As the New England Patriots prepare to jerk the curtain on the new NFL season (at Foxboro against the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday), the defending champions have plenty of reason to feel confident of emerging victorious again in February. Expected to be relatively unchallenged in the AFC East – bar some token resistance from Miami – the Patriots have much the same roster as that which came from way behind to defeat Atlanta in Superbowl LI in Houston. Of course, it only takes one defeat in postseason to unseat even the biggest favorites. But can anyone inflict that defeat on the success-hardened Pats?
The main reason it’s hard to see them letting go of their title is, of course, QB Tom Brady. A man with one Superbowl ring for every finger on his deadly right hand, Brady has been there, seen it, and done it. It’s not made him complacent, though, and for anyone feeling that his 40th birthday last month might mark a drop-off, the stats don’t make for pleasant reading. A season shortened by a four-game suspension last year saw Brady present his highest passer rating since 2007. If you can lead a Hollywood-worthy Superbowl-record comeback at the age of 39, chances are you won’t be a chump at 40.
With a supporting cast still including such luminaries as Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, and new arrival Brandin Cooks, as well as a defense featuring Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, and Dont’a Hightower, the Patriots aren’t about to get bad. The loss of Julian Edelman for the season is tough to bear, but the Patriots’ system is strong enough to manage it. So someone else needs to get better this year, but who? Opinions are divided, but there are three, maybe four teams who might give it a go.
Firstly, you have to look at the previous season’s runners-up to give it a go. The Falcons led 28-3 in the second half in Houston, and but for Matt Ryan’s fourth-quarter fumble would in all likelihood be reigning champions. Coming into the new season, their defense is as powerful as ever, but the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the head coaching post in San Francisco must be expected to hurt them more than it helps them. His successor Steve Sarkisian will hope to make hay in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears weak secondary and power forward from there; but for now, they must be considered outsiders for the big one.
So, if not the Falcons, what about the last team to finish runner-up to the Patriots? In 2015, Seattle came within a yard of adding a second title to the one they won a year before. Although Marshawn Lynch has turned up in Oakland after a year-long “retirement,” their newer, younger running backs (headlined by Thomas Rawls), will take some pressure of Russell Wilson. As, hopefully, will a stronger offensive line. The relative continuity allied to the confidence that comes from two Superbowl appearances in three years makes them many people’s best bet to usurp the Patriots.
Aside from the Pats’ most recent victims, their other two most likely rivals are Green Bay and Oakland. The former have added Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett to Aaron Rodgers’ collection of targets, while the latter have the aforementioned Marshawn Lynch fresh and ready to go after sitting out last season.
Of course, if Brady goes down to injury in Week One, the Patriots become mortal. Not bad – Jimmy Garoppolo acquitted himself very nicely in his senior’s early-season absence last time out – but beatable. They’d still be strong enough to win the AFC East ahead of a Miami side that’s still just a little undercooked and a lot injury-plagued. With Brady in the chair, though, it’s hard to see even the Raiders, or an always-dangerous Pittsburgh Steelers, offering anything better than creditable failure to unseat them as conference champions.
With all of that said, before a single uniform has been dirtied, it’s all just prediction. This entire post could be looking very silly by the middle of November, so let’s wait and see. Even if we’re all fairly sure what we’re going to see.
[Featured Image by Al Bello/Getty Images]