So if you read my win-loss prediction piece (if you have not, take a quick peek), you will see that I think the Patriots season will end… well, it will end on the mountaintop. But I just want to express some caution. Yes, the GOAT is behind center, and Bill Belichick is still calling the shots… but this is a very weak team by Brady/Belichick standards, one that will face huge challenges.
Allow me to explain.
Wide Receiver Depth
The Patriots are EXTREMELY thin at wide receiver, and that’s WITH taking Julian Edelman into account… and without Edelman (which New England will be for it’s first four games), things get bleak.
Here is the current WR depth chart according to the Patriots website (as of 9/7):
- Chris Hogan
- Phillip Dorsett
- Cordarrelle Patterson
- Chad Hansen
- Matthew Slater
- Julian Edelman (suspended 4 games)
- Riley McCarron
Hogan is entering his third year in New England, so he is not a concern (but in an ideal world he’s the WR3); Dorsett is entering his second season in New England, and only caught 14 passes last year (including the playoffs); Patterson is entering his first season with the team, and was brought in as kick return specialist; Chad Hansen was acquired off of waivers within the last week; Matthew Slater, though listed at a receiver, is primarily a special teams player; Riley McCarron was signed off of the practice squad yesterday (he was also there in 2017), but has never played an NFL game (he was with the team throughout training camp).
On the bright side, New England happens to have a top 5 TE of all-time, and a bevy of running backs who can contribute in the passing game (James White, Rex Burkhead, and hopefully Sony Michel). I also like the potential of TE Jacob Hollister to contribute in some capacity this season (he was one of Brady’s top targets in training camp according to Jeff Howe of The Athletic).
Brady has options, but he will be working with very little in comparison to past seasons (see how ESPN’s Mike Reiss ranks it compared to other years), and I expect this to lead to a slow start.
First 4 games
In the first 4 weeks of the season, New England will face Houston (home), Jacksonville (away) , Detroit (away), and Miami (home).
I expect them to start 2 -2.
If they win two or more games, you better pencil in Tom Brady for another MVP award, because it will be all due to him.
First, Houston is a huge challenge. QB DeShaun Watson will be returning, as well as stud JJ Watt. Houston also added Tyrann Mathieu this offseason, a player that will pay dividends. Last year this game came down to the final minutes, and I expect another close contest. Houston has the pieces, but I just cannot see Brady starting 0 -1 two years in a row…. Nevertheless, I expect to see Houston in January, and this game could dictate home-field advantage for the playoffs
Second, good ole’ Jacksonville. This is a revenge game if I have ever seen one. The Jags were minutes away from their first Super Bowl appearance, but Tom Brady and Danny Amendola had other plans. They will be out for blood, and an away game in Florida in Week 2 means it will be HOT… better hope New England is conditioned. I just see this game meaning more for the Jags, and being a stumbling block for a weak receiving corps.
Third, Sunday night in Detroit. Former Belichick assistants always throw a wrench into things when you least expect it. In 2009, the Patriots went to Denver to face off against former OC Josh McDaniels. Even with Kyle Orton under center, they were able to upset New England, continuing a stellar start to their season (do not worry, the rails would come off soon enough). Eric Mangini had success versus New England while coaching the Jets, and the Peyton Hillis led-2010 Cleveland Browns (also coached by Mangini) beat New England, one of two losses the team had in the regular season that year. I expect Patricia to throw in some mad scientist wrinkles and pull off the upset. Detroit has all the offensive talent in the world, but I think Matt might figure out a way to foil Tom Brady, and Week 3 would be the most ideal time due to Edelman not being around. Expect the student to look like the master.
Fourth, home versus Miami. I expect this game to be a rebound, but never say never. Miami played the Pats very well last season (winning one game at home), and maybe a depleted receiving corps faces some issues, but I expect Brady to come out with the fire of a thousand suns; with the fear of a 1 – 3 start, expect something magnificent to unfold.
Super Bowl Fatigue
New England has been to three Super Bowls the past 4 seasons. They were also one game away from the Super Bowl in 2015. They lost their long-time defensive coordinator this offseason, and without a last minute intervention, the team would have lost Josh McDaniels to the Indianapolis Colts; key players moved on to other teams this offseason as well.
This could very well be 2005 all over again.
In 2005, the Pats were also coming off of 3 Super Bowls in 4 years, but they also lost both coordinators. Tedy Bruschi had a stroke, resulting in losing half a season of play; the team released Pro Bowl CB Ty Law, and players such as LB Roman Phifer, OL Joe Andruzzi, and frequent Tom Brady target David Patton left via free agency; longtime LB Ted Johnson also left the team, retiring after a 10-year career in New England.
Maybe it was the blows to their defense, maybe it was losing coordinators on both sides of the ball, or maybe it was just the overall price of being so good for a four-year stretch, but whatever it was, 2005 was a down year.
New England started of 4 – 4 and finished the season 10 – 6. They won their division, but only got the third seed in the AFC playoffs. Although they beat Jacksonville in the Wild Card round, they lost in Denver the next week (more on that shortly), which was the first playoff loss of Tom Brady’s career, and the end of a possible three-peat.
New England faces similar challenges this season, having lost Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler, and Nate Soldier. Although you can expect Tom Brady to fill in some of the gaps, he can only do so much.
