In just a span of seven months, we’ve seen Bill Belichick and company make some extraordinary moves in order to position the team to better compete in the AFC.
The Patriots are better positioned to dominate the AFC. They’ve got the quarterback, the defense, and the skill position players to run the tables. And that’s with a schedule loaded with every AFC playoff opponent from a year prior.
Consider that with every major transaction that the team has made since February, the Patriots have added an element to their roster that has only bolstered the team’s chances of besting the Denver Broncos — the Patriots’ largest threat to a Super Bowl berth — and given them the tools to possibly fend off Super Bowl contenders in the NFC.
It started with the signings of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. The Patriots had to address their porous passing defense (ranked 18th overall in 2013 thanks mostly to Aqib Talib, 29th in 2012 without Talib, and 31st in 2011). After losing Talib in free agency to the Denver Broncos, the Patriots made the biggest splash in the NFL by scooping up Revis and signing Browner.
The extremely talented Revis, a three-time first-team all-pro, coupled with Browner, a large and physical presence, are a dramatic upgrade over the likes of Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and Logan Ryan, all of whom will still be contributing. But specifically, the team had to address the four horseman that the Broncos utilize in the Peyton Manning led offense in Denver — Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, and now Emmanuel Sanders. Revis and Browner are the counter to Sanders and Thomas. It may not be a perfect matchup in the Patriots’ favor, but it gives the team an opportunity to compete.
Check that off your list.
But as the offseason went along, and the draft approached, it was obvious the Patriots had to address other pressing needs where sore spots emerged in 2013. Injuries had depleted the team’s roster, particularly on defense. Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo all missed extensive time. The defensive scheme had to be re-thought, and the utilization of the talent in place needed re-thinking as well. The Patriots’ linebackers group was able to manage without Mayo, thanks to veterans Brandon Spikes and then second-year pro Dont’a Hightower. Jamie Collins, then a rookie, came into his own as the season started winding down. But the Patriots rarely used all three linebackers at the same time, instead utilizing subsets to deal with a pass happy league. So it’s no surprise that the team, at one point or another, decided to convert to a 3-4 defense, something that has been on display in training camp and in the preseason. (We’re positive they’ll utilize other defensive schemes, but the 3-4 appears to be the base.)
With a schematic change imminent and an obvious need for depth on the line, the Patriots were able to identify Florida’s Dominique Easley as a 3-4 defensive end that should only help strengthen the team’s pass rush alongside Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. (Gotta keep Manning on his toes, after all.)
The third most significant alteration to the makeup of the Patriots roster actually started to take shape before the draft when the team signed Brandon LaFell. He’s considered a large bodied receiver that can be a red zone threat, which will only help for a team that has had to deal without Rob Gronkowski for extended periods of time. But this movement to obtain a red zone threat, and possibly another look to the team’s offensive weaponry, continued late into August with the trade of Logan Mankins for tight end and wide receiver combo Tim Wright. Wright, simply, is the final piece in a puzzle board’s worth of players that will help confuse opponents in the team’s Erhardt-Perkins passing offense.
Add ‘em up. Between Gronkowski, Wright, Lafell, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and Kenbrell Thompkins, the Patriots have seven receiving threats that can move around enough in the offense to drive defensive coordinators nuts. Next thing you know, running backs Shane Vereen and James White will absolutely blow their minds when they start motioning out of the back field. The possibilities are endless.
Then consider this: second-year players Dobson and Thompkins, along with veteran Amendola, all have another year in this offense while Gronk is allegedly healthy. It's almost as if last season’s third ranked offense is getting a shot of adrenaline right in Josh McDaniels’ brain.
Now couple the Patriots’ transactions with the growth of the overall team, including namesake players like Edelman, Chandler Jones and Devin McCourty, and there’s a real sense that this group of players, if they remain relatively healthy, can go through the regular season schedule with ease. Just hand them the AFC East for the sixth straight year already. Add in the playoff bye, too, for good measure.
Sure, there are questions about the offensive line sans Mankins, whether Stevan Ridley will hold onto the ball in crunch time, and whether or not the Patriots will actually see a full season out of Gronk. But the positives continue to outweigh the negatives from these unknown factors.
Of course, this championship run, just like every other since 2005, will be determined by how the Patriots handle adversity, their health, and whether their opponents will be ready for the seemingly endless possibilities they present on offense.
But given the bye, and asked to compete on even ground with the Broncos (already diminished by the loss of Welker for four games, Eric Decker’s departure, and the loss of Knowshon Moreno) thanks to some fantastic additions, the Patriots have a good chance of advancing to Super Bowl XLIX.
There’s only two possible outcomes from there.