The Patriots are the consensus Super Bowl favorites entering the 2017 season, which obviously isn’t a surprise. On paper, the defending champs are significantly better after adding players like Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore this past offseason. However, it hasn’t been enough for New England to be the largest preseason Super Bowl favorite in over a decade. There’s been widespread talk from various pundits and fans alike that the Patriots will go undefeated.
Even as one of the most passionate Pats fans alive, I think everyone needs to pump the breaks with these lofty predictions. I’m not saying an undefeated season is impossible. It’s just highly unlikely, so there’s no sense having the discussion now.
A few reasons why. First, the Patriots will face a tougher slate of opponents in 2017. Last season, New England benefitted from the easiest schedule in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders. In addition, they managed to avoid practically every top-tier quarterback in the regular season. The Pats faced just two quarterbacks who ranked in the top sixteen in Total QBR last year–Russell Wilson and Tyrod Taylor. The rest of the slate featured a bunch of cupcakes: in chronological order, the Pats faced Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler, Landry Jones, Colin Kaepernick, Jared Goff, Trevor Siemian, and Bryce Petty. Cupcakes, indeed.
New England may only have the 21st-toughest projected schedule this year according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but the slate of opposing quarterbacks is much more formidable. They’ll face a slew of former Super Bowl champions, MVP’s, Pro Bowlers, and emerging standouts. Here are the guys I’m talking about: Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Jameis Winston, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Derek Carr, and Ben Roethlisberger. And that list doesn’t even include other competent starters, such as Alex Smith, Tyrod Taylor, and Ryan Tannehill.
This tougher slate of quarterbacks leads me to my second point: the Patriots’ defense is likely to decline. It’s clear that New England beat up on bad competition en route to finishing with the league’s top scoring defense last season. However, against better offenses and quarterbacks, like Seattle and Atlanta, they often struggled.
To be clear, the Patriots still had a solid defense last year. They just weren’t as strong as their points allowed figure suggested. In fact, New England only finished 16th in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric, and the reason why that’s noteworthy is because DVOA factors in strength of schedule.
I’m projecting the Patriots’ defense to struggle against many of the top-flight quarterbacks mentioned above. One of the main reasons why is that they won’t be quite as deep in certain areas. On the edge, for instance, Rob Ninkovich just retired, and Chris Long departed in free agency. Neither of those guys were game-altering players, but they added much-needed depth to a unit that will now rely solely on Trey Flowers and three new additions (Kony Ealy, and rookies Derrick Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr). Moreover, the linebacking corps are a little thin considering that Dont’a Hightower is often injured (he has only suited up for a full season once in his five year career).
And this brings me to my final point: injuries. Thankfully, the Patriots are far more-equipped than other teams to handle poor health, as their offense is stacked across the board, especially at quarterback. But the Pats were also pretty deep in 2015, when injuries decimated their offensive line and destroyed their backfield (remember, we had to bring Steven Jackson out of retirement so he could start in the AFC Championship). That ill-fated season serves as a reminder that while injuries aren’t enough to prevent another terrific regular season campaign, they can easily torpedo Super Bowl hopes.
Again, 19-0 isn’t impossible for this Patriots team. They have the best quarterback and coach in football, and they’ve even ripped off winning-streaks of 21 and 18 games in the past. But it’s still unlikely, and therefore premature, to have that sort of discussion now. By November, if we still haven’t lost, then let’s have a conversation.
After all, isn’t being the consensus Super Bowl favorite satisfying enough right now?
Photo courtesy of Boston Herald