Pencil the Patriots in for an AFC East title, first-round bye and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.
That’s par for the course in these parts, right? Since 2011, New England has crossed each item off its checklist with relative ease. The Patriots have won the AFC East by an average of 3.9 games, never finishing fewer than two games ahead of the moribund New York Jets, Buffalo Bills or Miami Dolphins. They’ve earned the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC four times in seven seasons, advancing to the Super Bowl in each instance – winning twice.
No matter how trying an off-season it was at times in Foxboro, the equation stays the same. Go ahead, try talking yourself into another AFC East team usurping the throne from New England.
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The Bills? After making the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, they abandoned the course and are going with Nathan Peterman – who threw five interceptions in a single half of football in his debut last season – as their starting quarterback. That is until Josh Allen is ready, the No. 7 overall pick in the draft who completed 56 percent of his passes against Mountain West Conference opposition last season. Next.
The Dolphins? How much of an upgrade is Ryan Tannehill from Jay Cutler? They subtracted their best offensive player in wide receiver Jarvis Landry and defensive player in tackle Ndomukong Suh from a team that went 6-10. Next.
The Jets…seem to have something resembling a legitimate NFL quarterback in Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. It’s progress, if nothing else.
Look outside the division for challengers and it’s nothing but question marks galore for teams expected to contend. The Houston Texans look great on paper, but how will DeShaun Watson’s knee rebound off an ACL tear? The Jacksonville Jaguars led the Patriots by 10 points in the AFC Championship Game, but their quarterback is still Blake Bortles. Le’Veon Bell still hasn’t reported to the Pittsburgh Steelers amidst a contract dispute.
The Kansas City Chiefs shuffled the deck at quarterback, going with Patrick Mahomes II over Alex Smith. The Baltimore Ravens are 40-40 since winning Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 season. The San Diego Chargers just might have the most talented roster in the whole AFC, and finished the season 9-3 after a 0-4 start. Is the fix as simple as bringing in a new kicker, an issue which loomed large in two of their early losses?
You get the idea.
Unlike in recent years, however, the Patriots didn’t really get better this off-season. Take away Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder, Malcolm Butler and others, and the cracks are evident in New England’s armor.
Without the not-so-unreasonable 19-0 talk that swirled around the team around this time last year, could the Patriots benefit from slightly more tepid expectations?
“As far as projections and expectations, we expect ourselves to go out there and work hard and play hard,” guard Shaq Mason said. “What comes, comes.”
External noise, especially in today’s environment, is just about impossible to ignore. Mason said that the easiest way to tune it out is to focus on the job at hand each and every week…but he had to have been aware of the perfect season talk a year ago, right?
“I have no reaction whatsoever to stuff like that,” Mason said. “We’re going out there each and every day just trying to get better and taking it from there.”
No such rhetoric exists this year, and rightfully so. There are reasons to doubt the operation in New England for the first time in a long time.
Even if the Patriots may be closer to the pack than in recent years in the AFC, they’re still in a class of their own until further notice. Chasing a perfect season has never quite worked around here anyways, no matter how close it came to happening in 2007. The 2015 team started 10-0 before losing four of its final six games in the regular season and last year’s team didn’t even make it to Week 2 without a blemish on its record.
No matter how tired the cliché of “one game at a time” may be, it’s refreshing, all the same, to hear it from this particular group of Patriots. Imperfection can still result in a Super Bowl win, which is all that’s ever mattered in Foxboro.