Why the New England Patriots are still the team to beat in the AFC in 2017

It’s easy to understand why Roger Goodell (allegedly) hates the New England Patriots so much that he decided to give them what was intended to be a death sentence for using slightly under-inflated footballs in a 45-7 game. As the NFL’s commissioner, Goodell runs a league that touts parity like Subway touts $5 footlongs. But the truth is, a league that values balance has been overtaken by one team.

The NFL has its own version of the Galactic Empire. The Patriots have captured seven of 16 AFC crowns since 2001. They’ve won five Super Bowls. Despite dealing with the ramifications of that death sentence (the loss of a first-round pick, a million bucks, and Tom Brady for four games), they were the best team in football this past season. The NFL -- the rebel alliance in this analogy -- mounted its biggest boldest attack against the Empire. And it failed, getting slashed to bits by Darth Vader.

But that’s not even the craziest part about the Patriots’ latest championship. The craziest part about their Super Bowl isn’t the fact that they overcame a 25-point deficit in the second half to defeat the Atlanta Falcons . It’s not that they did it with a 39-year-old quarterback. It doesn’t relate to any of the players or the plays they made on the field -- including Julian Edelman’s miraculous catch.

It’s that they won without Rob Gronkowski .  

Earlier this week, Ryan Wilson argued why the Pittsburgh Steelers should be considered the favorites in the AFC. Will Brinson then presented his case for the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC. This is a look at why the Patriots should still be viewed as the favorites in the AFC.

It starts with Gronk.

Consider this: The Patriots won the Super Bowl after a 14-2 regular season in which Gronk -- easily their best playmaker -- appeared in eight games because of multiple injuries. He didn’t make an appearance in the playoffs.

Now that team is going to be adding the most explosive tight end in NFL history back to its roster this offseason -- a tight end who averages 0.77 touchdowns and roughly 69 yards (nice) per game in his career, a tight end who did this when he was healthy this past season:

Translation: The Patriots might be impossible to beat with Gronk back. He’s their version of the Death Star. And based on some recent video evidence, the battle station is nearly operational.

But the Patriots’ case as the favorites in the AFC doesn’t end with Gronk. Let’s take a look at a few more reasons …

Tom Brady isn’t slowing down

In the days after his remarkable performance in Super Bowl LI -- he might not call it his masterpiece, but I will -- Brady told The Monday Morning Quarterback’s Peter King something scary.

“I have the answers to the test now,” Brady said.

“You can’t surprise me on defense. I’ve seen it all. I’ve processed 261 games, I’ve played them all. It’s an incredibly hard sport, but because the processes are right and are in place, for anyone with experience in their job, it’s not as hard as it used to be. There was a time when quarterbacking was really hard for me because you didn’t know what to do. Now I really know what to do, I don’t want to stop now. This is when it’s really enjoyable to go out.”

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Brady says he has the answers now. Be afraid. USATSI

OK, I lied. That’s not scary -- that’s terrifying. Brady might not be able to stop the process of aging, but he’s rendering that process insignificant. Brady remains the greatest quarterback in the game and he’s not slowing down.

In a 12-game regular season, Brady still nearly won MVP, finishing second to Matt Ryan . He lost one game. He set an NFL record for the best touchdown-to-interception ratio by throwing 28 touchdowns and only two interceptions. And remember, he did that all largely without Gronk. There’s no reason to think Brady is going to decline beginning in the fall.

Really, the only argument against Brady is the downfall of Peyton Manning . At 39, Manning turned into a worse version of  Brock Osweiler after experiencing another stellar season at 38. There wasn’t really an adjustment period. Manning hit the wall, and the wall rendered him ineffective. According the anti-Brady crowd, Brady will be next.

There’s two big differences between the two. For one, Brady is better than Manning. And Brady isn’t dealing with significant back issues. Before his final season, Manning admitted that he couldn’t feel anything in his fingertips. Brady doesn’t have that issue. He’s completely healthy -- thanks to his strict and insane diet, a stable offensive line, and an offensive system built around quick passes. Brady, unlike Manning, is built to last into his 40s.

That doesn’t mean he’s going to play forever. At some point, he won’t be Brady anymore. Even Vader died in the end. But barring a significant injury, Brady’s demise likely won’t happen next season.

Coaching staff continuity

Bill Belichick is still Bill Belichick. He’s still the coach who celebrated the Patriots’ championship by leading a “No days off!” chant at the parade and complaining about being behind in his preparation for the 2017 season. I don’t need to spend any time arguing why Belichick gives the Patriots the best chance at reaching another Super Bowl. By now, that’s as much of a fact as saying water is wet or we’re all going to die some day (except Brady, of course).

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Belichick’s keeping the band together in 2017. USATSI

Here’s what’s important for next season: The Patriots didn’t lose any of their highly-prized and sought-after assistants. After interviewing with multiple teams, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided now wasn’t the right time to take on a head coaching gig, and nobody hired defensive coordinator Matt Patricia -- also known as the coach who stepped off the plane in Boston wearing a Goodell clown shirt.

Successful teams, as Belichick knows so well, often deal with the loss of key assistants. Somehow, that didn’t happen to the Patriots after a Super Bowl season.

