By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — If we begin with the acceptance of the premise that winning any Super Bowl any year is a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself, then we can acknowledge that the practice of comparing such accomplishments is a bit of a dubious activity. We can also recognize that discussing an accomplishment that has yet to be achieved is beyond premature and borders on the edge of being a waste of time.
With the parameters now set, we should be able to agree on this: If Bill Belichick wins a Super Bowl with this Patriots team, it will be the greatest accomplishment of his Hall of Fame career.
I bring this up in the wake of the Patriots’ somewhat ugly 21-13 victory at home over the Chargers on Sunday for one reason and one reason alone: Despite numerous reasons to feel otherwise, optimism remains both in New England and in Vegas sportsbooks that the Patriots should represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII.
Around Boston, the loss of the irreplaceable Julian Edelman in August didn’t end the Super Bowl vision, and the loss of the likewise irreplaceable Dont’a Hightower still hasn’t soured many on the Super Bowl hopes. It will be more difficult, certainly, but the general discussion online, on the radio and television has not centered around the Patriots’ season being doomed. The job has simply been given an added degree of difficulty.
And in Vegas, the Patriots are still the favorite to win the Super Bowl. As of Oct. 24, the Patriots had 7-to-2 odds to win the Super Bowl, while the Steelers were at 9-to-2 and the Chiefs were at 8-to-1.
They may not be the runaway favorite like they were to start the year, when nobody was even close. But the fact that they’re still viewed as the best the NFL has to offer is a testament to the power of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
Realistically, without either one of them, the Patriots are a middle-of-the-pack team, just like so many of their competitors. With them, they’re 6-2, atop the AFC East and just a game behind the Eagles for the best record in the NFL.
Considering what the Patriots have lost in those two key contributors, that’s already an impressive accomplishment.
During the Super Bowl-winning season of 2016, Edelman accounted for 25 percent of the team’s receiving yards. Hightower was the do-everything linebacker who made the game-changing strip sack in Super Bowl LI. LeGarrette Blount accounted for 62 percent of the team’s rushing yards and 18 of 19 of the team’s rushing touchdowns. Logan Ryan led the team in tackles, both in the regular season and the postseason.
Add in the valuable if not always quantifiable contributions of veteran defensive end Chris Long and the steadiness of veteran tight end Martellus Bennett in place of the injured Gronkowski, and the fabric of last year’s team was clearly championship-caliber. They proved it by season’s end.
This year, of those six players, only Hightower took meaningful snaps — and he made it just five games before his season was ended.
Stephon Gilmore joined the Patriots as the replacement for Ryan and the theoretical long-term replacement for Malcolm Butler, but he’s been a disappointment, to say the least.
Cassius Marsh — in some ways the replacement for Long — consistently rushes too far up the field or gets enticed inside, opening up lanes for running backs and scrambling quarterbacks to make big plays. Brandin Cooks has been a welcome addition at receiver in terms of big plays, but there’s no way anyone can replace Edelman’s nose for the sticks to prevent the punt team from taking the field.
Veteran linebacker David Harris has seen an uptick in playing time after Hightower’s injury after barely playing at all for the first six games; nobody’s expecting him to be an impact player. Dwayne Allen has taken Bennett’s roster spot and — after averaging two receptions per game through his first five seasons — has yet to catch a pass. If Gronkowski goes down for any length of time, the Patriots don’t have the luxury of insurance in the form of a player like Bennett.
When you really take a step back and look at the roster, it’s not at all the makeup of a juggernaut. Yet, they remain where they always are, at the front of most people’s minds with regard to the Super Bowl.
And if Belichick is able to guide this year’s team to a Super Bowl victory, it would truly be a crowning achievement.
Consider the previous championships. Yes, the ’01 team was a 14-point underdog in Super Bowl XXXVI, but that defense had some studs who ranged from very good to borderline Hall of Famers in Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Ted Johnson and a young Richard Seymour.
In 2003, you had much of the same defense, but with Rodney Harrison upgrading the safety position for Milloy. In 2004, Corey Dillon helped make the offense dynamic.
And through all three of those years, the Patriots had the budding best quarterback of all time and the best clutch kicker in football history.
The 2014 roster was very good, with Darrelle Revis providing a much-needed boost to the secondary, but there’s no denying that was a down year across the NFL. The Seahawks were a worthy opponent, but Baltimore and Indianapolis on the road to the Super Bowl were not.
The 2016 roster has already been examined, and the comeback from 28-3 in the Super Bowl will always be the most historic accomplishment of any Patriots team.
But if you can imagine this year’s team making it all the way to Super Bowl LI and winning another Lombardi, it would be difficult to view it as anything but wizardry from the head coach.
In a rare moment of NFL honesty, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers lamented a missed opportunity for his team on Sunday. Rivers felt the Patriots aren’t quite as mighty as they once were.
“I don’t think this is the best Patriots team they’ve had in the last decade,” Rivers said. “I don’t think they would say that this is the best team they’ve been in a decade. They’re still really good.”
To win it all, they’ll need to manage a 40-year-old quarterback to remain at a championship level. That’s never before been done. Granted, Brady is a bit of a special creature, and the offense has more than enough above-average weapons to function at a high level, but the Patriots have already worked to limit the hits he was taking to start the year. Managing that element of the offense will remain a challenge all year.
They’ll need to win with the likes of Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts among the team’s leaders in tackles and snaps. They’re fine players in their own right, but they’re a far cry from McGinest, Bruschi and Johnson.
They’ll need to make up for the losses of Edelman, Bennett and (potentially) Malcolm Mitchell, a trio that caught 185 passes for 2,208 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago.
They’ll need to overcome a disastrous start from the defense, one that saw the Patriots sitting near the bottom of the league in nearly every important defensive category through six weeks.
And they may need to do something they haven’t done in a Super Bowl-winning season since 2004: win a playoff game on the road.
This is all not to necessarily speak ill of the current roster so much as it is a recognition that there will need to be an element of overachieving for the Patriots to fulfill what many consider to be their destiny. That’s a feeling likely influenced by the team’s ability to win it all last year without the force of Gronkowski, but there are even more voids that need to be filled this year.
There’s a long way to go, of course, and predictions in sports are often a fool’s endeavor. But with the Patriots sitting in a very good place during their Week 9 bye, and with the football world still believing in their chances, it’s a good time to look ahead and wonder how this season will play out.
And if, a little more than three months from now, Belichick hoists that Lombardi over his head once more, for the sixth time as head coach of the Patriots? It will be the grandest feat in his Hall of Fame career.