The time is almost upon us. That long, dark period from the first Sunday of February until September 8th is almost over and the sport America loves most is due to make its triumphant return. Obviously, the NFL has not been far from the minds of sports fans across the country but probably hasn’t haunted any one fan base as much as the Foxboro faithful. With Tom Brady’s suspension appeal denied and the GOAT forced to sit out the first four weeks of the season the Patriots are basically giving the AFC a 4 game handicap. Whatever. I’m not expecting any sympathy from the rest of the league towards a team that has been on an unprecedented run of success in the modern era. It’s going to make it that much sweeter when the Patriots hoist their 5th(!!!!!) Lombardi trophy right in that autocratic, soulless, NFLPA crushing robot named Roger Goodell’s face. The real question is how will they get there?
Now, obviously, any path to the Lombardi trophy is not an easy one. Every team has to deal with injuries and it only takes one play to alter the trajectory of an entire teams’ season or even franchise (Vikings with the Bradford deal; WOOF) but, barring that, the Patriots have a relatively clear path to Super Bowl LI this year in what appears to be a weaker AFC. Ol’ Thumb Head himself has finally ridden off into the sunset so his wife can get her HGH in peace and the Broncos, the Patriots #1 threat for the past three seasons, are now looking at a rebuilding year, albeit with what should still be an elite defense. Instead of the Broncos as the top foe in the AFC I’m expecting the Steelers to be the major obstacle. They too have an elite quarterback who knows how to win, an explosive offense with arguably the two best skill position players in the respective positions in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon “Munchies” Bell. While the Steelers defense is not the same vaunted squad that the likes of Troy Polamalu played on, I always feel like they show up to play and, what was once a young unit is a year older and getting better.
We are getting ahead of ourselves though. First thing first, the Patriots have to win the AFC East; a division the Patriots are have won for a staggering 13 times in 15 years and seven years in a row. With TB12 and The Hooded One on the sidelines it should come as a surprise to no one that the Patriots are expected to extend this dominance into the 2016 campaign and, happily for New England fans, the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills do not have the squads to dethrone the reigning champ.
The New York Football Jets
While it pains me to say it the Jets are probably the toughest foe in the AFC East this year. Signing Matt Forte was a roster solidifying move the Jets had to make after letting Chris Ivory walk. I don’t hate the Forte signing. It reminds me a lot of the Jets signing of Chris Johnson a few years back. An older, reliable, every down back who can catch out of the backfield but with a lot of miles on him. Couple that with capable quarterback play by career journeyman-come franchise QB Ryan Fitzpatrick throwing to Marshall and Decker and the Jets should have a decent offensive year. But only decent.
I say decent because, despite signing Forte, the Jets are thin at RB. I guess they really like Bilal Powell (since they let Ivory walk) but if Forte goes down I just don’t see the Jets running attack being able to do much. Also, the Jets have a largely rebuilt O-line. Signing Ryan Clady give the Jets the veteran tackle they need and Nick Mangold will once again be captaining the hogs from his center position but the rest seems to be slapped together with Elmer’s glue. Specifically, if I was a Jets fan (thank God Almighty I am not), Ben Ijalana being my starting right tackle would scare the shit out of me. Anytime your team goes out and signs a guy who’s been in the league for a few years on a few teams and you throw him right in the starting lineup that is rough unless his *cough* new workout regiment *cough* is yielding some great results I’m anticipating the Jets offensive line to be a rotating patchwork for at least the beginning of the season.
