We have returned with another FY 2016 NFL team preview! Hate the Pats? Jump to Arizona; Atlanta; Baltimore; Buffalo; Carolina; Chicago; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Dallas; Denver; Detroit; Green Bay; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville; Kansas City; Los Angeles; Miami; Minnesota.
Where They’re Coming From
Where do you think? (Hint: it’s not the bottom of the AFC)
A fourth straight 12-4 season; a fifth straight AFC title game appearance and a 15th straight season of making the game of football look way too easy.
Where They’re Going
Kicking and screaming into the future.
Patriots fans may think Tom Brady will play quarterback for another decade (and he very well could), but eventually one day, no. 12 will no longer be jogging out of the tunnel in Foxboro. But at least some good can come out of “the greatest injustice of all time!” (No one ever accused Pats fans of being historians, or even a general awareness of the world around them.)
New Englanders will get a four-game glimpse of what life post-Brady may look like, as Jimmy Garoppolo will lead the Pats through the first quarter of the season. This bizarre future scenario won’t cost the Patriots a playoff spot (even if they somehow go 0-4, Brady would lift this team to 11-5), but it could be the difference between hosting the AFC Championship or hitting the road.
Key Offseason Moves
Additions: G Jonathan Cooper, LB Barkevious Mingo, TE Martellus Bennett, DE Chris Long
Losses: DE Chandler Jones, C Bryan Stork, WR Brandon LaFell
What to Watch For
The resurrection of the two tight end set.
Aaron Hernandez’s incarceration didn’t just mark the end of his life in polite society, it also marked the end of an offensive trend the Patriots thought was going to carry them to new heights: the two tight end offense. Lining up with two tight ends has been a longstanding strategy in the NFL, but the Pats were the first ones to have two prolific ball catchers at the position. Both Rob Gronkowski and Hernandez were too quick for linebackers and too big for safeties to lock down as the pair combined for 169 catches, 2,237 yards and 24 TDs in 2011.
Gronk has stayed a dominant tight end, but 2011 was by far his best statistical season. Now he may have a chance to repeat that historical year by pairing up with Martellus Bennett over the middle. The two have all the tools to recreate that dominant duel tight end threat from 2011, and create nightmare mismatches for opposing defenders.
But while it should work on paper, putting the offense into practice may prove more difficult. The outspoken Bennett has worn out his welcome for three other teams, mostly by complaining about targets. It will be interesting to see if he can accept a second-fiddle role at tight end if it means a shot at a Super Bowl.
Who to Watch For
Trey Flowers, DE
New England finished second in the NFL in sacks in 2015, but they’ll be relying on some new names along the defensive line to produce at the same level this year. Gone is last year’s leader Chandler Jones (12.5 sacks) and Akiem Hicks, while Rob Ninkovich will be sidelined for a while with a torn tricep.
The Pats brought in a worn-down Chris Long and a discarded Barkevious Mingo to help bring pressure, but the best option may have already been in-house. Second-year end Trey Flowers has impressed this preseason after missing nearly all of 2015 with a shoulder injury. The former Razorback has shown a better burst than the aging Long and could provide a solid rush from anywhere on the line.
Bill Belichick doesn’t care about names or reputation, he just wants his players to “do their job.” Well, if Flowers keeps it up, he’ll be in line for an increased workload.
What Could Go Wrong
Tom Brady gets really fat during his time off.
The only thing worse than Tom Terrific losing his skills, would be losing his boyish good looks. Faced with an unwanted vacation, perhaps the future Hall of Famer loses both? That’s the only conceivable way this team doesn’t return to the playoffs.
Where They’ll End Up
Bold prediction: yet another AFC title game.
I know, I’m really going out on a limb.
No matter how they look after Week 4, let’s agree not to discount the Pats again. Belichick and Brady will be in the final four again, in search of their seventh trip to the Super Bowl.