Let’s call this one a Patriots quasi-preview, in the form of four questions:
1. How many games will the Patriots win in the regular season?
Seems like the season-ending injury to Julian Edelman has served as the cruel reminder that it’s an unrelenting, vicious season, and daydreams of 16-0 will prove little more than an unfulfilling dance with hubris.
As I’ve written before, there have been more than 1,100 individual team seasons since the NFL expanded to 16 games in 1978. Only one of those teams went 16-0. You know the one. It was the most overwhelming offensive machine the NFL has ever seen.
A decade after Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and Wes Welker combined to rip up the league, the Patriots have perhaps their most talent-rich offense since ’07. But without Edelman, a crucial element — the security-blanket slot receiver who habitually gets 7½ yards on third and 7 — is going to be absent, at least for a while.
This could be one of the best offenses the Patriots have had. But it won’t be the best. And even backboned by what should be an excellent defense, this team isn’t going unbeaten.
So how many will they win? The default number of fans and media folk blessed with common sense seems to be 13, or maybe 14 if the worst of the injuries have already happened. But 14 wins is an extraordinary season. The Patriots have won that many five times — ’07, of course, plus ’03, ’04, ’10, and ’16, which were all 14-win years.
The top 11 seasons in terms of wins in Patriots history have come in the Belichick/Brady era, and two others are tied for the 12th-best season, which is 11 wins. The Patriots never won more than 11 games in any season until they arrived.
It’s also worth noting that in every season from 2012-15, the Patriots won exactly 12 regular-season games. These 14-win years aren’t as common as it might seem right now, coming off of one.
I think they win 13 games, with losses coming at Denver, at Miami, and let’s say at home against the Falcons. You get the sense that one might mean a lot to Matt Ryan and friends, even if their vengeance can never really be had.
2. Who is the Patriots’ most underrated player?
Currently, based on expectations vs. what he will end up providing, I believe it is Mike Gillislee. A lot is made about the Patriots’ depth in the backfield, and finding playing time for Dion Lewis, James White, Rex Burkhead, and Gillislee is a pleasant dilemma. But someone is going to have to fill the short-yardage and red-zone void left by LeGarrette Blount, who plowed his way to 18 touchdowns last year.
Gillislee is a bruising runner, but also one who is adept in space; he led the NFL with 5.7 yards per carry last season. In 2015, he also averaged 5.7 yards a pop. Burkhead will get his carries and his catches, but Lewis is an injury risk, and White’s transcendent performance in the Super Bowl might have been the first time I saw him break a tackle in traffic since he’s been with the Patriots.
Gillislee is going to be a fan favorite the way Lewis was two years ago.
In terms of how the player will be viewed historically, though, I think it’s Dont’a Hightower. His career path reminds me a little bit of Willie McGinest’s: first-round pick, dealt with some injuries early, but ended up being a cornerstone with a knack for showing up in the biggest moments.
Hightower’s image among Patriots fans is only going to be enhanced as the memory of the Marshawn Lynch tackle and the strip-sack of Ryan become more and more savored through the years.
3. Is there anything significant we can take away from the “Do Your Job Part 2” documentary?
I guess I wouldn’t call this one significant, but it’s clear that anything narrated by Edward Norton going forward is going to sound like a DraftKings commercial. What, Matt Damon, Denis Leary, Chris Evans, Mark Wahlberg, Donnie Wahlberg, Mike O’Malley, and Ben Affleck weren’t available? Norton, born in Boston but raised in Maryland, was an odd, formal-voiced choice.
As far as actually significant things we learned, here’s the main one: It’s impressive how these documentaries practically double as highlight reels for Patriots assistant coaches.
In the first “Do Your Job,” we saw how the Patriots practiced Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl-saving route-jump of a Russell Wilson pass.
In this one, we got to see how the staff, including unsung player personnel director Dave Ziegler, identified Devonta Freeman as a weak link in pass blocking, leading to Hightower’s strip-sack and how Matt Patricia’s scouting was so thorough that he knew one official was likely to call holding on a certain play (he did, on a rush by Chris Long that proved enormous).
I don’t know how the Patriots stack up in terms of preparation compared with other staffs in the league, but I can’t believe there is another staff so adept at pinpointing and seizing upon an opponent’s weaknesses.
This also leaves one with the sense, probably deliberately, that the franchise would be in great hands with Josh McDaniels and Nick Caserio if Belichick ever hangs up the hoodie.
4. How far will they go?
With good health — a necessary if repetitive caveat — a seventh straight trip to the AFC Championship game seems like the minimum expectation. In fact, if the season ended in the conference finals, it would be a disappointment, which is just crazy given the context of how hard it is supposed to be to win consistently in the NFL. But it’s also the truth, an enticing reality that hopefully doesn’t sap Patriots fans’ perspective about how truly remarkable the last 17 years have been.
The Patriots are built to win now. If any rookies contribute, they will be either pleasant surprises or the beneficiaries of a decimated depth chart. This team should be deeper and faster than the one that pulled off a Super Bowl miracle that somehow managed to be the product of preparation and design in February.
Edelman’s absence will be felt, sure. Heck, perhaps something really unexpected will happen and Brady will actually show signs of aging. But there can be no modest expectations for this team, not now, not this year.
The 2017 Patriots are fully capable of winning a second straight Super Bowl and a third in four years, bookending their three-for-four from 2001-04.
Good health . . . well, you know. Let’s ditch that caveat now and just say it: The confetti will rain and the Patriots will reign come February in Minnesota. “Do Your Job Part 3” will be a doozy. I hope Pete Carroll is prominently involved.