What we learned from the Lions’ upset win over the defending champion Chiefs is that opening days tend to be overrated and the reduction of preseason games, along with injury precautions with key players, have hindered chemistry.
That’s why Patrick Mahomes looked pedestrian at times and why his receivers looked as if they were catching balls with cooking oil on their hands Thursday in the 21-20 loss to the Lions. The key in Week 1 is to develop cohesion, to take a step forward, and the Patriots have that opportunity in their opener against the Eagles on Sunday.
The encouraging news for the Patriots is that the Chiefs’ loss proves there are no great teams in the NFL. Kansas City looked slow at times, especially without All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce, while star defensive lineman Chris Jones was chilling in the luxury suite of Arrowhead Stadium still waiting for a new contract.
Decades ago, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle made parity his primary focus after the Steelers, Cowboys, and Dolphins took turns dominating the 1970s. Now, the best teams get the most difficult schedules. The weakest teams are allowed to nab the best quarterback prospects with high draft picks. (But ask the 49ers how that turned out with Trey Lance.)
The league doesn’t want a repeat champion. They want the Bengals, doormats for decades, to emerge. They want the Jaguars to finally become competitive. They love that the Lions, after years of ineptitude that practically encouraged Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson to retire in their primes, have finally become a respectable franchise with a promising future.
The Patriots are in that middle-class neighborhood where really nobody wants to live. They’re good enough to make the playoffs, to perhaps win 10 games, get to the wild-card round, and maybe pull off an upset. But barring a brilliant season from Mac Jones; a combined 1,800 yards from Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott; a rejuvenated season from JuJu Smith-Schuster; a stellar rookie season from Kayshon Boutte or Demario Douglas; and a top-10 defense; the Patriots will be battling for that final playoff spot.
It’s difficult to keep dominant teams together in the NFL. Salary-cap restrictions make it nearly impossible to retain an All-Pro core for the long term. It places more emphasis on the draft, uncovering gems in free agency, lower-salary players exceeding expectations, and star players remaining healthy and productive.
The Patriots have undergone a difficult transition after Tom Brady was inexplicably allowed to leave for Tampa Bay. They’ve struggled to find a reliable long-term answer at quarterback. Bill Belichick has missed on several free agent signings while the drafts have been average at best.
All of those team-building elements have to flourish for a team to remain dominant and give themselves an annual chance at a Super Bowl. But the positive for climbing teams such as the Patriots is that the elite teams are never too far ahead for too long.
The Chiefs are currently the model NFL franchise and they are indeed flawed, lacking a No. 1 receiver and an elite running back. They rely so much on the wizardry of Mahomes, Andy Reid’s methodical offensive system, and an opportunistic defense that they have maintained superiority in the AFC. But as we witnessed Thursday night, those strengths can be fleeting, and even loaded rosters can display weaknesses.
The margin for error for the Patriots is small in a competitive AFC, but they are indeed good enough to compete with — not necessarily beat — teams such as the Eagles, Chiefs, and Bills.
The Jets traded for future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers and acquired a bunch of his Green Bay buddies to bolster the offense, and there’s no guarantee they won’t finish last in the AFC East. The Dolphins are relying on a quarterback with concussion issues, a talented but unproven defense, and a running back by committee. And the Bills have become one of the best teams in the NFL with Josh Allen, but that still hasn’t resulted in a Super Bowl appearance and may not this season.
What we learned Thursday is the NFL lacks great teams. They are a handful of very good teams, and the ones that are most successful are the ones who make the fewest mistakes at the most critical times. The talent pool has been spread throughout the league. The running back position has been completely devalued. The quarterbacks are making all the damn money, but most of them — Dak Prescott or Daniel Jones or Deshaun Watson or Kirk Cousins — haven’t come close to a Super Bowl.
So the Patriots do have a chance. They need Jones to play the best football of his career and develop into a true leader. They need a bounceback season from Elliott and an unexpected All-Pro season from someone else on the offense. They’re good enough to compete on a weekly basis, but so are a lot of other teams.
The harsh reality is the NFL is a bunch of 8-9, 9-8, and 10-7 teams that are a few plays from 12 wins and a few from 6. The rules don’t allow teams to keep their best players, especially when half the quarterbacks are making $40 million per season.
Such a flawed salary system leaves the opportunity for teams with the right blend of an efficient offense with a low-mistake quarterback along with a physical, opportunistic defense to make deep playoff runs. Are the Patriots that team? They certainly can be. They should come away Thursday thinking, “The Chiefs ain’t that good, at least not yet.”
And that leaves the door open to exceed their mediocre expectations.
Read more about the Patriots
- Will the Patriots reach 10 wins? Who will meet in the Super Bowl? See the Globe’s NFL predictions for 2023.
- Mac Jones is entering Year 3 with the Patriots. Is this the season he takes a leap?
- Patriots coach Bill Belichick is definitely on the hot seat. The only question is, to what degree?