While we are on the subject, who the fuck is playing TE for the Jets? Oh, Kellen Davis? Sweet. Listen, if the NFL has shown anything the last few years its that having at least a credible TE threat opens up your offense in ways that are absolute nightmares for NFL defenses to deal with. Not everyone can have an absolute freak like Gronkowski on the field but you can see the impact players like Greg Olsen and Jordan Reed have on their offenses. The Jets utterly lack this attack and, frankly, in the passing game they don’t have much of a threat beyond Decker and Marshall. I know Fitzpatrick set a bunch of franchise marks last season with pretty much the same offensive weaponry but his competition for those stats came out of the 60’s so color me unimpressed. On top of all that? What are the odds Fitzpatrick has the kind of year he had last year again? Even if he does, ol’ Fitzy seems to piss down his leg whenever real success is on the line (aka Week 17 last year) so I’m still skeptical that he can get the Jets to the playoffs, let alone the AFC East crown.
The real bread and butter of the Jets is, as its been since Rex Ryan’s fat ass showed up in 2010, the defense. The Jets may have one of, if not the, best front sevens in all of football. They should be tough to run on and good at pressuring the quarterback with the likes of Muhammah Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson’s silly ass anchoring the D-line. The problem with the Jets is at cornerback. Yes, they have Darelle Revis, a Revis who is a year older and looked to have lost a step last year so who knows how this year goes. Even diminished, Revis is still the Jets best DB and they have struggled to find him a partner on the other side or a reliable nickle corner to cover the slot (you know, the spot where the Patriots in particular have and will continue to try to eviscerate opposing defenses from) even after allocating considerable draft picks to try and fill the gap. I see the Jets D as a good unit overall with great parts but some fatal flaws that will haunt them all season long. Jets: 9-7
The Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are going to be bad. No other way to say it. Ryan Tannehill seems to be regressing, stadium just got another new, lame name, and they have a rookie coach in Adam Gase, and they let Lamar Miller, who they underused almost criminally last year, take off for Houston. His replacement? Lord of the Exploding Hamstrings Arian Foster himself. No bueno. Mojo is just all wrong for the 2016 season to be a winning one.
Now I’m not saying just because this is Gase is first year that means the Dolphins will suck. There are a lot of instances where first year coaches show up and change the culture of a team which leads to winning. Just think of Chip Kelly’s first season with the Eagles. No, I’m saying Miami will suck because Gase does not have the mental dynamo as a signal caller he had last year in Peyton Manning. Instead his got rock head, I don’t know who’s in the AFC East, getting my feelings hurt by having practice squad guys pick me off Tannehill. This is Tannehill’s make or break year and he’s got to learn a whole new offensive system? BAHAHAHAHA. His downward trend continues into this year as he positions himself to be the next big QB signing by the Browns.
Jarvis Landry is a baller but the problem with WRs is that, no matter how good they are, you need someone who can get them the ball. I do think Landry will have a solid year because whatever production the Dolphins do get out of the air will go through him. Landry was targeted a whopping 166(!) times last year and I’m guessing this year may even surpass that mark. He’s a versatile player and if Gase is half the offensive wunderkind he’s suppose to be he’ll know what he has in Jarvis. Shit, maybe Gase can even resurrect Jordan Cameron’s career. As for the backfield, I’m expecting the aforementioned Foster to play well until about Week 4 when the scheduled detonation of his hamstring or groin will go kaboom. The Dolphins seem to believe they have something in Jay Ajayi so at least Fins fans can look forward to the kid carrying the rock while Foster goes back to his home on the IR.
Ah, the Dolphins defense. This will probably be the worst defensive unit in the AFC East this year unless Rob Ryan really does his thing up in Buffalo. I’m a firm believer that Ndamukong Suh is a $60 million guaranteed albatross for a defense that under performed last year and will do so again this year. He’s going to go down as the Shaun Alexander of defensive signings just taking his money bags and swan diving off the skill cliff. It doesn’t exactly help that they let one of their premiere defensive players in Olivier Vernon get away from them either, although the Giants did pay a king’s ransom for him. You tend to get hamstrung on those kind of transactions when you give $114 million over 6 years to a nutshot artist though. Dolphins: 5-11
The Buffalo Bills
It’s a Rex Ryan coached team. They don’t have a legit QB, guys are getting suspended and hurt left and right, and they’ll have roughly a billion penalties again this year.
