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Tony Romo's revival, touchback tweaks and other NFL predictions for 2017

From Tom Brady's inevitable decline to TV ratings' unavoidable decline, here's what to expect out of the next 12 months of football.

Now that the snoozer of a Super Bowl is well behind us—really, it was dreadful—it’s time to pivot to the future. Every team is undefeated when it comes to the 2017 season, which officially begins March 9. Each team is holding a blank canvas, though admittedly some teams’ paintbrushes are perfectly built doozies like Tom Brady or Julio Jones. Others, well, how’s that new roster, Kyle Shanahan? As is the case every year, new teams will emerge, while other will regress. New rules will confuse and old controversies will resurface. The only certainty is that plenty of fascinating and in some cases unpredictable storylines will emerge ... so let’s try to predict them!

A startling number of Patriots will skip out on the team’s White House visit

Count Chris Long, LeGarrette Blount, Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett as the current roster of Patriots who will not be engaging in revelry at Donald Trump’s White House. Given that the ceremony traditionally takes place in the summer, that gives plenty of time for more Patriots to follow suit. But will they? Yes, many many more.

The known protesters (McCourty), societal voices (Bennett and Long) and the player that disapproves of duplicative experiences (Hightower, who literally said “Been there, done that.”) have been accounted for. Watch for more announcements to trickle in during the coming days, as Blount’s did Thursday. The President of the United States regularly mentions three people more than his own wife: Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft. While those three happen to be the most powerful figures in the Patriots’ organization, five players already expressing dissent is enough for any on the fence to follow suit.

In some cases, it’s just a question of being asked. Perhaps Belichick understood this conundrum and pre-emptively let his players know that it’s O.K. to not appear in Washington. Perhaps the team should scrap the traditional ceremony and Belichick, Brady and Kraft should instead join Trump for a round of golf. From the White House’s perspective, the optics would be much cleaner. Projected no shows: 13.

For Pats fans: Super Bowl LI commemorative package | Framed copy of Edelman’s SI cover

NFL ratings will continue to tumble

NFL ratings were down 9% in total and 6% for the playoffs, according to Business Insider. For a league striving for $25 billion in revenue, those numbers have to be alarming. The NFL pinned the early season slump on the hotly contested election, but the post-election numbers were still down 5%, though the intense political climate has hardly dissipated.

Next year’s outlook is more grim. For one, fantasy football seems to have plateaued. After years of exponential growth, the number of people playing fantasy sports grew just 1% from 2015 to ’16, according to an Ipsos Public Affairs poll. While there is no metric to quantify the impact of fantasy on television ratings (someone create one, please), who in their right mind watched Week 10’s Ravens-Browns blowout? Here’s who: a few middling fans, a couple of masochists, and a heavy dose of Steve Smith and Isaiah Crowell owners.

The political fervor is guaranteed not to simmer down any time soon, which is bad news for Goodell and the networks. So is the realization that the Cowboys truly rescued the NFL last season. Dallas is always a draw, but when the Cowboys are 13–3 and can be flexed into primetime games, they are ratings platinum. Their Thanksgiving tilt against Washington gave Fox Sports its most-viewed regular season game ever. Their Week 14 divisional battle against the Giants was the most-watched primetime game in 27 years.

Imagine the NFL ratings next year if the Cowboys become the Panthers and take a nap. Even a slight regression could be a massive blow.

Tony Romo will sign with Denver, and the Broncos will make it to the AFC Championship Game

New coach Vance Joseph has made it clear that he’s satisfied with Denver’s in-house QBs, Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch, which is exactly what you’re supposed to say when you first join a new team. The Broncos’ quarterback situation is much better than say, Blaine Gabbert vs. Colin Kaepernick last year, but Siemian’s ceiling is pretty low, and Lynch may need another year or two of development.

