The AFC Championship is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 21, at 3:05 p.m. ET.
Plan accordingly, because the New England Patriots will be making their seventh straight trip to the conference title game.
We're one week away from the start of the regular season, as the Patriots (-9) will host the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium next Thursday night. It should mark the first of at least 13 wins for the Pats in 2017. And 13 wins will be good enough to not only win the AFC East, but also good enough to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Had Julian Edelman not been lost for the season with a torn ACL that he suffered in the third preseason game, I'd be guaranteeing at least a 14-win season for the Patriots. But Edelman's loss is certainly a devastating one. That said, it's a good thing New England's offense is absolutely stacked, with the return of Rob Gronkowski and the addition of Brandin Cooks.
So, 14 wins for the second straight year isn't out of the question. But I'm putting my money on 13, which is good for the "over" in Vegas. They have the Patriots' over/under win total set at 12.5, the highest in the league. And for good reason.
The obvious one is that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still running the show. Then you have to factor in the addition of cornerback Stephon Gilmore to play alongside a motivated Malcolm Butler who's playing for a new contract.
These Patriots -- even without guys like Edelman and the recently retired Rob Ninkovich -- are loaded. That's not to take anything away from those two veteran game-changers. They'll be missed, for sure. But the "next man up" philosophy that Belichick lives by is a real thing in New England. It's worked in the past, and it will work again. Especially considering the additions of Cooks on the offensive end, and Gilmore on the defensive end.
But another reason the Patriots will surpass Vegas' win total, win the division, and advance to the AFC Championship is because there isn't anyone else in the AFC that can keep up.
The only way to figure out who can come close, in the AFC, is by looking at the quarterbacks. Which means all eyes will be on Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders, and Marcus Mariota and the Tennessee Titans.
I might be in the minority on Mariota here. But he progressed nicely in his second NFL season last year, throwing 26 touchdown passes in 15 games, with nine interceptions. His TD's went up, and his INT's went down. And I expect that to improve even more this season.
Also, the AFC South is anybody's division. The Titans finished with a 9-7 record last year. They just barely missed out on the playoffs by losing the "division record" tiebreaker to the 9-7 AFC South champion Houston Texans.
But enough about everybody else. As much as I target those three teams as potential competitors for the AFC title, none of them will be able to remove the Patriots from the Iron Throne.
The Pats are the favorite to win the division (-3000), the favorite to win the AFC (+160), and the favorite to win Super Bowl LII (+340). Heck, the Patriots are already a one-point favorite in that Super Bowl. So, are you really willing to bet against that?
I would hope not. The Patriots aren't just going back to the AFC Championship for the seventh consecutive year. They're also going back to the Super Bowl for the second straight year, and the third time in the last four years. When they get there, I'm sure I'll be taking the Patriots to win it all once again.
And while you have your calendars out, I should let you know that Super Bowl LII is Sunday, Feb. 4 in Minnesota.
See you then.
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