The Patriots came within eight points of becoming the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since… the Patriots in 2004 and 2005. Following the loss, their offseason suffered a little more turbulence than usual. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s relationship was called into question over reports that indicated that Brady was feeling underappreciated, top receiver Julian Edelman got hit with a four-game suspension for PEDs, they lost their longtime starting left tackle Nate Solder to the Giants and their leading rusher Dion Lewis and Super Bowl XLIX (2015) hero Malcolm Butler left for Tennessee. But, this is a team that hasn’t suffered a losing record since 2000, with the greatest quarterback-head coach combo in history. Unless one of the other three teams has a breakout year, they will not be threatened at the top.
The drama between coach and quarterback fizzles out once the games begin. In his age 41 season, Brady defends his 2017 MVP campaign with another brilliant one. He brings the best out of veterans Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt while Edelman serves his suspension. Edelman comes back in week five, healthy and motivated to step into that top receiver role once again. Rob Gronkowski stays healthy this year and records double digit touchdowns for the first time since 2015.
The first-round selection of Georgia’s Sony Michel pays off as New England finds their running back of the future. He averaged 7.9 yards per-carry in 2017, and broke out for 181 yards and three scores on just 11 rushes during the Rose Bowl Game. The depth at halfback with newly acquired Jeremy Hill from Cincinnati (led NFL in rushing touchdowns in 2015), James White and Rex Burkhead help the Pats break into the top-seven in the league rushing yards. The last time they did that was in 2016, their Super Bowl winning season. Having a solid running game also takes pressure off of Brady.
Defensively, Dont’a Hightower returns strong after missing 14 games (including playoffs) last season due to pec and shoulder injuries. He sets career highs in tackles (65) and sacks (six) and competes for comeback player of the year. After a rough year, Stephon Gilmore settles in and shows why he was a pro-bowler in 2016 for Buffalo. The Patriots gave up just the fifth-most points last year, and they stay in the top-five once again.
On the schedule, the Patriots sweep through the division for the first time since 2012 and win 13 or more games. They haven’t gone worse than 12-4 since 2009. They get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and make it back to the Super Bowl for the third straight year, where they win their sixth title in the Brady-Belichick era.
Their worst-case scenario is that Brady’s play dips as Peyton Manning’s did at a similar age. But, Manning showed decline prior to his fall. He had his lowest recorded QBR since the stat began to be tracked in 2006 the year prior to his last. Brady continued his dominance in 2017, so his fall seems much less likely to occur than Manning’s was.
Around him, Edelman returns from his suspension rusty after missing over a year. He doesn’t look like the same player who caught 98 passes for 1106 yards in 2016. For the third time in six seasons, Gronkowski misses half of the year (or more) with an injury. Dion Lewis’ dynamic play as a halfback, receiver and returner are sorely missed. Behind the youngest offensive line in the division, none of New England’s current running backs break out. Michel needs time to develop his cuts and vision. Hill battles injuries for the second straight year, and there really isn’t a true identity for the Patriots rush attack, just various players being plugged in based on who plays well recently.
With Malcolm Butler gone, the secondary struggles as they did in the Super Bowl when Coach Belichick controversially benched his top corner. They gave up 373 yards and three touchdowns to Philadelphia backup quarterback Nick Foles. The Pats now have the oldest starting defensive backs in the AFC East, with both of their safeties, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, set to turn 31 before the season starts. With an older, slower secondary, New England struggles against the pass even more than in 2017 when they gave up the third-most yards through the air.
With their woes, the Patriots only win 10 games, and fail to earn a first-round bye for the first time since 2009.
Final prediction: 12-4