Bills: 7-9 Bills Mafia: 8-0 at tailgates
The New England Patriots
Now to get down to brass tacks. Even with Brady’s suspension the Patriots have a deep squad with a good mix of young and veteran players on both sides of the ball. Their key weakness, as it was last year, remains the offensive line but with the return of long time hogball coach Dante Scarnecchia, I’m expecting this squad to perform much better. The big concern is will they have enough bodies to keep throwing into the breach? Both Vollmer and Solder look like they are going to struggle to keep healthy again this year (Vollmer already on the PUP) and the more snaps Marcus Cannon gets I’m convinced contributes to the butterfly effect which will eventually unleash the earthquake that drops California into the Pacific. That said, I do like Joe Thuney, the rookie guard out of NC State who can play up and down the offensive line. The Patriots should get some excellent line play from him and I would not be shocked that if Cannon’s struggles continue, they’ll shift Thuney to tackle as soon as Shaq Mason or Tre Jackson are 100% to fill in at Guard.
Obviously, the biggest news concerning the offensive line was Bryan Stork’s departure from the team. I liked Stork. He was nasty, he was aggressive, he was Logan Mankins 2.0 but the truth is David Andrews is better and it was obvious last year. If you are paid more, have a history of concussions, AND aren’t as good as the next guy up on a Bill Belichick team then guess what? You’re out. Nothing personal, its just business. Thank you, Mr. Stork, for being the Dean of Mean on the 2014 Super Bowl team (holy shit fire bars) but we must bid you adieu.
If the Patriots can get solid offensive line play then I don’t really see a weakness anywhere else. If the O-Line plays well then the fact that the Patriots ground game is running back by village never mind committee but the short passing game has always acted as a supplement to the Patriots rushing attack pretty much ever since Brady emerged on the scene. Blount will do his normal 1 yd gain, 3 yd gain, -1 yd loss, 37 yd gain complete with vault, two spin moves and stiff arm, 3 yd gain thing. What I’m really excited for is the emerging battle between James White and DJ Foster. Both are just seat warmers for when Dion Lewis (The Cut Hamster) returns but I would not be shocked if Foster ends up leapfrogging White before Lewis’ arrival. Foster seems to have that burst of speed and elusiveness that White lacks and for that reason may end up being the lightning to Blount’s thunder until Lewis’ week 10 return.
The receiving corps is one of the more interesting facets of this years Patriots team. If you told anyone four years ago Brady would be throwing to Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, and Chris Hogan they’d probably say that’s as ridiculous as throwing on the 1 with Marshawn Lynch in the backfield with the Super Bowl on the line and yet, here we are. I’m not as bully on Hogan as some other Patriots fans but I will admit the idea of three, elusive, squirrelly WR giving corners and ILB fits makes me giggle. Makes me giggle almost as much as the inevitable Stephen A. Smith fuego take of “Is Bill Belichick a racist for having 3 white receivers?” will. The real key to this passing attack is going to be Malcolm Mitchell. He looked great in the preseason and the Patriots dodged a tremendous bullet when his elbow injury ended up being a minor one instead of season ending. I think Mitchell may end up being one of the few legit WR draft picks the Patriots have made in the Belichick era and genuinely think his 2016 campaign line will look something like 50 rec/850 yds/ 7 TDs. He’ll be the outside threat that defenses will be forced to leave in single coverage with the Holy Slot Trinity, Gronk, and Bennett running amok everywhere else on the field.
