The oddsmakers apparently believe in the same mantra espoused by Patriots fans:
In Bill They Trust.
With the NFL Draft complete, and six weeks of free agency in the books, the Patriots roster looks on paper to be one of the worst in the NFL.
They didn’t draft a quarterback, and they have the thinnest depth chart in the league at that position with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. They didn’t do much to improve an offense that finished 11th in points last year, the Patriots’ worst ranking since 2003. They are shedding veterans and replacing them with rookies and minimum-salary guys. Oh yeah, Tom Brady is gone, too.
Yet the Patriots still remain in the top quarter of the league in Las Vegas odds to win the AFC East and the Super Bowl. Several sports books, including Bovada, have the Patriots as favorites to win the AFC East. Many books, including William Hill, have the Patriots at 20-1 to win the Super Bowl, which ranks anywhere between eighth- and 10th-highest in the league.
With any other coach, the Patriots probably would be on par with the dregs of the league at 200-1. But the Patriots still have Bill Belichick, and his presence alone keeps them competitive in the eyes of the sharps.
“The reason they’re still in the hunt is definitely the Belichick factor,” said Nick Bogdanovich, lead oddsmaker at William Hill. “Obviously he’s a master of X’s and O’s, and he’s built a culture of winning there. You still figure to have a really solid defense and very good special teams and excellent game planning. So if the offense can give them anything, they’ll compete.”
The Patriots are no longer the alpha dog in the AFC East. But even a rebuilding Patriots team could win the division with a few fortunate bounces. The uncertainty of the 2020 season with the COVID-19 pandemic also should give them an added boost.
“They still have such a winnable and easy division that when you look at Bill Belichick’s body of work, we just feel a little more comfortable around him figuring it out with the parts that he has,” said Bovada lead oddsmaker Pat Morrow, whose site has the Patriots as slight AFC East favorites over the Bills.
“Nobody improvises, nobody adjusts to the new normal quite like Bill Belichick does.”
It’s not quite business as usual for the Patriots with their AFC East and Super Bowl odds, however.
They usually are one of the top two or three teams in the league, not top 10. And the AFC East is tighter than it has been in a long time. Several sports books, including William Hill, have the Bills as a slight favorite over the Patriots to win the division. And the Dolphins and Jets both look to be rising, while the Patriots are coming back to the pack.
“All three teams I think are on the rise, and the Patriots, you can’t pencil them in for 6-0 and 5-1 in that division anymore, that’s for sure,” Bogdanovich said.
In Buffalo, coach Sean McDermott has built a smart, aggressive team that has made the playoffs in two of the last three years and is coming off a 10-6 season. This offseason, the Bills added star receiver Stefon Diggs and beefed up their defense with Mario Addison and rookie A.J. Epenesa.
But unless quarterback Josh Allen takes a major leap as a pocket passer in his third season, a 10-6 record and losing in the wild-card round may be the Bills’ ceiling.
The Dolphins are probably the most exciting team in the AFC East right now, though the bookmakers still have them with the 26th-best odds to win the Super Bowl.
The Dolphins ended last season on a 5-4 stretch, with Brian Flores creating a lot of believers in his coaching ability. And their offseason plan has been sound, at least on paper. They have massively upgraded the offensive line by adding Ereck Flowers and Ted Karras in free agency, then drafting three offensive linemen in the first four rounds. They also added premier free agents at all three levels of the defense (pass rusher Shaq Lawson, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and cornerback Byron Jones).
And the Dolphins got a potential franchise quarterback, drafting Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth pick. They don’t even have to play him right away, with Ryan Fitzpatrick more than capable of winning games next year.
Even the Jets are on the rise heading into 2020, though they are tied with the Dolphins with the 26th-best Super Bowl odds. The Jets quietly finished last season on a 6-2 run, coinciding with quarterback Sam Darnold getting healthy.
They got Darnold a new left tackle with the 10th pick (Mekhi Becton) and a receiver with their second-rounder (Denzel Mims). And a defense that has Quinnen Williams, C.J. Mosley, and Jamal Adams should be dangerous.
Then we get to the Patriots, who are clearly rebuilding. They had several starters and core players leave: Jamie Collins, Van Noy, Duron Harmon, Stephen Gostkowski, James Develin, Nate Ebner, and, of course, Brady. Belichick did very little to replace them in free agency, signing mostly minimum-salary veterans. The Patriots instead focused on the draft, and came away with mostly defensive players last weekend, though they did take two tight ends in the third round.
And, of course, the Patriots have a major question mark at quarterback. Stidham may end up being good, but he is a total unknown.
“At some point, you have to take a step back. It just has to happen,” Bogdanovich said. “Is this going to be the year? It figures to be, but you never know. They’re still in a division that’s winnable for them, and if anyone can pull it off with a shorthanded deck, it would be Belichick.”
Though the offense looks like a work in progress, the Patriots should still have a good-to-great defense in 2020, headlined by Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, and Dont’a Hightower. The offensive line also should be great, assuming Isaiah Wynn, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, and Shaq Mason are all back and healthy (we’ll see about Marcus Cannon and right tackle).
But the Patriots’ biggest weapon appears to be Belichick, who we all know went 11-5 with Matt Cassel as his starting QB in 2008. Morrow said that season is a big factor in how Bovada set the odds.
The Patriots may not look great on paper, but who doesn’t believe that Belichick can coax any team to at least eight wins based on defense, protecting the QB, and smart situational football?
“Yeah they lost Brady, yeah they’re maybe not looking so hot right now with X’s and O’s,” Morrow said. “But that division is wide open, and there’s no other coach that I would trust to navigate this offseason and all the challenges than I would someone like Belichick.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.