5 most likely opponents for Patriots’ opening night

Suffering through football withdrawals? You’re not alone.

Fortunately, it’s never too soon to look ahead to the 2017 season. More specifically, who might be kicking off the season for the Thursday night opener in Foxboro. The Patriots have their eight home opponents finalized, but the league hasn’t yet released schedule of who’s coming when.

The schedule brings the AFC East foe Jets, Bills and Dolphins to Foxboro, plus the Panthers, Falcons, Texans, Chiefs and Chargers.

Here’s a look at the five most likely candidates for opening night:

5. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers had a down year in 2016, but they still boast one of the NFL’s most marketable stars, former MVP Cam Newton. It’s a matchup that fans only get to see once every four years and feels more probable than the NFL putting the Bills, Jets or Chargers in the primetime opener.’

Herald Handicap: 15-to-1

4. Miami Dolphins

Adam Gase and the Dolphins had something cooking before losing Ryan Tannehill with a knee injury. Still, the Dolphins made the postseason with Matt Moore at quarterback down the stretch, and will likely be the only other playoff contender in the AFC East next season.

Herald Handicap: 8-to-1

2A. & 2B. Kansas City Chiefs & Houston Texans

These teams boast remarkably similar resumes. They’ve each lost the divisional round in Foxboro over the past two seasons and fall under the umbrella of teams that are close but never quite there. Both have been linked to Tony Romo, and if either acquires the Cowboys quarterback, they’ll leapfrog ahead.

Herald Handicap: With Romo 2-to-1, Without Romo 3-to-1

1. Atlanta Falcons

What a time to draw the NFC South. The juiciest matchup of the bunch, this Super Bowl LI rematch is the game that everybody wants to see. TV networks know that as well, so if FOX has the rights to this one, don’t expect them to surrender them without a fight. The 2016 season opener was a Super Bowl rematch, and in mid-February, this is undoubtedly the leader in the clubhouse.

Herald Handicap: 3-to-2

Note: The Steelers seem like another obvious choice, but the Patriots travel to Pittsburgh in 2017, so that is not a contender.