By Jason Keidel
It’s hard to accept that a full decade has darted by since the New England Patriots finished an NFL regular season undefeated.
And despite the loss of stalwart wide receiver Julian Edelman, the only real variable looming over New England 10 years later, is whether the Pats will finish this season undefeated, as well.
Perhaps a small subquestion should be — do they really want to?
New England has been down that turbulent road before, and found that breaking the 16-0 membrane left them more damaged than they thought. Maybe some see no correlation between a perfect season and their imperfect postseason. But some prominent Pats did see it, like Tedy Bruschi, among others.
The Pats find no comfort in being the greatest team ever to lose a Super Bowl. No redemption in 18-1.
Though the personnel has changed since 2007, they are still healthy at two vital spots — head coach and quarterback. In a decade they have found myriad ways to recover, reload and remain the sport’s powerhouse franchise. So, other than that shocking loss to their eternal tormentor, Eli Manning, not much has changed since ’07.
Tom Brady is 40, looks 30 and plays like he’s 25, and he is fresh off his fifth Lombardi Trophy and fourth Super Bowl MVP. Bill Belichick is still his ornery best, sure to stroll down the green gridiron carpet in his typical, hobo-chic attire. If the Patriots fail this season, it won’t be by dint of indifference, from the brass on down.
So let’s look at their schedule, and see if they are primed for a 2007 redux, starting with six divisional games.
Buffalo? Rebuild. The Bills’ real problem isn’t talent, per se. Worse than a rotten roster, they don’t have a direction, an identity, a corporate coda they plan to follow from whistle to gun. And they never will if they keep whacking coaches every two years. The good news is they were recently purchased by a man who loves Buffalo and plans to keep the club there. The bad news is he has no plan beyond that.
New York? As a native of Gotham, I’m embarrassed to associate the name of the world’s greatest city with its worst pro football team. The Jets are doomed to challenge the 1992 Seattle Seahawks for the most impotent offense in NFL history. That Seattle team scored an appalling 140 points in 16 games, and the Jets don’t project to fare much better. As always, the Jets are living up to their morbid acronym — Just End The Season.
Miami? Somewhere in that NFL purgatory between rebuild and reload, they’re not good enough to be considered real contenders, and not poor enough for a ticket to the Sam Darnold sweepstakes. Some argue Miami is in a more ominous position than the Jets, longterm, because they don’t have a franchise QB — especially when Jay Cutler is an upgrade from your starter — and won’t have the draft position to grab one in April.
What’s scary is this Patriots club might be better than the ’07 iteration. Certainly the running game is more robust. Dion Lewis and James White run circles around Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk. They don’t have Randy Moss in his prime, but they added Brandin Cooks, who, if healthy, should bank at least 1,200 yards and 15 TDs. They also have an epic edge at TE, with Ben Watson replaced by Rob Gronkowski. And let’s just assume Brady at any age or wage is legendary.
There are three threats to crack the goose egg on the Pats’ record — two of them on the road — the Atlanta Falcons, Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots played two of them last year. Tom Brady kept his career-long chokehold on Pittsburgh in the AFC title game. And Atlanta, we all know, was smashing the Patriots in the Super Bowl (up 28-3 in the third quarter) before their biblical choke. Exempt was Oakland, who may have been the best of all, if not for Derek Carr’s broken leg.
With all due respect to the Kansas City Chiefs, they aren’t beating the Patriots on opening night, at Foxborough, their first real game since they won the Super Bowl. And with equal respect due Houston, which is enduring a lot more than a football season, neophyte QB Deshaun Watson isn’t ready to dissect the chessboard Belichick designs. And despite all the hype and Hard Knocks coverage, Tampa Bay is a year away from real contention. As is Jameis Winston, who still makes too many head-scratching throws.
We won’t know if all this matters, until the Pats decide it does. We know Belichick has a maniacal focus on today’s game, practice, scrimmage or drill. There are no wasted movements in Foxborough. You don’t hear about holdouts, lockouts, contract strife or team-wide dissent. The team is a pristine reflection of its management, with each player, trainer and coach in corporate lockstep.
We often hear these nauseating sobriquets and rally cries, like “America’s Team” or “Just Win, Baby.” But no team adheres to an esprit de corps quite like New England, which not only espouses, but religiously follows the Patriot Way. It’s a lot more than a street name outside the practice facility.
If anyone can go 16-0, it’s the New England Patriots, who have the players and coaches to make it happen… and myriad reasons not too.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.