September 21, 2023

Patriots try to avoid finishing last in a loaded AFC East

(Yahoo Sports images by Hannah Lucca)

(Yahoo Sports images by Hannah Lucca)

It’s strange to check the odds of winning the AFC East at BetMGM.

The Buffalo Bills are favored and the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins are not far behind. Then far behind those three teams come the New England Patriots. It’s no surprise that the Patriots would essentially prefer to finish last in the division. That will be the usual choice. It’s just weird to see the rest of the AFC East be so far ahead of the Patriots given the recent history in the division.

The Patriots dominated the division for two decades. They won the AFC East 17 of 19 years, 11 of them in a row. It is one of the most impressive series in NFL history. New England has not finished last in its division since 2000, Bill Belichick’s first season with the team. And now there’s a good chance the Patriots will look up to all three divisional foes they’ve bullied for so many seasons.

It hasn’t been that long since the Patriots ruled the NFL, but it sure seems like it. Since Tom Brady’s split after the 2019 season, the Patriots have slipped into mediocrity. They were in the playoffs in all three seasons after Brady into December and lived into Week 18 last season. But they’ve only made the playoffs once in that span and were eliminated from their first playoff season two seasons ago. contest. The Patriots are 25-25 since Brady left, and that seems good.

It’s a boring franchise. They are not good enough to fight for a title in an AFC East that suddenly got a lot better. Their roster doesn’t have enough blue chip players. But Belichick is too good to let the Patriots become one of those AFC East teams that were at the bottom of the barrel during the Patriots dynasty. They will be tough all season, especially with a strong defense, but nowhere near Super Bowl contention. In three years they went from the epicenter of the NFL to one of the most low profile teams in the league.

If there’s any hope for the Patriots to be anything more than middle of the road, it’s a change in offense. It’s rare that the entire world is right and Belichick is wrong when it comes to football, but Belichick seemed to be the only sensible football observer who thought his plan as offensive coordinator last season was a good idea. After head coaches Matt Patricia (whose experience was on defense) and Joe Judge failed, the offense went as badly as anyone expected. The Patriots’ offense was mostly a mess. This offseason, the team hired Bill O’Brien, who you probably wouldn’t want to orchestrate a DeAndre Hopkins trade, but has a good track record as an offensive coordinator.

“Bill is familiar with what he’s doing, so it feels good,” Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne said of O’Brien via CBS Boston. “You can tell he knows what he’s doing in all areas of the offense — receiver, lineman, running. He knows a lot of offenses, so it feels good.”

The unspoken part of Bourne’s comment is probably that last year’s offensive staff was unfamiliar with what it was doing, but everyone already knew that. Perhaps the coaching upgrade will fix a lot of what was wrong with the Patriots.

Bill Belichick hasn't won a playoff game since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay.  (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick hasn’t won a playoff game since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

It certainly won’t hurt Mac Jones. Jones had a good rookie season, and last year people were clamoring for fourth-round rookie Bailey Zappe. Jones’ antics seemed to put a lot of people off. There were reports that the Patriots were willing to trade Jones. But Jones stays, and we may see him looking more like his promising rookie self than anything last season.

The defense will probably be good again. The attack cannot but be improved. The Patriots won’t be bad. But they probably won’t be good either. And that’s the problem for the post-Brady Pats.

Grade out of season

At receiver, the Patriots signed JuJu Smith-Schuster but lost Jakobi Meyers, which is usually a wash. Calvin Anderson and Riley Reiff were cheap additions to the offensive line. Signing Mike Gesicki, hoping to recapture what Gesicki did for the Miami Dolphins before being a maverick on Mike McDaniels offense last season, could be a smart move. They kept cornerback Jonathan Jones and safety Jabrill Peppers, which helps, especially with hugely valuable veteran safety Devin McCourty retiring. The draft was fine, with good picks on cornerback Christian Gonzalez in the first round and centerback Keion White in the second. New England also became the first team since the 2000 Raiders to take a kicker and punt in the same draft. The Patriots’ offseason was much like the Patriots as a whole: It was decent.

Figure: C

Quarterback report

In a Week 7 Monday night loss to the Chicago Bears, it looked like Mac Jones would have lost his job. The previous two weeks, Bailey Zappe played pretty well in place of an injured Jones and the Patriots went 2-0. Jones came back against the Bears and was terrible. He was 3-of-6 for 13 yards and threw a really bad interception early in the second quarter. Fans cheered when Bill Belichick benched Jones and put Zappe in. Zappe immediately threw a 30-yard touchdown. At that point, it looked like Zappe would take over the job. Zappe threw two more interceptions, the Patriots lost, and Belichick went straight back to Jones in New England’s next game. Zappe did not play a moment for the rest of the season. Who knows how things will be different if Zappe throws a few more touchdowns that night and avoids those picks? Jones and Zappe were supposed to be battling for the runway this off-season, but that appears to be window dressing. Jones doesn’t seem likely to lose the job, though off-season trade rumors indicate he’s out of solid ground, too. It’s a pivotal season for Jones in New England.