At 37, Romo comes with baggage (namely, never-ending back issues) and won’t be cheap. But he has to intrigue John Elway in terms of both talent and his ability to mentor Siemian and Lynch the way he did Dak Prescott. We haven’t seen Romo play in almost a year, but maybe Prescott’s rise was a good thing. Maybe Romo is fully healthy, which of course makes him all the more intriguing. If I have Denver’s defensive nucleus, led by Von Miller and Chris Harris, I’m doing everything I can to win another Super Bowl immediately. Romo gives you the best shot.

NFL team-by-team off-season needs

The Bears will win 10 games. (Okay maybe just nine.)

Of all the teams decimated by injuries in 2016, the Bears may have been the most ravaged. A heavy dose of talent was sidelined. From Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long to running back Jeremy Langford to tight end Zach Miller to prized free agent pickup ILB Danny Trevathan, key players fell throughout the season and forced the Bears to try and be resourceful when they had no more resources. Add in Alshon Jeffery’s four-game suspension for a PED violation, and the Bears never stood a chance.

The talent is there throughout Chicago’s roster, and assuming this group can stay healthy, crystallizing this prediction will hinge on the new starting quarterback. (Jay Cutler being released or traded is a forgone conclusion.) There will be plenty of options for the Bears, both in free agency and the draft. SI’s Chris Burke has the Bears selecting Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman in the third round of his latest mock draft. Jumping from 3–13 to 10–6 or thereabouts isn’t so improbable in today’s NFL. Ask the Cowboys.

Corey Davis will be OROY for … the San Francisco 49ers

If you hadn’t noticed, the 49ers have a lot of holes to fill. Arguably the most glaring is at receiver, where last year the team trotted out what’s his name, that other guy and my grandma. Not surprising, the 49ers finished dead last in receiving.

Enter Western Michigan’s Davis, a 6' 2" all-purpose talent who can become a major target machine all over the field. New head coach/offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan just bid adieu to Julio Jones in Atlanta—there is no way he’s going to settle for some semblance of Torrey Smith, Jeremy Kerley and others. If the Bears re-sign Alshon Jeffery, that doesn’t leave many thrilling options in free agency. Look for the 49ers to acquire Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo (two predictions for the price of one!) and unleash rookie Davis in this new-look offense.

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The NFL will get rid of its “new” touchback rule

Bill Belichick has been the rule’s most vocal critic. During Super Bowl week, he noted that Broncos corner Kayvon Webster was concussed on a touchback in Week 16 because the teams were confused and playing at different speeds. The NFL justified moving a touchback from the 20-yard line to the 25 as a safety precaution. Fewer kickoffs returned, Fewer injuries. Yet numbers released by the league show that its new rule had almost no impact in that regard.

The touchback rate only rose from 56% to 57.6%. Belichick was one of many coaches who consistently kicked short of the goal line to avoid it—why give away a free five yards (or 25 yards)? Overall, this offered little excitement and little help on the injury front, which the competition committee must realize.

Tom Brady will start to look like a human being

No, I don’t expect Brady to suddenly contribute his political opinions to the fray. At 40, I think he might start to come off the mountain. Not a steep decline but a minor regression. We thought it was happening in 2014 when Brady started the season largely ineffective, essentially a statue in the pocket—he was even benched in a Week 4 blowout.

Obviously Brady’s conditioning is top notch and he has no designs on an endgame. But at some point he has to come down from the clouds—and given that the only real reason he needs to be playing at this point is to make his records harder to attain, why not now?

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The NFL’s Super Bowl halftime act will be … Taylor Swift

O.K., Tay Tay isn’t known to be the most transformational live performer, though Super Bowl effects can do a lot. (Did Lady Gaga jump from that roof or not?) Swift does happen to be last remaining megastar who appeals to a variety of age groups. Every since JT and Janet Jackson, the league has opted for what they consider safe and familiar.

Also, starting in 2006 Swift has released an album every two years until 2016. She’s overdue now so look for her to have a ditty or two to promote.