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Running backs will be a big challenge for Patriots too

Adrian Peterson signed with the New Orleans Saints.
Adrian Peterson signed with the New Orleans Saints.Derick E. Hingle/AP

As the Patriots approached the 2016 postseason, much was made about the lack of offensive firepower they encountered during the regular season, (not-so-affectionately referred to as tomato cans).

The 2017 season is shaping up to be much different, thanks in part to the fact that the Patriots will square off against the AFC West and NFC South, where many teams boast a higher caliber of quarterback than the Patriots saw in 2016.

But there’s another factor that has flown under the radar a bit – many of the teams on the 2017 schedule either had an impressive rushing attack last season, or made what appear to be significant upgrades this offseason. That adds to the degree of difficulty next season.

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Last season, the Patriots had the third best rushing defense in the league, allowing just 88.6 yards per game. They also surrendered just six rushing touchdowns, but the defense figures to face more challenges in 2017.

Veterans Adrian Peterson (New Orleans) and Marshawn Lynch(Oakland) are with new organizations and will be lining up in the opposing backfield, while Christian McCaffery (Carolina) is at the top of the list of talented rookie running backs the Patriots will have to contend with. Here’s a look at some of the backs the Patriots could face this season.

The Kansas City Chiefs are first up on the schedule, traveling to Gillette for the season opener on Sept. 7. The Chiefs won the AFC West and were the No. 2 seed in the conference, yet their rushing attack wasn’t as impressive as previous years, thanks in part to an injury to Jamaal Charles. Instead, it was Spencer Ware leading the team with 921 yards, while Charcandrick West and special teams sensation Tyreek Hill combined for more than 500 yards. Charles has since left to join the Denver Broncos. Kansas City is hoping free-agent signee C.J. Spiller still has something left in the tank, and drafted Kareem Hunt, who rushed for 1,475 yards at Toledo last season, in the third round.

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Former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram had a career-high in rushing yards for New Orleans last season.
Former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram had a career-high in rushing yards for New Orleans last season.AP Photo/Steve Nesius

In Week 2, the Patriots hit the road to face the New Orleans Saints, who were led by Mark Ingram’s 1,043 yards on the ground. New Orleans added free agent Peterson, who missed most of last year with a a torn meniscus in his right knee. They also moved up in the draft to select Alvin Kamara out of Tennessee in the third round.

The Houston Texans won the AFC South last year and lost to the Patriots in the divisional round. They’ll have a different look when they come to Gillette in Week 3 this season, with rookie DeShaun Watson possibly starting at quarterback. Another rookie, D’Onta Foreman, rushed for 2,028 yards last year at Texas and was selected in the third round. He’ll join Lamar Miller, who led the Texans with 1,073 yards in 2016, in the backfield.

Christian McCaffrey was the second running back selected in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Christian McCaffrey was the second running back selected in the 2017 NFL Draft.AP Photo/Chuck Burton

The Carolina Panthers drafted McCaffrey, who rushed for 1,639 yards in 2016 at Stanford, with the eighth overall pick. He’ll join Jonathan Stewart, who has 6,638 career rushing yards, when the Panthers come to Gillette in Week 4.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are hoping Doug Martin can stay healthy and revert back to his 2015 form, when he had 1,402 yards, when the Patriots hit the road in Week 5. The two-time Pro Bowl section was slowed by a hamstring injury in 2016, then was suspended for four games violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances. He will miss the first three games of the 2017 season.

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Week 7 will bring a Super Bowl rematch at Gillette Stadium. The Atlanta Falcons’ tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 1,599 yards and 19 touchdowns, with Freeman averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and Coleman 4.4 last season.

Marshawn Lynch, left, is expected to give Derek Carr a hand in the offense.
Marshawn Lynch, left, is expected to give Derek Carr a hand in the offense.(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The Oakland Raiders also featured a balanced rushing attack in 2016, with Latavius Murray, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington combining for 1,760 yards and 15 touchdowns. Murray led the trio with 788 yards, but he with signed the Minnesota Vikings this offseason, The Raiders brought Lynch out of retirement and hope he can more than account for Murray’s departure when they face the Patriots in Week 11 in Mexico.

AFC East foes Miami and Buffalo also boast productive running games. Jay Ajayi had a break out season for the Dolphins in 2016, running for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns on 260 carries. The Patriots face Miami in Weeks 12 and 14. LeSean McCoy rushed for 1,267 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Bills, who appear on the Patriots’ schedule twice late in the season, in Weeks 13 and 16.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell may be the best all-around back in the league. He will be joined this year by rookie James Conner, who rushed for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns before being selected in the third round out of Pitt.

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Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney