rematch takes place on Sunday Night Football this week at Gillette Stadium.
It's the eighth time in NFL history that the two teams from the previous season's Super Bowl will meet in the very next season, including the third such occasion in the last four years.
Both the Patriots and Falcons have turned over plenty of their roster in the meantime. New England has 33 players on its current 53-man roster who played at least one snap in Super Bowl LI, while Atlanta has 30. Each team had 13 players (out of 22) starting in their respective games last week that also started back on Feb. 5 in Houston.
One notable way the Falcons are different is at offensive coordinator, where Steve Sarkisian has taken the place of Kyle Shanahan, who departed for the head coaching vacancy in San Francisco.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called Sarkisian's offense "well-balanced" at his Wednesday morning press conference, saying it's an explosive group that can score from anywhere on the field in a number of different ways with a number of different players.
Matt Ryan remains under center, four of the five starters on the offensive line are back, and the ever-dangerous tandem of Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu – each banged up, to varying degrees – still pose threats on the outside for Atlanta.
Ryan, a Boston College product, won MVP honors in 2016, when he threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He also completed a career-high 69.9 percent of his passes.
But his encore is off to a rocky start. Ryan is on pace to throw for a still-respectable 4,342 yards, but his touchdowns are down and his interceptions have skyrocketed. He's thrown for only six touchdowns in five games, and he's also already at six interceptions – all of which have come in the last three weeks. Ryan's completion percentage is down to 65.9 percent and is on pace for 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
Needless to say, Belichick doesn't appear to be preoccupied with how the Falcons looked on offense a season ago under Shanahan, nor how any other phase of the game appeared in February. He's on to 2017.
"We're focused on the team that we're playing this weekend," Belichick said. "I don't really care about what some other coach did some other year. Like right now, we're getting ready for the Falcons, coach Sarkisian's offense, coach [Marquand] Manuel's defense and coach [Keith] Armstrong's special teams under the direction of [head coach Dan] Quinn. That's who we play this week. That's what we’re getting ready for. What somebody else did some other year – it's really not that relevant right now."
Belichick's philosophy appears to differ considerably from Quinn's, who readily admitted the tape of Super Bowl LI is a big part of his team's preparation for Sunday.
"When you face a team for a second time in less than a year ... I'm not going to call it a division game, but you have more familiarity than you would when you don't," Quinn said in his conference call with Boston media. "So you go back to look, how did they feature the players in their roles last year and then go back to look at some of the roles for this year. The players also have some familiarity with one another; 'how do I guard this guy, I've got to make sure my leverage is right when I tackle this player, in press coverage this release worked, this one wasn’t as effective.'"
One player the Falcons didn't have to worry about covering in Super Bowl LI is Rob Gronkowski. Tom Brady threw for a Super Bowl-record 466 yards against Atlanta without No. 87, whose presence this week is a whole other wrinkle for the Falcons to consider.
The return of Gronkowski is far from the only difference in the arsenal at Brady's disposal from the last time the teams met. Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell are both on injured reserve, and Martellus Bennett is now in Green Bay.
Brandin Cooks, who faced the Falcons five times in the first three years of his career as a member of the New Orleans Saints, is now one of Brady's top targets. Cooks doesn't have great career numbers against Atlanta – particularly last season (five catches, 32 yards and no touchdowns over two games) – but is on pace to establish a new career high in receiving yards in his new home, with 1,259. He's also averaging a career-best 19.7 yards per reception on the season.
"He works hard, very diligent, tough, durable, a smart guy that will do whatever you ask him to do," Belichick said of Cooks. "Whatever you ask him to do, he wants to know exactly how you want it done. He tries to do it that way. He's a pleasure to coach."
Phillip Dorsett is another new target for Brady. Dorsett, who was acquired from the Indianapolis Colts in September, said that his mentality is that it's just a game against Atlanta. He can't speak to the rematch aspect, since he just got here.
"I can't really say, I honestly don't know because I wasn't a part of it last year," Dorsett said when asked if it was any different for him being here for this particular game. "We're trying to treat it like it's just a regular game, so to me, my mentality is we're just playing Atlanta and I can't really think about what happened last year because I don't know because I wasn't here."
There will be some continuity for the Patriots on offense. James White, whose Super Bowl-record 14 catches the Falcons certainly remember well, will be active. Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and Dion Lewis all played in Super Bowl LI, and they'll be on hand Sunday as well.
The opposing coaches seem split on using the film from February in preparing for this week's game, as do some players on the Patriots.
Amendola said that there are certain things New England can take away from re-watching Super Bowl LI, particularly when it comes to the mistakes made early in the game.
"We've taken some things away from that," Amendola said. "We obviously didn't start the game like we wanted to. That's a focus point this week – start fast and sustain drives throughout the game."
Left tackle Nate Solder, on the other hand, doesn’t think re-watching the game will do the Patriots any good.
"We've got to focus on this week," Solder said. "We've got a tough opponent we've got to worry about – the Falcons this year, this week, right now."
Nothing that happens this year, or even this week, can change what happened in February. But both the Patriots and Falcons can take steps on Sunday to change the tones of their respective seasons and work towards making next February one to remember.