The reigning, defending, and undisputed champions of football are the New England Patriots. Two Super Bowls in the last three years, capped by a monumental 25-point comeback in Houston in February make the question this year not if they can make the playoffs, or even if they are a Super Bowl-calibre team, the question is can anything stop them?
The 2016 season started with Tom Brady suspended for four games. Cue people predicting a struggle for New England. However, a great game and a half from Jimmy Garoppolo before getting hurt, and then an incredible game plan against the Houston Texans gave the Patriots a 3-1 record without their talisman.
When Brady got back on the field, it felt like 2007 part II. The Patriots were in “F-you” mode once again and Tom Brady was the Commander-in-Chief of their assault on the league’s defenses. Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo were the first victims of a well-rested and angry Brady. A bye week and last-second loss to the Seahawks halted momentum, but they Patriots soon tore through a soft schedule in the second half to finish with an NFL-best 14-2 record and the #1 seed in the AFC.
Come the playoffs they had a slight scare against the Texans hungry defense before pouring on the pain late on. They then ran through the Steelers once again before THAT comeback and a fifth Lombardi trophy.
|Brandin Cooks, WR||Logan Ryan, CB|
|Dwayne Allen, TE||Jabaal Sheard, DE/OLB|
|Kony Ealy, DE||Martellus Bennett, TE|
|Stephon Gilmore, CB||Chris Long, DE|
|Lawrence Guy, DL||Barkevious Mingo, DE/OLB|
|Rex Burkhead, RB||Michael Floyd, WR|
|Mike Gillislee, RB||LeGarrette Blount, RB|
|David Harris, LB||Rob Ninkovich, DE/OLB (Retired)|
|Derek Rivers, DE/OLB (Draft)|
The Patriots took one look at the 2017 Draft class and said: “no thank you”. They traded away their first round pick for Brandin Cooks, sent their second rounder to Carolina for Kony Ealy and a third rounder, flipped a fourth for Dwayne Allen and then gave up a fifth to sign Mike Gillislee as a restricted free agent. All of that business was topped by a rare investment in the free agent market with Stephon Gilmore.
The losses are not quite as heavy. There was a lot of turnover at the edge position, where they are down basically the entire depth chart from the start of last season, however the 2.5-sack man from the Super Bowl Trey Flowers is there, and they invested their top pick, #19 in the third round, in Derek Rivers who looks like a typically solid Patriots pick.
|1||Vs Kansas City Chiefs|
|2||@ New Orleans Saints|
|3||Vs Houston Texans|
|4||Vs Carolina Panthers|
|5||@ Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|6||@ New York Jets|
|7||Vs Atlanta Falcons|
|8||Vs Los Angeles Chargers|
|10||@ Denver Broncos|
|11||@ Oakland Raiders|
|12||Vs Miami Dolphins|
|13||@ Buffalo Bills|
|14||@ Miami Dolphins|
|15||@ Pittsburgh Steelers|
|16||Vs Buffalo Bills|
|17||Vs New York Jets|
The Patriots have a potentially tricky schedule this season. The Chiefs have an elite pass rush, the Saints have a great passing attack, and the Texans could have one of the most devastating front sevens in recent history. Carolina and Tampa are potentially dangerous as well. Then there is the rest of the AFC West to contend with. Trips to Denver rarely end well for Bill Belichick, and the Raiders game could be a fight for the #1 seed in the AFC. They also have to visit Heinz Field in mid-December which is never pleasant.
Three players to watch
We all know about Brady and Rob Gronkowski, but who are the lesser known Patriots that you should keep an eye on this year?
Cyrus Jones, cornerback
This may be redundant by the time Week 1 comes around because I have a feeling Jones could be cut by then.
The second round pick in 2016, Jones was expected to come in and compete well in the league, after all he was a well-touted Alabama product. However, he has struggled in coverage since entering the league. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the first preseason game this year when he got beaten deep twice by second-string Jacksonville Jaguars receivers. The Pats have tried to get some value out of him as a punt returner but he messed that up too, continuously muffing kicks. If he does stay on the 53-man roster then he will have to improve a lot to be a productive part of this team.
Austin Carr, wide receiver
Another guy who might not make the 53-man, but boy did he impress in the Patriots first preseason game against Jacksonville. This undrafted rookie out of Northwestern looked like Wes Welker reborn as he ran comebacks and drag routes for Jimmy Garoppolo, and then even caught the eye of Brady and Julian Edelman on the sideline by staying alive as Garoppolo scrambled in the red zone and extending beautifully for a three-yard touchdown catch.
There is almost no room in the Patriots wide receiver corps for Carr, with Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Hogan, and special teams ace Matthew Slater, however don’t put it past Belichick to keep a seventh receiver, especially if he shows his worth as an Edelman-Amendola replacement.
Trey Flowers, defensive end
This is a guy who is definitely making the 53, and probably going to be leaned on heavily this season. Flowers quietly led the Patriots in sacks last year with seven in the regular season despite playing just 53.9% of defensive snaps, and then played a huge part in the Super Bowl LI comeback with his late pressure on Matt Ryan.
This year Flowers will be expected to play a lot more of the snaps, especially with Rob Ninkovich now retired, and be the rock on the edge for the Patriots defense. New England have plenty of talent in their linebackers and secondary, but up front, and especially on the edge, they are a little light in impact players. If Flowers can really break out and become a high-end pass rusher then the Patriots may truly be impossible to beat.
The AFC East is all but won already. The Jets are in the tank, the Dolphins are relying on Jay Cutler, and the Bills are in Year 1 of a new regime once again. However, the #1 seed is not so secure. They have to travel to Denver, Oakland, and Pittsburgh, they have a Super Bowl rematch against the Falcons and the entire NFC South could be very good.
Still, it’s so hard not to pencil the Patriots into a Super Bowl LII appearance. The additional weapons around Tom Brady this season, along with the return of Rob Gronkowski, make them a fearsome offense. They re-signed Dont’a Hightower and still have Malcolm Butler. Oh, and Bill Belichick remains the greatest coach of his generation, and probably ever.
If the personnel doesn’t get you, the inventiveness of the coaching staff will. On any given Sunday anyone can lose, but foreseeing the Patriots losing in January or February is harder than avoiding Game of Thrones spoilers. It’s Super Bowl or nothing in Foxboro, and who am I to say they can’t establish a second dynasty?
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