We’re two weeks into the NFL season and the Patriots look head and shoulder pads above the rest of the field in the AFC. They’re the most complete team, with only the offensively inclined Kansas City Chiefs capable of mounting any real threat or resistance. It’s a two-horse race at best, and one of those horses happens to have the greatest jockey of all time in Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
It’s probably too early to look this far down the football season, but what else are we to do with the “competition” lined up for the Patriots the next five weeks? (More on that in a bit.) Should we really dissect a 43-0 demolition of the artists formerly known as the Miami Dolphins in a game Sunday that felt like 143-0. The chronicling of wayward wide receiver Antonio Brown’s activities in warm-ups was more compelling than the “contest” with the feckless Fins.
Get used to more of what we’ve seen from the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick wrecking ball thus far in eight quarters of obliteration of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dolphins, totaling an aggregate 76-3 score. Belichick’s team is brimming with talent and institutionally instilled excellence. Several other AFC outfits simply look like they’re trying to figure out how to tie their shoes or have been stripped of their quarterbacks and, thus, any chance of competing.
The true opponents for the Patriots are injuries, NFL suspensions, and the commissioner’s exempt list. Those are the obstacles that can derail their march to a fourth straight Super Bowl.
Strength of schedule is an oxymoron the next few weeks for the Patriots. Sunday marked Week 2 of the season and Weak 1 of a six-game stretch of opponents suitable for carving, served up on a silver platter.
The Weak 2 opponent is the New York Jets, who will be sans second-year quarterback Sam Darnold, out indefinitely with mononucleosis, when they arrive at Gillette Stadium on Sunday. Weak 3 brings a trip to Orchard Park, N.Y., to face the Buffalo Bills, Brady’s personal pro football plaything for nearly two decades. The Bills are off to a 2-0 start, but those wins were over the Jets and the New York Giants.
Weak 4 features a trip to Washington to face Case Keenum and the Redskins. Weak 5 is a Thursday night home game against the shambolic Giants, who could be starting rookie Daniel Jones at quarterback.
Weak 6 brings a Monday night rematch with the Jets at MetLife Stadium. Maybe Darnold will be back by then to see the Patriots clinch an 11th straight AFC East before Halloween.
These teams are not that good, and the Patriots look like a special team headed for a special season. As someone would say, it is what it is.
Right now, the magical Patrick Mahomes and his Chiefs, who put up a bevy of points but no wins against the Patriots in two thrillers last season, and, maybe, the Baltimore Ravens with dynamic dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson look like the only two AFC teams that pose a puncher’s chance against the Patriots.
Mobile quarterbacks mess with the precise order, organization, and communication of a Belichick defense. But I’m not even sure the Ravens are for real, considering they beat the worst team in the league this year, Miami, in Week 1, and the worst team in the league last season, the Arizona Cardinals, in Week 2. It just so happens that the Chiefs and Ravens meet this Sunday for early-season AFC runner-up bragging rights.
Here’s how formidable the Fort Foxborough football club appears: The most dominant unit on a team with Brady is actually the defense, which has scored two touchdowns this season without allowing a single one. In two games, opponents are 5 for 27 on third down against the Patriots. And what was supposed to be one of the team’s great areas of weakness, wide receiver, now looks like a strength following Brown’s debut Sunday (four catches for 56 yards and a score).
The Patriots can trot out Julian Edelman, Brown, Josh Gordon, and Brady favorite Phillip Dorsett. Remember when the talk of training camp was how rookie N’Keal Harry, the first receiver drafted by the Patriots in the first round in the Belichick era, was going to be relied upon to produce immediately? Harry is on injured reserve with an ankle injury, not eligible to return until after Week 8. He is an afterthought, and he might be relegated to a redshirt season if the Patriots receiving corps stays intact.
Of course, the embarrassment of riches at receiver is precarious, a reminder that most of the forces that can stymie the Patriots lie off the football field. The continued availability of Gordon and the brash and self-centered Brown is anything but guaranteed.
Gordon has been pulled off the field for substance-abuse-related suspensions six times by the NFL. Brown, the league’s most prolific pass-catcher over the last six seasons, exhausted the patience of two teams in less than six months with his antics and dramatics. He’s now facing a civil lawsuit that alleges he sexually assaulted his former trainer three times, including an allegation of rape in May 2018.
Brown’s accuser was slated to meet with the NFL on Monday. The possibility remains that Brown could be placed on the commissioner’s exempt list, barred from playing or practicing, while the NFL conducts its investigation.
Investigations, suspensions, injuries, self-inflicted behavioral issues, these are the true enemies of these Patriots.
That’s why it was a little curious that Belichick elected to keep Brady on the field, throwing the ball, with his team up, 37-0, in Sunday’s blowout. The message from Belichick was unmistakable: We need to play 60 minutes of our football regardless of the opponent’s level of play or lack thereof because at some point this season that’s what victory will require.
It’s a message he has emphasized over the years, but one he particularly stressed in 2007 when the Patriots were dismantling their opponents at will in similar fashion.
However, it felt as if Belichick was tempting fate against the Fins by leaving the 42-year-old Brady in the game with a pair of emergency tackles who need name tags in the huddle, Marshall Newhouse and Korey Cunningham. On the same Sunday, the Steelers lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury, and the New Orleans Saints saw quarterback Drew Brees suffer a thumb injury that is expected to sideline him for six weeks. The Jacksonville Jaguars already lost quarterback Nick Foles, MVP of Super Bowl LII against the Patriots, to a broken clavicle in Week 1.
Don’t invite intervention from the Football Gods, not with a team this good.
It feels like the Patriots are destined to play at Hard Rock Stadium, site of Super Bowl LIV, this season. Next time promises to be a lot more competitive. The next couple of weeks do not.