In addition to departures via free agency, the Patriots lost first round pick Isaiah Wynn to injury in the preseason, and first round pick Sony Michel has already needed knee surgery. In addition to Wynn, second round pick Duke Dawson was placed on IR this week, and late round pick Braxton Berrios is there as well. The only draft pick from 2018 expected to make an impact is linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley; Michel could make an impact as well, but his ongoing knee injuries concern me. Picking so late in the draft for so many years could soon add up (and injuries do not help).
Replacing Matt Patricia will be a challenge, and although Brian Flores (not the formal DC) will assume more some responsibility, things will look different on that end of the ball as well. It may require more focus from Belichick, which could hurt game-planing as a whole.
Overall, the team has done so good the past four years, everything might just add up and lead to an early exit…
Le’Veon Bell Factor
As of this week, Le’Veon Bell has decided to sit out Week 1, and has threatened a long-term absence. However long it may be, he will be back eventually, because in order to accrue a season of play (thus becoming an unrestricted FA this offseason), Bell needs to play at least 6 games.
Factoring in a long absence, I think Bell sitting will lead the Steelers to losing at least one more game, and THAT will determine home-field advantage in the AFC. Prior to Bell announcing he’d sit Week 1 (and possible longer), I had Pittsburgh at 12 – 4, earning the one seed in the conference, and beating New England in the AFC Championship (the Pats were 11 -5 and the two seed in this scenario). However, I think Bell will lead to the Steelers losing another game (possibly more), and New England capitalizing on them in December. Therefore, I have the Pats earning the one seed as a result.
Although I previously had the Steelers as the one seed, and the Pats losing IN Pittsburgh in January, remember this: Tom Brady is 3 – 4 on the road in the playoffs. His four losses have a common thread:
- 2005 playoffs: Lost 27 – 13 @ Denver
- 2006 playoffs: Lost 38 – 34 @ Indianapolis
- 2013 playoffs: Lost 26 – 16 @ Denver
- 2015 playoffs: Lost 20 – 18 @ Denver
Every time Brady has lost a road playoff game in the playoffs, it was in Denver, against Peyton Manning, or BOTH.
Other than that, he is 3 – 0 on the road in the playoffs.
For me, I originally had the fatigue and less-than-ideal receiving corps adding up to a defeat versus Pittsburgh due to them having superior talent… but I cannot do that now, especially if New England has home-field advantage in the playoffs because of Bell missing time (which I think he will).
But just be aware.
My Biggest Worries
So I have New England finishing 12 – 4 this season. Yes, a slow start, but I believe they will rebound to finish the season strong. I could absolutely see some hiccups along the way after Week 4, but with Brady (ideally) being as good as he has been since 2014, I believe he can salvage the season, even with a talent deficit.
I worry about the weak receiving corps and fatigue, but in terms of other teams in the league, Jacksonville and Houston stand out.
Houston has the talent if they put it all together (and I have them in the AFC Championship Game), but for them to come into Gillette in January and beat Tom Brady is a TALL order… they will be good, but I just cannot predict them being THAT good.
Jacksonville has the formula to beat New England in Gillette in January (see: 2017 AFC Championship Game). The three times Brady has lost at home in the playoffs were to Baltimore (2009 season and 2012 season) and the Jets (2010 season). Those teams had great defenses, solid run games, and ENOUGH good QB play to throw a wrench into the Patriots (Joe Flacco had to have made some sort of deal with a higher being, because after 2012 he has not been the same). Jacksonville had a very similar recipe last season (and Patriot-kryptonite Tom Coughlin works for the team), and it could haunt New England in January… oh, and I do have us facing the Jags in the AFC Divisional Round….
But I just cannot give the edge to Blake Bortles. Listen, if there is a game the Pats lose in the playoffs, it will be versus Jacksonville. It scares me, they almost did it last year, and have the majority of their team back… but if they had ANYONE ELSE at QB (even Lamar Jackson), I’d pick the upset… but I cannot do it.
Maybe I’m biased, maybe I’m overthinking it, but I have New England winning the Super Bowl. They have the best coach and QB in the league (and possibly ever), and that alone is good enough to win at least 10 games. They will win the division yet again, which guarantees at least one home playoff game. Tom Brady has an 86.36% winning percentage at home in the playoffs (19 -3), so I’ll let the numbers talk. Houston and Jacksonville (and Bell playing a full-season) scare me, but I just do not see everything coming together to push New England to a road playoff game, let alone against a team they cannot handle (they beat a 14 – 2 Chargers team in 2006, a team that had the league MVP at RB… yet Brady was throwing to Reche Caldwell and still won).
It’s not a sure thing (and I will second guess myself a lot), but I have New England in the Super Bowl (and winning it) because of 12. As long as Tom Brady is the Tom Brady we know and love, New England can overcome any obstacle. This will be one of his biggest challenges, but I am not in the business of doubting Tom Brady. I laid out my concerns, but screw them, they could have the Western Michigan receiving corps out there, yet I’d have them in the playoffs… unless Tom Brady is not Tom Brady anymore, expect more of the same… and a 6th ring.
Follow Nick Collins on Twitter @Nick_Collins14