NFL preview 2017: New England Patriots

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots speaks to the media after Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots speaks to the media after Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium on February 5, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images) /

The 2017 NFL regular season is right around the corner. So what are the prospects for the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots?

How many different things to the New England Patriots have to do during this dynastic run of theirs? Dating back to 2001 and the beginning of the Tom Brady Era per say, the franchise has reeled of 16 consecutive winning campaigns. That’s tied for the second-longest streak in NFL history.

Dating back to ’03, Bill Belichick’s squad has totaled 10-plus wins for 14 straight seasons. There have been a record-setting eight consecutive division titles and seven Super Bowl appearances in 16 years. In Super Bowl XLIX against the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, the club rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to prevail, 28-24. Two years later (LI), the Patriots were down 28-3 in the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons in Houston. They came away with a stunning 34-28 overtime triumph.

Now the Patriots are in position to once again accomplish something that has never happened. And we’re referring to its current era of deciding championships. And that’s win three Super Bowls in four years for a second time. The first franchise to manage that feat were the Dallas Cowboys under the command of Jimmy Johnson (1992 and ’93) and Barry Switzer (1995). Then earlier this century, it was Belichick and Brady at the helm of titles in 2001 (XXXVI) and 2003 and ’04 (XXXVIII and XXXIX).

What made this offseason interesting was watching the defending champs stock up for another championship run. And thanks to the “generosity” of other clubs around the league, the Patriots swung their share of deals to acquire veteran talent. New England picked up tight end Dwayne Allen, wide receiver Brandin Cooks and defensive end Kony Ealy via trades from the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, respectively. They signed restricted free agent running back Mike Gillislee to an offer sheet. And the Buffalo Bills didn’t match the deal.

They also added free-agents such as cornerback Stephon Gilmore and running back Rex Burkhead, as well as New York Jets’ castoff David Harris. He spent the last 10 seasons at inside linebacker facing Brady and company. Frankly, this looks like a club hoping to make perhaps one more run with their star quarterback at the helm. And Jimmy Garoppolo waiting in the wings.

Let’s not forget just how impressive this team was throughout 2016 despite some adversity. Brady served a controversial four-game suspension to start the season. Enter Garoppolo, who played well in a brief time before going down and being replaced by Jacoby Brissett. He would orchestrate a Thursday night win over the Houston Texans in Week 3 before stumbling a week later.

All told, the Pats were 3-1 without Brady. He would return and lead the club to 14 wins out of 15 contests, including a three-game sweep of the Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and Falcons in the postseason. Brady would throw 28 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in 12 regular-season outings. He followed that up with a combined 1,137 yards, seven scores and three picks in the playoffs. And the prolific passer managed all of this without explosive tight end Rob Gronkowski for the vast majority of the year.

But now we’re quickly approaching the opening of the season and the club’s Thursday night home tilt with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots capped off a 1-3 preseason with a wild 40-38 loss to the New York Giants. So much for that. However, there were a few recent personnel issues and for totally different reasons.

Sure-handed and spectacular wide receiver Julian Edelman tore his ACL at Ford Field in a preseason tilt with the Detroit Lions. He will be shelved for all of 2017. Meanwhile, Ealy’s tenure with the club ended before it really began. Despite trading for the pass-rushing threat during the spring, he failed to cut the mustard and wound up not being the right fit for the team. The Patriots cut him loose and he wound up with the rival New York Jets.

Of course, there’s no time to lick those wounds or second-guess yourself about a trade. Now the defending Super Bowl champions get ready to kick off a season in which they could tie the Pittsburgh Steelers with a record six Lombardi Trophies. The Black and Gold got four of those in six years under the guidance of Hall of Famers like head coach Chuck Noll and quarterback Terry Bradshaw. Two more came more than 30 years later with current signal-caller Ben Roethlisberger and sideline leaders Bill Cowher (2005) and Mike Tomlin (2008).

In the case of the Patriots, the run under Belichick and Brady has been something to marvel at. And if they can capture another NFL title, they would have won their six Super Bowls in a span of 17 years. Simply remarkable.

As usual, it won’t be easy. Then again, it’s not supposed to be. But at time, this New England Patriots’ franchise has made it look that way for nearly two decades.


With reliable wide receiver Julian Edelman now out for the season, Tom Brady will now have to rely on another to target to replace 98 catches for 1,106 yards and three touchdowns from a year ago. Having “Gronk” healthy is huge. But it’s the addition of Brandin Cooks that looms even larger now. Yes, Super Bowl LI hero James White hauled in 60 passes during the regular season. And Chris Hogan could become an even bigger option this season. But it is Cooks that is the most intriguing addition of the offseason. What made the former Saints’ big-play option such an appealing addition was his ability to turn a short pass into a long gain. And he’s also more than capable of stretching the field as a deep threat.

It’s somewhat amazing that New Orleans was willing to part with such a commodity. But his arrival in Foxborough could result in another 500-plus point season for Belichick and company. If he disappoints or goes down, there could be some short-term issues. This past weekend, the Patriots did add a little insurance at wide receiver in former Colts’ wideout Phillip Dorsett, acquired via trade from Indianapolis for Brissett.

Best case

Obviously, the Patriots would like to put another 16-0 mark into the record books. And this time cap it off with a Super Bowl championship. It’s hard to believe that it was 10 years ago (2007) when the team ran the table in the regular season only to come up short in Arizona vs. Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants (XLII). Still, if there is a franchise capable of such a feat, it would be this head coach, this quarterback and these Pats.

Realistically, going unbeaten and untied would be tough for any team forced to play five road games in a six-week span. And we know you don’t have to be perfect to win an NFL championship. Ideally, New England is playing its best football late in the year. More times than not that is indeed the case. And that’s what has worked best for this reigning dynasty that shows no signs of slowing down.

Worst case

It would be easy to say if Brady goes down for any length of time, the Patriots could be in real trouble. The problem with that analysis is that we have seen this team without their prolific signal-caller and the club has still enjoyed success. In all seriousness, if the defense can’t duplicate its play from a season ago, New England could be in trouble regardless of how many points Josh McDaniels’ offensive unit puts on the board.

You have to go back 15 years to 2002, the least time the team failed to win at least 10 games. It was the Patriots’ failure to stop the run that proved to be their undoing in a campaign that began with three wins and ended 9-7. We know that the team isn’t quite satisfied with a pass rush that produced only 34 sacks a season ago. Could that lack of pressure prove to be the Patriots’ undoing?

Final word

It would be interesting if the Patriots wound up winning a third Super Bowl in four years. It’s only been done twice before and (what a surprise) it was Belichick’s team that last accomplished this feat (2001, 2003-04). Betting against Belichick and Brady getting this done is probably ill-advised.

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Still, it’s not like there aren’t some serious contenders in the conference capable of knocking off the defending Super Bowl champions. What makes the task that much harder is that if you are going to be the AFC’s representative in the Big Game, you likely have to knock off Brady and company twice.