After squaring off in arguably the greatest Super Bowl in history this past February, the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will meet again this Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
The eight-plus months leading up to the rematch played out very differently for the two Super Bowl LI participants, as the Patriots took an unusually aggressive approach to roster-building while the Falcons largely stood pat.
Here’s a look at how each team has changed since that fateful night in Houston:
Thanks to free agency, trades and injuries, the Patriots’ roster looks quite a bit different from the one they carried into Super Bowl LI.
Tom Brady still is under center, of course, and New England’s entire 2016 offensive line remains intact. You should see plenty of Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan and Super Bowl hero James White on Sunday night, too.
The rest of the Patriots’ skill position players, however, are either new to Foxboro or newly healthy. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is back after finishing last season on injured reserve and has two new understudies, with Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister replacing Martellus Bennett and Matt Lengel.
New England’s receiving corps also underwent a makeover — and not a totally intentional one. Brandin Cooks and Phillip Dorsett arrived via trades from the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, respectively, and the Patriots lost Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell — both of whom made key contributions in Super Bowl LI — to IR before the season even began.
In the backfield, the Patriots let running back LeGarrette Blount walk in free agency and signed Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead. Gillislee and Lewis have split early-down snaps in recent weeks, while Burkhead has been sidelined since Week 2 with injured ribs.
Over on defense, the turnover is even more apparent.
Three-fourths of the Patriots’ 2016 defensive end rotation is gone (Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard to free agency; Rob Ninkovich to retirement) with only Trey Flowers remaining. Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and linebacker Shea McClellin are on IR.
Plugging those holes up front are Deatrich Wise, Cassius Marsh, Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, with newcomers David Harris and Marquis Flowers filling out the linebacking corps. Harris has played just seven snaps all season, though, and Flowers mainly is a special teamer.
The Patriots returned almost their entire secondary, swapping out Logan Ryan for Stephon Gilmore and bringing back everyone else. Cornerback Johnson Bademosi is another new face, but he primarily played on special teams until this past weekend.
Atlanta handled its post-Super Bowl offseason much differently.
Quarterback and reigning NFL MVP Matt Ryan? Back.
Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman? Still there.
Wide receivers Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel? Yep.
Tight ends Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo? Yessir.
The only changes the Falcons made to their starting offense were at right guard (second-year man Wes Schweitzer taking over for the retired Chris Chester) and fullback (Derrick Coleman in; Patrick DiMarco out). DiMarco was the only Atlanta player to record a catch, run or throw in Super Bowl LI who no longer is with the team.
The Falcons’ defense — a unit that stymied Brady and the Patriots for close to three quarters the last time these teams met — hasn’t changed much, either.
Star cornerback Desmond Trufant now is healthy after spending the second half of last season on IR, and the rest of Atlanta’s starting secondary is back, as well. Ditto for starting linebackers Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Defensive end Dwight Freeney is gone, but his spot was filled from within by Brooks Reed and Adrian Clayborn.
The most notable newcomer on Atlanta’s defense, Dontari Poe, starts at defensive tackle, replacing Ra’Shede Hageman, who was released last month after being brought up on domestic violence charges. Rookies Duke Riley and Takkarist McKinley also will see time at linebacker and D-end, respectively.
Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images