New England

Pats Remain Super Bowl Contenders With Brady, Belichick

Super Bowl favorites? That gets a bit more complicated

NBC Bay Area/Bob Redell

The regular season gets monotonous in Foxboro, thanks in no small part to the complete inability of any other AFC East team to get its act together. Since the NFL re-aligned to eight four-team divisions in 2002, the Patriots are the only team in the league to post a winning record within its division each and every season. Even in the two years New England missed the playoffs (2002 and 2008), it only lost out on the AFC East title due to tiebreakers.

Has the lack of a consistent test from the Jets, Bills and Dolphins played a role in the Patriots not being tested enough by the time the AFC Championship Game and/or Super Bowl comes around in certain years? Probably not, but once again, the gap between New England and its AFC East brethren is embarrassingly large.

It’s one of several reasons why the Patriots should be able to create enough of a cushion for themselves in the AFC and secure a first-round bye en route to hosting the AFC Championship Game and advancing to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3, 2019. There are other reasons, of course, why New England should secure its sixth Lombardi Trophy of the century…but several others why it’ll be harder than ever before. Here are the most significant reasons why you should prepare for another Duck Boat parade, as well as reasons why you should never stop cursing the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo.

Why they’ll win: It doesn’t matter if there are more complete teams than the Patriots in the NFC.

The Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams and possibly even the Minnesota Vikings have far more complete rosters than the current 53-man unit in Foxboro. That said, the Patriots would only need to beat one of those teams in the playoffs, and not until the Super Bowl. The rest of them will be beating up on one another in the meantime. And lest we forget, the better team doesn’t always win in the Super Bowl (see: Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI).

Why they won’t: Are we sure the Patriots are the most complete team in the AFC?

The AFC East is its usual laughingstock, but there are landmines outside of the division. Each of them – the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers – come with their own sets of question marks. But last season, the Patriots trailed all three opponents in the fourth quarter of their respective contests – including Jacksonville in the AFC title game – and won by less than a touchdown in every occasion. The talent gap between all of these contenders certainly hasn’t gotten larger in the offseason; if anything, it’s gotten smaller.

Why they’ll win: Every other AFC contender possesses a fatal flaw.

Have you been paying attention to what’s going on in Pittsburgh right now? Le’Veon Bell’s teammates are siding with management over the player in his high-profile contract holdout, with several linemen voicing their displeasures with Bell to the public. Jacksonville was afraid to take the training wheels off of Blake Bortles in the AFC Championship Game last season; why should that be any different now? DeShaun Watson 100 percent looked like the real deal prior to tearing his ACL, but is he fully recovered? And is Houston’s most important defensive player, JJ Watt, ever going to be the same after missing 24 out of 32 games over the last two seasons?

Why they won’t: The Patriots have a fatal flaw that’s cost them in the past.

Not to beleaguer the 2006 receiving corps for the Patriots once again, but it was a problem all season long that reared its head at the worst possible time in an AFC Championship Game loss to the Indianapolis Colts. The 2013 group wasn’t a ton better than the ’06 group and it, too, came up short of getting to the Super Bowl. Assuming the health of Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, it’s not as bleak as either of those seasons. But assuming the health of either of those players, particularly at this juncture of their careers, is playing with fire.

Why they will: Tom Brady is winning his fight against time.

It wasn’t Brady’s fault the New England defense went AWOL against the Eagles last February. He only threw for a Super Bowl-record 505 yards…breaking his own record of 466 vs. the Atlanta Falcons from the previous season. The Patriots have played three postseason games in a single season nine times under Brady and Belichick, and last year was the only time Brady posted a passer rating north of 100 in all three games. It was just the second time in nine tries that he didn’t throw an interception over three postseason games. He’s also coming off of his third NFL MVP award from the 2017 regular season.

Why they won’t: Tom Brady is 41 years old.

There is simply no track record whatsoever of a quarterback having a strong regular season during their age 41 season. Brett Favre played at an MVP level with the Minnesota Vikings in 2009 at 40, but completely collapsed in 2010. Warren Moon was decent for the Seattle Seahawks in 1997 at 41, but he completed under 60 percent of his passes. Vinny Testaverde threw more interceptions than touchdowns for the 2004 Dallas Cowboys after his 41st birthday. George Blanda may have played until he was 48, but that was primarily as a kicker; he only started one game at QB after his age 39 season.

As a bonus, let’s not forget that a Super Bowl loser hasn’t gotten back to the final the following year since the Buffalo Bills did it an (impressive?) three times in a row in the ‘90s. Of course, they lost all four times.

The verdict: The Patriots will, indeed, win Super Bowl LIII after a 12-4 regular season. We’ll get the Tom Brady vs. Aaron Rodgers Super Bowl matchup we’ve coveted for so long, and surely it won’t disappoint. Then again, when have the Patriots ever disappointed from an entertainment standpoint in the Super Bowl? New England Patriots 35, Green Bay Packers 31.

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