In a league that prides itself on parity and unpredictability, the Patriots winning the AFC East might be the closest thing the NFL has to a sure bet.
The Dolphins’ offense has undergone an overhaul and doesn’t have a starting-caliber five on the line, the Jets’ secondary is down to about four serviceable players, and the Bills have talent at nearly every position but the one that matters most: quarterback.
So New England will once again be the division’s best team, for the sixth straight year and 12th time in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, a remarkable run of consistency.
When the Patriots signed cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and receiver Brandon LaFell, and traded for Timothy Wright, and drafted Dominique Easley and James White, they were not moves to ensure another set of division-champion hats and T-shirts would be theirs.
They did it for January. They did it for the Denver Broncos.
The Patriots lost last year’s AFC Championship game to Denver on the road, unable to match up with Peyton Manning’s weapons, especially after Aqib Talib was KO’d from the game.
So Belichick brought in two veteran corners, uncovered a potential gem in undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler, and has had corners playing at safety during the summer. It all adds depth and versatility where the Patriots had none last year, particularly not in the game that mattered most.
Brady’s arsenal has also been bolstered. Just as had been the case in Wes Welker’s final season with the Patriots, by the end of last year, Brady felt he could rely only on Julian Edelman.
Now he has Edelman and LaFell, a healthy Danny Amendola, one-year-wiser Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, and most importantly, he has Rob Gronkowski.
“I think as a coach, when you lose a game like that and you recognize that team is going to be back, you can’t help but draft or build with that in mind,” said former Seahawks, Steelers, and Patriots linebacker Chad Brown, now an analyst working in Denver. “Revis is a big part of that. A guy like [Denver’s] Demaryius Thomas, who is the guy that makes it go there, he has speed and athleticism, takes the top off defenses.
“You can defend Welker in the slot, and I think [tight end] Julius Thomas is the second guy you’d want to cover. I would have to think Bill has not solely built this team for Denver, but the goal is not just to get to the AFC Championship — the goal is to win the Super Bowl, and odds are you’ll be facing the Broncos again to get there.”
The Patriots needed to improve on defense more than on offense to beat Denver, and Belichick did that.
One league source said it is valid to theorize that this Patriots team is built for beating Denver, noting they had to bring in better cornerbacks and players in the secondary who can match up with the Broncos’ pass catchers, and be able to use them in different ways: man to man or cover-2, and be able to be physical as well.
The key to success for the Patriots, in talking to several voices around the league during the offseason, is Revis. It seems odd to say given how much we hear that football is a team game, but signing this one player could pay huge dividends.
“I was a little surprised but then after a few minutes of reflection, it makes such sense,” Brown said. “A guy like a Revis can take away the other team’s best threat and allow you to play 10 on 10, and that presents so much defensive versatility and flexibility. Again, it shocked me at first because it seemed so out of character, but when I thought about it, it’s such a Bill move. It’s difficult to neutralize a shutdown corner because if you choose to neutralize him, that means you’re choosing to neutralize your No. 1 weapon and I think that’s a trade Bill and [defensive coordinator Matt] Patricia are willing to make.”
“Without question it gives you way more options on what you can do with the pass rush because you have an extra defender,” said Greg Cosell, a senior producer at NFL Films. “You don’t need a safety over the top with Revis, so you can do a lot more. If you can play man on the outside and take away the middle, those [sideline throws] are tougher throws.”
There’s another thing Revis has that Talib in particular does not: save for his ACL tear in 2012, Revis has been incredibly durable in his career.
“Thinking about the Broncos in particular, if you have a cornerback go down, Peyton Manning is going to find the open guy, without a doubt,” Brown said. “I think Emmanuel Sanders is an upgrade over Eric Decker, Julius Thomas is going to be a year better, and you can’t afford to be out there without your best cornerbacks.
“There’s one placard in the Patriots’ training room — ‘dependability is more important than ability.’ Being out of the game now and looking back, that’s perhaps the most true thing I’ve seen in a locker room or training room.”
Watching the Patriots’ preseason games, Cosell noted how big they are in the front seven, which is different than how the Seahawks and 49ers, who had two of the best defenses in the NFL last year, are built.
New England is bucking the trend of using leaner, faster players along the front seven. Several of their defensive linemen are similar physically — listed at around 6 feet 2 inches and in the neighborhood of 300 pounds — though it seems Belichick also has tried to gain more versatility for the front seven, at times in the preseason utilizing ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich as outside linebackers.
“Everyone is assuming it’s pass, pass, pass,” Cosell said of current NFL offenses. “Cincinnati is not pass-happy, they want to run the ball. It’s sort of been accepted as gospel that it’s pass, pass, all the college concepts. You still have to defend the pass, but at the end of the day, if they feel Revis can pretty much line up with anybody, man to man with no help over the top, now you have a safety that you can drop down between the numbers and help you in a lot of ways.”
The AFC is currently in a weakened state; the Bengals might be the only team that can challenge either New England or Denver, though Cincinnati does not have the caliber of quarterback the Patriots and Broncos do.
“If you look around the rest of the AFC, they’re certainly the two top teams, led by the two top quarterbacks,” Brown said. “It certainly seems inevitable [they’ll meet again in the AFC title game], barring injuries to the quarterback from either team.”
In a league that prides itself on parity and predictability, we could be staring at a predictable pairing when it’s time to decide which team will represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLIX.
But this time, New England has been built to win.