Retaining both coaches boosts the Patriots’ chances next season -- not that Belichick couldn’t have overcome their losses if he had to -- because continuity matters.

More draft ammunition

Funnily enough -- OK, it’s not at all funny -- Deflategate isn’t over. It lives on, because the Patriots are still dealing with the ramifications. This year, a year after forfeiting their first-round pick, they won’t have their fourth-round pick. But that’s OK. The Patriots are about to receive some draft ammunition. 

Jimmy Garoppolo , who played one-and-a-half games while filling in for Brady at the beginning of the season, likely will be traded this offseason to a quarterback-needy and (this is the key word) desperate team. CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora has more on the timing of the trade:

Regardless, I would hardly be writing off the likelihood of a Garoppolo trade just yet, though I would also caution that with New England in no rush to have to deal him, and the Pats with oodles of cap space and Garoppolo costing them next to nothing, I wouldn’t get fixated on the timing of this deal. It hardly has to be completed by the start of the league year in March, though I would certainly bet on it coming to fruition before the draft is complete in late April.

Obviously, it’s impossible to know what the eventual trade will look like, but the reported price tag is a first-round pick, which would be the most Patriots thing ever considering Garoppolo has thrown 94 career passes. Even if the Patriots don’t snag that first-rounder, they’re likely to land at least one second-rounder. So, they’re going to be in a position to select another player who can contribute during yet another championship run.

Which bring us to Malcolm Mitchell .

The emergence of Mitchell

The Patriots drafted him in the fourth round last year. He played in 16 games, including the postseason.

Check out how he improved over the course of the season:


Catches

Yards

TDs

Games 1-8

7

95

0

Games 9-16 

32

381

4

Of course, some of his improvement has to do with Gronk’s absence, but don’t let that overshadow the kind of player he turned into. In the Super Bowl, he was one of Brady’s most dependable targets, catching six of his seven targets for 70 yards. 

The play before Julian Edelman’s ankle catch, he did something remarkable.

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In the box score, that went down as a first-down completion that preceded Edelman’s miracle catch and the tying score. But it was much more significant, because if Mitchell didn’t recover from his slip so quickly, Brady’s pass could have been picked off, effectively ending the game.

That play perfectly represents Mitchell’s rookie season. After a slow start, he turned into a reliable weapon. That figures to continue next season.

Players willing to take less

Danny Amendola used to play for the Los Angeles Rams . Now, he plays for the Patriots and is a two-time Super Bowl winner. 

He reportedly is willing to take another pay cut to remain in New England.

This isn’t an abnormality. Last year, Amendola willingly parted ways with $4.4 million to stick around and defensive end Chris Long took a pay cut to join the team. This year, someone likely will do the same because he’ll want the chance to win a Super Bowl. 

Here’s what The Monday Morning Quarterback’s Robert Klemko reported in January:

“They’re a nightmare for agents,” one agent told The MMQB, “because you know that if your player wants to play for the Patriots, they’re going to take the discount.”

The MMQB spoke with seven agents who have negotiated multiple player contracts with the Patriots since Bill Belichick took the head-coaching job in 2000. The agents spoke on the condition of anonymity because they have to continue working with Belichick and his lieutenant, Nick Caserio, the Patriots’ unheralded director of player personnel. These frustrated agents recall a go-to refrain from the 64-year-old coach/executive who delivered four Super Bowl titles to a once-moribund franchise.

“It’s simple,” Belichick says in his curt monotone, according to men who have been on the other end of the phone. “Does your guy want to win a Super Bowl, or doesn’t he?”

If the Patriots can get Martellus Bennett to take less than he’d get on the open market, their offseason will be a resounding success. But that remains a big unknown, because Bennett seems to be enjoying free agency.

A weak division (and home-field advantage)

This one is less about the Patriots and more about the other three AFC East teams. None of them are good -- I know the Dolphins made the playoffs, but they also had a negative point differential -- which means it should be easy for the Patriots to win the majority of their divisional games and take the AFC East once again.

More importantly, that easy divisional slate makes it easier for the Patriots to earn homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. 

Projecting future sucess

Point differential is often a better indicator of future success than wins, and the Patriots led the league with a plus-191 differential. In the AFC, the second-best team (the Kansas City Chiefs ) went plus-78. Yep, the Patriots were 113 points better than their closest competition. The Patriots didn’t get lucky by winning a ton of one-score games. 

According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots’ Pythagorean win total (“the team’s expected wins based solely on points scored and allowed”) was 12.8. So yes, they overperformed because of their weak schedule, but they were still nearly a 13-win team based on their points scored and allowed.

The fact is, the Patriots still will be the Patriots next season. And at this point in their reign, it’s dumb to bet against them. 

Until someone comes along and proves that they can consistently beat them or until Brady declines, they’ll remain the favorites in the AFC and the entire NFL.

CBS Sports Writer

Sean Wagner-McGough joined CBS Sports in 2015 after graduating from UC Berkeley. A native of Seattle, Sean now resides in the Bay Area. He spends his spare time defending Jay Cutler on Twitter. Full Bio

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