Breakdown of BetMGM odds

The Patriots’ win total at BetMGM is 7.5. It’s hard to take over as New England seems to be the worst team in its division. But New England went 8-9 last season with a poor defensive coordinator running his offense. The list is no worse. The schedule is a problem, the toughest in the NFL according to Sharp Football Analysis. But fading Bill Belichick has rarely been profitable. I lay off.

Take Yahoo’s fantasy

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The Patriots have a history of finding undervalued assets on their division rivals’ rosters; if we look back far enough, we remember Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead. Maybe Mike Gesicki will be another hit.

Gesicki was a square figure on Miami’s round-hole offense last year, a miscast player who became less relevant as the season went on. Now he’s on a New England roster that just has wide receiver ta
lent, wants to use multiple tight ends, and finally has a respectable OC back in the game with the hiring of Bill O’Brien. Let’s ground this one; Gesicki isn’t a league winner. But he’s currently being called up as the TE20, and there’s a decent chance he’ll make that draft will break slot.”

State to remember

Bill Belichick’s defense has finished in the top 10 in yards allowed or points allowed for 11 consecutive seasons. Last season’s defense was very good. It finished third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. It was only behind the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, and not by much. Only Devin McCourty does not return among last year’s defensive starters, and New England used its top three draft picks on defense. It may not have a superstar defense (edgerusher Matthew Judon is probably the closest) but it’s full of very good defenders and there’s no obvious weakness. Given Belichick’s continuity and track record, it seems like a safe bet that the Patriots’ defense will be good again. It’s just a matter of how good the defense is and if it’s good enough to keep the team in the playoffs.

Burning question

Can Rhamondre Stevenson carry the charge?

Rhamondre Stevenson officially started last season with just seven games. He only averaged 12.4 carries per game. He was the Patriots’ lead, but the team didn’t overwork him. In the three games they gave Stevenson over 16 carries last season, he had 409 yards on 63 carries and produced games of 161 and 172 yards. Perhaps it’s time for the Patriots to see what Stevenson can do with a bigger workload, especially now that Damien Harris has gone into free service. The Patriots also waived James Robinson in June, eliminating another option. Stevenson has looked very good since breaking into the Patriots, and perhaps more of Stevenson could be a good thing for a Patriots offense that needs to make a big improvement.

In the best case

The Patriots were close to having the best defense in the NFL last season. If they can stay at an elite level on that side of the ball, maybe the offensive coordinator change will lead to a big jump on that side. It seems like a long time ago, but in 2021, Mac Jones had the best rookie season among a hyped QB draft class. The Patriots have plenty of options in the passing game and Rhamondre Stevenson could have a monster season if the team is finally ready to give him a big workload. The rest of the AFC East is stacked and it’s hard to get the Patriots in contention to win the division, but could they get a wild card spot like they did two seasons ago? Certainly.

Nightmare scenario

Much of this probably has to do with the development of Mac Jones. You don’t want to draft a quarterback in the first round, get a good rookie season out of him, and be ready to move on by the end of year three. But that seems to be on the table as Jones struggles. Bill Belichick is 71 years old, will he stay for a quarterback reset? The Patriots are expected to finish last in the AFC East and that would be a sobering result for a franchise accustomed to being the league of the NFL. But that era is over and it’s hard to understand how the Patriots get out of their rut.

The crystal ball says…

The Patriots may be the best last-place team in the NFL this season, but it would still be a last-place finish. Bill Belichick hasn’t finished last since Tom Brady was in Michigan. I don’t think the Patriots will have a terrible season, but I can’t rate them higher than fourth in the AFC East. That said, they could be a fourth-place team on the brink of the playoffs in December. The AFC East is really good. Maybe the Patriots will surprise, but it’s probably another decent season, and then another offseason wondering how to get past decent.

Past previews

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Houston Texans

30. Chicago Bears

29. Tennessee Titans

28. Los Angeles Rams

27.Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Foals

25. Washington Commanders

24.Las Vegas Raiders

23. Carolina panthers

22.Denver Broncos

21. Atlanta Falcons

20. Green Bay Packers

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