Patriots

This much we know: The Patriots are going to be a very good football team this season

Anyone who doesn’t believe that now is going to regret their error before September ends.

Matt Judon could make things difficult for opposing quarterbacks.


COMMENTARY

Maybe it’s the intriguing similarities to 2001. The defense is remodeled with adaptable veterans and high-end youngsters, while the offense features an assured young quarterback with the preternatural ability to master complexities and subtleties.

Maybe it’s that Bill Belichick, a coach who should have nothing left to prove after six Super Bowl victories, kind of does, what with Tom Brady seizing a 1-0 lead in the all-important Championships Won Apart From Each Other standings.

Maybe it’s just that we missed the NFL during the long offseason, we missed the Patriots being relevant last season, and this ridiculous make-you-wait-for-it two-week hiatus between the final preseason game and the opener has only enhanced the anticipation for the return of both.

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All I know for sure is this: The 2021 New England Patriots, barring the unforeseeable, are going to be a very good football team this season. And anyone who doesn’t believe that now is going to regret their error before September ends.

Where do we start? Offense or defense? Let’s go with the defense, since Belichick himself figures it’s better to kick than receive, almost always deferring and beginning the game on defense after winning the coin flip.

A season ago, the Patriots lacked both playmakers and quality depth on defense. No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore fell off from his Defensive Player of the Year performance in ‘19, but was still well above-average before a quadriceps injury ended his season in Week 15. J.C. Jackson was a ballhawk as the No. 2 corner, but not as effective when Gilmore was out. Adrian Phillips did an admirable Patrick Chung imitation with 109 tackles. Kyle Dugger flashed raw talent, and Lawrence Guy and Ja’Whaun Bentley were at least steady.

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Beyond that, there was an awful lot of Terez Hall, John Simon, and Byron Cowart, determined players but hardly difference-makers.

Yet that defense, flawed as it was, still managed to finish seventh-best in the NFL in points allowed (22.1 per game). And now there are massive talent upgrades all over the depth chart.

The most significant to come from outside the organization is Matthew Judon, a two-time Pro Bowl selection with the Ravens who played with the energy of the Tazmanian Devil in preseason. He has a chance to be all of the things Adalius Thomas was supposed to be when he was signed away from the Ravens 14 years ago.

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But the most significant addition is already familiar. It can’t be exaggerated how important it is to have Dont’a Hightower — who along with Devin McCourty is the brains of the defensive operation — back at linebacker after opting out last season. He is every bit as important to the second phase of the Patriots dynasty as Tedy Bruschi was to the first. Matt Ryan and Marshawn Lynch might even say he’s more important.

The Patriots defense is clearly going to benefit from the growth of some second-year players. Dugger is rangy and ferocious at safety, while linebacker Josh Uche was a downright menace to opposing quarterbacks during preseason and joint practices.

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That 2020 Patriots draft is going to look a lot better this year than it did a season ago. And so will this defense, which could well be one of the league’s five best, presuming Gilmore eventually returns in good form from the physically unable to perform list.

Of course, the defense could perform early in the season like some vicious amalgam of the Steelers’ Steel Curtain and the Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, and the national focus is still going to be on the offense. Understandably, too. That’s always the case when an interesting rookie quarterback shows up on the scene.

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Mac Jones impressed all observers in camp with his accuracy, poise, command of the offense, and mastery of the small things that add up to big things. He wasn’t handed the job over Cam Newton; he won it, and with a deep cadre of running backs, a dependable offensive line, and a pair of talented tight ends with complementary skill sets in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, he is set up to succeed.

Sure, there will be off-days and learning experiences — heck, Brady had seven games with fewer than 200 passing yards in ‘01 — but the Patriots aren’t counting on Jones to light up the Foxborough sky with majestic touchdown pass after majestic touchdown pass.

He just has to be reliable and keep the errors to a minimum. He has given every indication that he can do that. And I wouldn’t bet against him doing more than that. His veteran teammates seem genuinely all-in on him. We’d be foolish not to see it the same way.

This isn’t to suggest there won’t be a few potholes along the way. I do wonder if the loss of stalwart guard Joe Thuney to the Chiefs in free agency has been underestimated. McCourty, a cornerstone who is a sure thing to receive a red jacket someday, turned 34 in August and has to slow down one of these seasons.

And the Gilmore situation is concerning. This defense is very good right now. It will be that much better when he’s back and locking down the opponent’s best receiver. It would be a mistake to trade him with this defense built to win now.

So how much will they win? I’ve got them at 12-5 and edging the talented Bills in the AFC East. After the disjointed and lost 2020 season, the Patriots are back. It’s going to be awfully fun watching the rest of the NFL realize it.

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