2016 NFL Season Preview: New England Patriots
How did last season end? 12-4 Record; Loss to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game
Key Offseason Acquisition: TE Martellus Bennett
Key Offseason Loss: DE Chandler Jones
Draft Picks to Watch: CB Cyrus Jones; OL Joe Thuney; Honorable Mention: WR Malcolm Mitchell
The 2015-2016 season for the New England Patriots ended in familiar fashion for a year that didn’t result in a ring: 60 minutes of Tom Brady tap dancing in the pocket while he’s under more pressure than Ryan Lochte speaking to authorities. The vaunting Denver Broncos defense, led by their All-World Pass Rusher Von Miller, made sure that Brady’s memory of Mile High Stadium remained gloomy. When it comes to his kryptonite, just pin #12 up against the NY Giants or have him play in Denver and you can pretty much chalk that one up as an L. I’m almost positive if Bill had a do-over for that final game against Miami in which home field advantage was on the line, he might take it a bit more serious. Nevertheless, a promising season ended with one of the craziest 4th quarter drives I’ve ever seen, but a 2-point conversion too short.
The 2016-2017 season for Bill Belichick and crew will be as much about the future as it is about the present. They’ll get a glimpse of what could possibly be their future starting in Game 1, when Jimmy Garoppolo is under center against the Arizona Cardinals. Unless you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t heard by now, Tom Brady will be suspended for the first 4 games on the season for whatever role he played in the saga known as "Deflategate". So the 2014 2nd Round Pick out of Eastern Illinois will get a chance to show the rest of the NFL that he can do more than keep that bench warm until 12 calls it quits. He’ll attempt to do so against 4 of the best defenses in the league: the Arizona Cardinals, the Miami Dolphins, The Houston Texans, and the Buffalo Bills. If Jimmy does play well, will New England flip him for some value after drafting QB (and Bill Parcells co-signer) Jacoby Brissett out of NC State? Time will tell.
Another glimpse into the future that will take shape one way or the other this season is the outlook of this young, talented defense. Belichick can’t draft a WR to save his life (really though, look at his track record since 2003), but when it comes to finding gems on defense he may be 2nd to none. The team’s main focus will be keeping their big 3 of LB Dont’a Hightower, LB Jamie Collins, and CB Malcolm Butler in tact with their contracts expiring at the end of the season. All 3 are Pro Bowl caliber players and key pieces to a top 10 defense, and with the amount of cap space NE currently has there is more than enough money to go around for them to receive long term extensions. The offseason trade of Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals was as much about keeping this in mind as it was about anything else, and really had nothing to do with his shirtless police department trip on synthetic marijuana (Just stick to real nugget, Chan).
With the defense returning essentially all of its starters aside from Jones, Defensive Coordinator Matt Patricia has to feel good coming into the season. On the contrary, Josh McDaniels and his offense have a ton of questions to answer heading into the September 11th Sunday Night Football opener. With RT Sebastian Vollmer facing an IR designation and LT Nate Solder looking like a shell of his former self, is a youth movement and the return of Offensive Line Coach Dante Scarnnechia enough to keep Garoppolo and Brady upright? Passing the ball 50 times a game works early in the season, but when it starts to get cold outside you need a running game to win a championship. Will the Pats be able to improve on a rushing attack that was ranked 30th last season? Starting WRs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are both coming off offseason surgeries, will the signing of Chris Hogan from the Bills and the drafting of Malcolm Mitchell out of Georgia be enough? While we’re on that topic, I’m a big fan of Jules but will New England ever sign a WR that’s not white and under 6-feet tall? No? Just checking.
Prediction: 11-5 and a trip to the Super Bowl
I’ll stay conservative and say Jimmy G squeaks out a 2-2 record to start the season. Bill will construct a game plan similar to Matt Cassel in ’08-’09 with quick, easy reads for his young QB, and if all else fails he has two 6’6” security blankets he can throw it to (one of which is the biggest mismatch in the entire NFL and will go down as the greatest TE to ever play the game). Brady will return against Cleveland with a vengeance and look much like the MVP candidate he did last year. After several failed attempts, the Pats finally have their 2-TE offense back (minus a murderer) with the addition of Pro-Bowler Martellus Bennett. Mix that with an angry Tom Brady, and that’s bad news for the rest of the league. But he’s good for an L every 4 games, so I’ll have him account for 3 losses on his 12 game slate. I’m not even going to try to go game by game, because the Patriots can beat the ‘85 Bears one night and lose to Ryan Tannehill the next. I’m also not going to try to predict whether they’ll win the Super Bowl or not because frankly, I don’t know whom the hell they would play against. With the rest of the AFC East regressing this offseason, and Peyton sticking to Papa John’s, DirecTV, and Nationwide commercials, I don’t see much in New England’s way aside from a healthy, non-suspended Steelers team (if there is such a thing). Let’s see if TB12 and The Hoodie can further cement their legacies with a 5th Lombardi Trophy.