FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — One of these seasons, the New England Patriots won’t cruise through the AFC East to an easy division title and position themselves, more often than not, for a Super Bowl run.
One of these seasons, 40-something quarterback Tom Brady will begin showing his age and stop putting up MVP-caliber numbers. His lack of options at receiver will cause the offense to stall, the defection of another coordinator will fatally weaken the defense, and coach Bill Belichick’s cold-blooded approach to his roster will backfire.
That is sure to happen, one of these seasons.
There’s just no indication that it will be 2018.
When the defending AFC champions return to the field in pursuit of their sixth NFL title, there are no credible threats in the division (and only one in the conference: a Pittsburgh Steelers team that hasn’t outlasted them in the postseason since 2010 or beaten them in the playoffs since 1997).
So while the Patriots appear to be vulnerable in several areas — tension between Brady and Belichick could be the biggest threat to the dynasty — there still doesn’t seem to be anybody ready to knock them off the postseason podium.
Here are some things to look for from the Patriots this season:
Brady was 40 when he won his third NFL MVP last year, leading the league in yards passing and leading the Patriots to the Super Bowl for the eighth time. In the game, he threw for a record 505 yards and brought New England back from a 10-point, third-quarter deficit to take a 33-32 lead with nine minutes left.
That’s a player who is at the top of the mountain, not over the hill.
But Brady was unable to muster another comeback after the Eagles retook the lead, and the lingering image of the game was Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles catching a touchdown pass while Brady let the ball thrown his way bounce off his hands.
It was the third Super Bowl loss for New England in the Brady-Belichick era.
So, how have they bounced back from previous big game losses?
In 2008, after a loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl spoiled New England’s hopes for a perfect and unprecedented 19-0 season, Brady was injured in Week 1 and the Patriots went 11-5 under backup Matt Cassel but did not make the playoffs based on a tiebreaker.
In 2012, after another loss to Eli Manning and the Giants, New England went 12-4 but lost in the AFC title game to the Baltimore Ravens.
With the loss of Brandin Cooks (65 catches) and Danny Amendola (61), the Patriots are down their top two wide receivers from last year. Throw in Julian Edelman, who caught 98 passes in 2016 but was injured last year and is suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancers.
Until Edelman is eligible to return for the Oct. 4 game against Indianapolis, Brady’s top targets are tight end Rob Gronkowski (69 catches), running back James White (56), and wideout Chris Hogan, who had 34 catches in nine games. Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt and Eric Decker were all brought in but didn’t work out.
The decision to bench Malcolm Butler, the hero of the 2014 championship, in this year’s Super Bowl not only cost him a reliable member of the secondary, it also raised doubts about Belichick’s judgment in New England — new territory for a team whose unofficial motto had been “In Bill We Trust.”
Belichick has also clashed with owner Robert Kraft about the succession plan at quarterback: The coach was reportedly ready to move on from Brady to backup Jimmy Garoppolo, and when Kraft took sides with the player he treats like a son, Belichick gave Jimmy G. to San Francisco for the pittance of a second-round pick.
Belichick has also struggled to establish boundaries for Brady’s fitness guru, Alex Guerrero, banning him from the sidelines and the team plane for a time. Guerrero was back in both places during preseason Week 3.
Calling the shots
Longtime defensive coordinator Matt Patricia left to take over as head coach of the Detroit Lions, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels left for — and then backed out of — the top job in Indianapolis. Belichick did not replace Patricia, but linebackers coach Brian Flores will call the plays on defense.
Coaching churn is one thing the Patriots are used to, though. Charlie Weis, Bill O’Brien, Eric Mangini, McDaniels and Romeo Crennel are among those who earned promotions after serving on Belichick’s staff, and he replaced all of them without difficulty.