Not much to say about the TE position this year. The Patriots have clearly been trying to replicate their dual TE threat ever since Aaron Hernandez decided to get all murdery and they’ve yet to succeed. Last year was the Scott Chandler experiment which lasted, oh, about 2 games before Brady decided he had stone fingers and was a ghost. This year the Patriots went out and got Martellus Bennett, the quirky and talented TE from the Chicago Bears amidst his angst with the organization and smokin’ Jay Cutler himself. I like Bennett but his preseason did more to weaken confidence instead of instill it. However, Garappollo seems to like throwing to the Black Unicorn so, hopefully, that puts Bennett in a grove for the rest of the season and he emerges as a legitimate threat alongside Gronkowski. If that happens…
Speaking of Handsome Jim, the Patriots backup now de-facto starting QB has looked OK this preseason. Nothing spectacular but he has put together some nice, quality drives and seems to get better as the clock winds down which is always a trait you like to see in a quarterback. He’s going to have a tough challenge in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting a loss out in the desert. More important than that, however, will be seeing what Jimmy G is really made of. If the Patriots can go 3-1, or even 2-2 and Garoppollo plays well he’ll be excellent trade bait this offseason and could land quite a bounty for the Pats, especially considering what teams are giving up for QBs that are mediocre nevermind good. It’s trial by fire but, honestly, it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Patriots to see what they have in their 2014 2nd round pick, even if its at the chagrin of Brady, Belichick, Kraft, and pretty much everyone who lives in New England.
Finally, that leads us the best unit the Patriots have this year, the defense. Even with the departure of Chandler Jones, the strength of the 2016 Patriots won’t be the offense, but the defense. Led by the likes of Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Devin McCourty the Patriots are going to have to lean on this unit for sure in the first four weeks of the season and then, if the offense gets in sync and starts performing, should be able to strangle defenses and then coast to victories much like they did in many games last year where the majority of damage teams did was during garbage time. I absolutely loved the trade for Barkevious Mingo. Reminds me a lot of the Patriots getting Jabaal Sheard from the Browns last year who contributed immediately. I’m hoping the same happens with Keke who approximates Jamie Collins’ body type and versatility. I think they’ll utilize him as a sort of roaming LB, sometimes playing on the edge (especially with Rob Ninkovich’s suspension for the first four games), sometimes in pass coverage, and perhaps even some packages at ILB, where the Browns where trying to get him to bulk up and play. Hopefully, the Patriots unlock that 6th overall pick potential and Mingo becomes a menace. The Patriots signing Chris Long gives them a replacement for Jones on the end in a veteran player that seems to be fitting in well in New England. I’m hoping for a double digit sack total but, more importantly than that, I’m looking for Long to be a factor against good competition which sometimes caused Chandler to disappear.
The player I’m looking to make a huge leap on the defensive line this year however is Malcolm Brown. He was great last year for a rookie and with a year of experience under his belt and a full NFL offseason I think he becomes an absolute monster in the middle. Much like the beloved Vince Wilfork before him, Brown should command a double team unless everyone in the NFL is fine with him smashing his way into the backfield. Look for a Pro-Bowl caliber season from the 2nd year man from Texas.
The Patriots secondary, which for so long had been the apparent Achilles heel of many a Patriot team in this young century, actually seems rather solid. Malcolm Butler (PAY HIM ROBERT) and Logan Ryan have developed into quite a tandem with Devin McCourty and a revitalized Pat Chung out in the deep green. Even more exciting? I think the Patriots hit on another draft pick from this past spring in Cyrus Jones. I think he’ll be an impact player on both the defensive side of the ball as a nickel corner, most likely splitting time with Daron Harmon, and as a punt returner, a job he excelled at under Nick Saban at Alabama. I think its time for Bill to recognize both Amendola and Edelman are too valuable this season to be back there shagging punts and hopefully Jones earns his trust enough to take on that job.
In the end, the Patriots are by far and away the best team in the AFC East and should retain that title, even with Brady’s absence in the first month of the season. They are simply too well coached, too talented, and too deep to not make the playoffs in an AFC that really only offers two or three serious challengers to their ascension as 2016 AFC Champions that being the Steelers, Chiefs, and Broncos. The NFC boasts more formidable opponents but that’s a worry for a Super Bowl Sunday many months from now. For now we’re on to Arizona. Patriots: 13-3
P.S. Fuck You, Roger