Why the New England Patriots are still the team to beat in the AFC in 2017
Reasons include Gronk's return, Brady's longevity, Belichick's brilliance and staff continuity
Itâs easy to understand why Roger Goodell (allegedly) hates the 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 NFLâs 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. Theyâve 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 thatâs not even the craziest part about the Patriotsâ latest championship. The craziest part about their Super Bowl isnât the fact that they overcame a 25-point deficit in the second half to defeat the Falcons. Itâs not that they did it with a 39-year-old quarterback. It doesnât relate to any of the players or the plays they made on the field -- including Julian Edelmanâs miraculous catch.
Itâs that they won without Rob Gronkowski.
Earlier this week, Ryan Wilson argued why the Steelers should be considered the favorites in the AFC. Will Brinson then for the 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 didnât 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. Heâs their version of the Death Star. And based on some recent video evidence, the battle station is nearly operational.
But the Patriotsâ case as the favorites in the AFC doesnât end with Gronk. Letâs take a look at a few more reasons â¦
Tom Brady isnât 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 Quarterbackâs Peter King something scary.
âI have the answers to the test now,â Brady said.
âYou canât surprise me on defense. Iâve seen it all. Iâve processed 261 games, Iâve played them all. Itâs an incredibly hard sport, but because the processes are right and are in place, for anyone with experience in their job, itâs not as hard as it used to be. There was a time when quarterbacking was really hard for me because you didnât know what to do. Now I really know what to do, I donât want to stop now. This is when itâs really enjoyable to go out.â
OK, I lied. Thatâs not scary -- thatâs terrifying. Brady might not be able to stop the process of aging, but heâs rendering that process insignificant. Brady remains the greatest quarterback in the game and heâs 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. Thereâs 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 wasnât really an adjustment period. Manning hit the wall, and the wall rendered him ineffective. According the anti-Brady crowd, Brady will be next.
Thereâs two big differences between the two. For one, Brady is better than Manning. And Brady isnât dealing with significant back issues. Before his final season, Manning admitted that he couldnât feel anything in his fingertips. Brady doesnât have that issue. Heâs 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 doesnât mean heâs going to play forever. At some point, he wonât be Brady anymore. Even Vader died in the end. But barring a significant injury, Bradyâs demise likely wonât happen next season.
Coaching staff continuity
Bill Belichick is still Bill Belichick. Heâs still the coach who celebrated the Patriotsâ championship by leading a âNo days off!â chant at the parade and complaining about being behind in his preparation for the 2017 season. I donât need to spend any time arguing why Belichick gives the Patriots the best chance at reaching another Super Bowl. By now, thatâs as much of a fact as saying water is wet or weâre all going to die some day (except Brady, of course).
Hereâs whatâs important for next season: The Patriots didnât lose any of their highly-prized and sought-after assistants. After interviewing with multiple teams, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels decided now wasnât 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 didnât happen to the Patriots after a Super Bowl season.
Retaining both coaches boosts the Patriotsâ chances next season -- not that Belichick couldnât have overcome their losses if he had to -- because continuity matters.
More draft ammunition
Funnily enough -- OK, itâs not at all funny -- Deflategate isnât over. It lives on, because the Patriots are still dealing with the ramifications. This year, a year after forfeiting their first-round pick, they wonât have their fourth-round pick. But thatâs 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 wouldnât 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, itâs 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 donât snag that first-rounder, theyâre likely to land at least one second-rounder. So, theyâre 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:
Of course, some of his improvement has to do with Gronkâs absence, but donât let that overshadow the kind of player he turned into. In the Super Bowl, he was one of Bradyâs most dependable targets, catching six of his seven targets for 70 yards.
The play before Julian Edelmanâs ankle catch, he did something remarkable.
In the box score, that went down as a first-down completion that preceded Edelmanâs miracle catch and the tying score. But it was much more significant, because if Mitchell didnât recover from his slip so quickly, Bradyâs pass could have been picked off, effectively ending the game.
That play perfectly represents Mitchellâs rookie season. After a slow start, he turned into a reliable weapon. That figures to continue next season.
Players willing to take less
He reportedly is willing to take another pay cut to remain in New England.
This isnât 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 heâll want the chance to win a Super Bowl.
âTheyâre a nightmare for agents,â one agent told The MMQB, âbecause you know that if your player wants to play for the Patriots, theyâre going to take the discount.â
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 Patriotsâ 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.
âItâs simple,â Belichick says in his curt monotone, according to men who have been on the other end of the phone. âDoes your guy want to win a Super Bowl, or doesnât he?â
If the Patriots can get Martellus Bennett to take less than heâd 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.
Ok back to the gym. Free agency is like being that girl that's newly single and fresh on that market.— Martellus Bennett (@MartysaurusRex) February 20, 2017
Free agency is like knowing winter is coming to an end and summer is right around the corner.— Martellus Bennett (@MartysaurusRex) February 20, 2017
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 Chiefs) went plus-78. Yep, the Patriots were 113 points better than their closest competition. The Patriots didnât get lucky by winning a ton of one-score games.
According to Football Outsiders, the Patriotsâ Pythagorean win total (âthe teamâs expected wins based solely on points scored and allowedâ) 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, itâs dumb to bet against them.
Until someone comes along and proves that they can consistently beat them or until Brady declines, theyâll remain the favorites in the AFC and the entire NFL.
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