We’re just hours away from the Patriots beginning their defense of their Super Bowl LIII title.
No team has repeated as champs since the Patriots themselves in 2003-04, but aside from the departure of tight end Rob Gronkowski, New England is poised to not miss anyone else who departed in the off-season.
An interesting wrinkle occurred on Saturday, too, when the Patriots signed Antonio Brown. The mercurial wide receiver won’t be able to play in the opener vs. the Steelers, but rest assured, the circus is coming to town.
Is Brown going to fit in with New England like Randy Moss or Corey Dillon? Or will he go the way of Albert Haynesworth or Chad Ochocino? That’s just one of countless storylines facing the Patriots as the 2019 season gets underway.
As always, there are legitimate Super Bowl aspirations in Foxboro. Here are three of the biggest reasons why they will add to their collection of Lombardi Trophies, contrasted with three reasons why they could fall short.
Why they will: The schedule is set up in a way that allows them to avoid a slow start
The Steelers are somewhat formidable in the opener on Sunday – they should be better without the aforementioned Antonio Brown – but after that?
The Patriots don’t face another team expected to contend for the postseason until the last week of October, when the Cleveland Browns come to town. While New England then faces a relatively difficult five-game stretch after that, it ends the season with an absurdly easy slate consisting of the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins – the latter two at home.
Say the Patriots avoid their usual 2-2 swing in September, they can afford a 3-3 stretch in the difficult portion of their schedule and still wind up, at the very worst, something like 12-4. Realistically, 13-3 or 14-2 is very much in play, which would almost certainly make Gillette Stadium the site of the AFC Championship Game.
Why they won’t: If the Patriots do start slow, the middle portion of their schedule may deny them a chance at homefield advantage in the playoffs
New England lost at Jacksonville and at Detroit in back-to-back weeks in September last season, two teams which wound up as absolute train wrecks. Who’s to say the House of Horrors in Miami, even with the Dolphins unabashedly tanking for Tua, is a guaranteed win for the Patriots in Week 2?
The stretch of the schedule beginning in Week 8 consists of: home vs. Cleveland, at Baltimore, at Philadelphia, home vs. Dallas, at Houston and home vs. Kansas City. That’s no walk in the park, even for the Patriots. What if they hit some turbulence and go 2-4? They’d still be in no danger of missing the postseason, but homefield advantage throughout the playoffs – and perhaps even a first-round bye – would be in peril.
For all New England has accomplished in the Belichick-Brady era, one thing its never been able to do is win the Super Bowl while playing on wild-card weekend. To be fair, they’ve only done so three times, and not since 2009…but it’s still a difficult task.
Why they will: The team, at long last, will get an infusion of youth at key positions
Jakobi Meyers and N’Keal Harry at wide receiver, not to mention Gunner Olszewski at a little bit of everything. Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. Damien Harris and Sony Michel in the backfield. Chase Winovich off the edge. Byron Cowart. Ja’Whaun Bentley in the middle of the defense. And yes, Jake Bailey at punter.
When is the last time New England had this many tantalizing young players on the roster? You’ve gotta go back to 2010, when players such as Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes, Julian Edelman, Patrick Chung, Sebastian Vollmer and Jerod Mayo were all within their first three years in the league.
Obviously, not all of those players worked out and played a role in winning three of the last five Super Bowls. But this young core could someday rival that haul of talent as it meshes with some holdovers still in Foxboro, not to mention a guy named Brady who’s been around twice as long as that.
Why they won’t: While the team is getting said youth infusion, the team is also too old at various spots on the roster
Devin McCourty, Edelman and Chung will all still be playing prominent roles in 2019 – which is still a very good thing. But they’re all on the wrong side of 30, not to mention the quarterback, who’s on the wrong side of 40. Eventually, they’ll enter the decline phases of their careers…right?
Jason McCourty, Michael Bennett, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, Matthew Slater and Marcus Cannon are all over 30 as well, while Dont’a Hightower is 29. That’s a lot of crucial players on the Back 9 of their careers rather than the Front 9.
The Patriots were the oldest team ever to win a Super Bowl last season, and are once again the oldest team in the NFL in terms of average age this season with an average age of 27.
Why they will: The rest of the AFC is, more or less, a joke
The only quarterback to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl other than Tom Brady since 2013 is Peyton Manning, who in case you haven’t noticed, has been retired for four years.
The AFC East gets ripped to shreds by pundits, rightfully so, but the rest of the conference is just as culpable for New England’s reign. Pseudo contenders such as the Texans or Colts haven’t beaten the Patriots since 2009 – Manning was still playing for Indy at that point – and while the Steelers did beat New England last fall, the only time they’ve won at Foxboro this century is when Matt Cassel was under center in 2008.
The Patriots were 6-0 vs. Andrew Luck, who just retired. Phil Rivers, who’s been the starting quarterback for the San Diego Chargers since 2006, is 0-8 vs. Brady.
The last time an AFC East team came to town and beat the Patriots in the regular season, with Brady at quarterback, in a non-Week 17 game in which New England had already clinched the division, was on Nov. 12, 2006. Gillette Stadium still had grass when Doug Gabriel lost a fumble against the Jets.
You want to talk about the Chiefs, you can talk about the Chiefs. If Dee Ford didn’t line up off-sides, we just might be talking about the coronation of Patrick Mahomes as the new face of the NFL right now. The fact remains that New England is 2-0 vs. Mahomes in his young career, though to be fair, neither loss was necessarily the fault of the quarterback.
You get the idea. It’s a fool’s errand to pick someone other than the Patriots until someone actually beats them.
Why they won’t: Repeating is, in fact, hard to do
Anything can happen in the NFL’s one-and-done postseason format. Were the New York Giants a better team than the Patriots in Super Bowls XLII or XLVI? Of course not. But on those given days, Tom Coughlin came up with a game plan that bested Bill Belichick.
All it takes is one other team getting hot at the right time to throw New England’s path off its axis. Remember when Joe Flacco turned part Brady, part Joe Montana, part Peyton Manning in the 2012 postseason?
Again, no team has repeated as Super Bowl champions since the Patriots themselves in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXXIX. Only two teams have even gotten back to the Super Bowl the year after winning it since then (including the 2017 rendition of the Patriots, for what it’s worth, who of course got back again in 2018 and won it all).