The Patriots have had about as interesting of an offseason as a defending Super Bowl champion can have, with the Deflategate controversy dominated the last six months — and it’s still not completely settled, with QB Tom Brady still going through his appeal of his four-game suspension. If the suspension is upheld, Brady will play his first game in Week 6 — the Patriots have their bye in Week 4 — in a rematch of the AFC Championship game against the Colts.
Although Brady had a slow start this season, he ended up with a respectable 4,109 passing yards and 33 touchdowns — which would be good by most quarterbacks’ standards, but those were his worst stats since 2010. QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who is likely to start any games Brady misses due to his suspension, saw limited playing time in his rookie season. He completed 19 of 27 passes for 182 yards and one touchdown. TE Rob Gronkowski led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, with 1,124 and 12, respectively. WR Julian Edelman caught the most passes on the team — 92 — with 972 receiving yards and four touchdowns. No running back really stood out last season, with RB Jonas Gray gaining the most rushing yards, 412, despite starting just three games; he also had five rushing touchdowns. The Patriots had a strong defense in 2014, finishing eighth in the league.
With Brady potentially missing four games if his suspension is upheld, Garoppolo will have to perform for the first quarter of the season to have the team competitive in the division for when Brady returns to the lineup. He’ll have a tough time with the limited number of snaps he has taken in the league, although he had good numbers in college at Eastern Illinois. Having Gronkowski, and his athletic ability, to throw to should make things easier for Garoppolo. The team signed veteran WR Reggie Wayne earlier this week, offering a veteran presence who can provide leadership for the receiving core.
The first four games on the Patriots’ schedule are going to be key for the team so what teams await them in the first quarter of the season? They start at home with their opening night game against the Steelers — who will be without starting RB Le’Veon Bell, who will be serving a suspension — followed by a road game at the Bills, home game against the Jaguars and a road game at the Cowboys in Week 5 following the aforementioned Week 4 bye. If Brady misses those four games, I think the Patriots will go 2-2 in that stretch, beating the Bills and Jags. The Colts then await in a Week 6 game on the road in primetime. Week 12 sees the Patriots battle the Broncos in Denver in another primetime game. The Patriots finish their season with a road game at the Dolphins. If Brady misses the first four games, I think this is an 11- or 12-win team; if he misses fewer than four games, it may get the team an extra win. Either way, I think the Patriots are still the best team in the division and will likely win it once again — although it should be more competitive than it has been in recent years as the Dolphins and Bills have improved their rosters during the offseason.