After three games, this much is clear: There is something special about the 2016 New England Patriots. When the news broke that future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady would indeed be suspended for the first four games of the season, the Patriots were immediately written off by the media and football fans all over the globe. All they have done in Brady’s absence is get off to a 3-0 start with wins over two 2015 playoff teams, the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1 and the Houston Texans in Week 3.
What’s even more impressive about the Patriots’ undefeated start is the fact that they pulled it off while being hit hard by the dreaded injury bug. For their first two games, the Pats lacked All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, who is a complete game-changer and far and away the best player in the league at his position. Gronkowski did return to their lineup during the team’s Week 3 win over the Houston Texans, but it was blatantly clear to anyone who watched him play that he is not yet back to full strength. This brings us to New England’s situation at the most important position on the field: quarterback.
Brady’s backup, third-year pro Jimmy Garoppolo, was well on his way to proving that he is a legitimate starting-caliber NFL quarterback until he suffered a sprained AC joint in his right (throwing) shoulder during New England’s Week 2 win over the Miami Dolphins. Garoppolo’s injury left the Patriots with rookie Jacoby Brissett — a third-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft who was widely viewed as a developmental prospect — as the only healthy quarterback on the team’s roster.
Brissett started for the Patriots on Thursday night. With only three days to prepare, the 23-year-old led the team to a 27-0 victory over a Texans team many people thought had a chance to contend in the AFC in 2016 in his first professional start. While the former N.C. State quarterback wasn’t exactly elite, with the help of an excellent performance from running back LeGarrette Blount and a shutout from one of the most improved defenses in the league, he did enough to ensure that the Patriots’ record stayed perfect. With only one game against the lowly Buffalo Bills remaining until arguably the greatest player in NFL history (Brady) returns to their lineup, we are convinced that Patriots have a legitimate chance at going undefeated in 2016. Here’s why.
Bill Belichick is the best coach in NFL history
You can say what you want about the 64-year-old head coach and his less-than-stellar track record of bending league rules, but there is simply no denying that what he has built in New England is truly remarkable. With the exception of Tom Brady, it doesn’t seem to matter who Belichick has playing for him.
He has developed a culture of winning where no player is bigger than the team, and consistently out-schemes his counterparts. The latest example of this is the fact that New England made Texans All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt seem non-existent. Belichick already has more Super Bowl rings than every other coach in NFL history, and we expect him to add to that total before he calls it quits.
Their rebuilt defense is borderline elite
The Patriots dealt outside linebacker Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals this past offseason, yet they still managed to improve dramatically on the defensive side of the ball. Their secondary is one of the best groups in the league; they have a couple of All-Pro caliber linebackers (Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower); and they have a deep, talented defensive line. While this group isn’t on the level of some of the NFL’s historically great defenses, they are good enough to keep the Patriots in every game they play this season.
Good luck shutting down their tight ends
When the Patriots get Rob Gronkowski back to full strength and are able to pair him with Martellus Bennett, who the team acquired in a trade this offseason, opposing defenses will have an extremely difficult time slowing down their offense. Both players are matchup nightmares, and few teams are equipped to shut down one elite tight end, let alone two.
Their schedule sets up nicely
For starters, the Patriots have the benefit of playing in the AFC East. The New York Jets are good enough to challenge them, but we just can’t envision a scenario where they lose a divisional game. After that, the Pats really only have three games that stand out as potential losses.
The first is a road game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in late October; the second is a home game against the Seattle Seahawks (which the New England will have a bye week to prepare for) in November; and the third is a road game against the Denver Broncos in December. If they can win those three games, the Patriots will likely enter the AFC Playoffs with a 16-0 record.
Tom Brady will be out for blood
This past offseason, Brady finally conceded in his battle with the NFL over the four-game suspension he accepted for his role in Deflategate. As a result, the rest of the league should expect to see a quarterback extremely motivated to dominate in every game he plays. The two-time NFL MVP already plays with a massive chip on his shoulder, and the games he is missing to open the season will only fuel his fire in his quest for a perfect season and a fifth Super Bowl title.
Statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.