By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It goes without saying that the Patriots are a much better team when Julian Edelman is on the field and contributing. So when news broke Thursday that Edelman is facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy, it was instantly obvious that it was rather bad news for the Patriots.
Yes, it is true that the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl last year with Edelman sidelined due to injury. Yes, it’s true that a four-week absence could be spun as a positive for Edelman, who’s still recovering from a torn knee suffered last August in the preseason. But the fact is that the Patriots do not have an easy schedule whatsoever in the opening month of the season, which should really make Edelman’s absence sting.
In Week 1, the Patriots will host the Houston Texans. While the Patriots have absolutely owned the Texans in recent years, going 7-0 against Houston since 2012, you’ll remember that last year the Texans visited Gillette and nearly pulled off the upset victory with a rookie quarterback making his second career start. Houston led for almost the entirety of the fourth quarter and stretched it to a five-point lead with 2:24 remaining in the game. It required a Tom Brady-to-Brandin Cooks touchdown pass with 23 seconds left on the clock for the Patriots to secure the win.
Beating the Texans in 2018 won’t be easy, especially when you recall just how out of sorts the Patriots’ defense was in Week 1 and through all of September last season.
In Week 2, the Patriots face arguably their toughest test of the season when they head to Jacksonville for a rematch of the AFC Championship Game. Last year the Jaguars ranked second in the NFL in yards allowed, second in the NFL in points allowed, second in the NFL in interceptions, and second in the NFL in sacks. The Jaguars’ defense was the real deal, and it promises to be just as good, if not better, in 2018.
The Patriots were able to score 24 points on the Jaguars in that AFC title game, even without Edelman and after losing Rob Gronkowski to a concussion before halftime. But the Patriots’ top three receivers that day were Cooks, Danny Amendola, and Dion Lewis. That trio combined to account for 70 percent of the Patriots’ receiving yards that day. All three are gone. Finding a way to beat the Jaguars in their home stadium will not be at all easy for Tom Brady’s offense.
In Week 3, the Patriots will head on the road to face Matt Patricia’s Lions on national television. It’s hard to know exactly how good the Lions might be, as they’re coming off a 9-7 season, during which they went 4-4 at home. But one would figure that Patricia knows the Patriots pretty well, and he’ll have an idea of how Josh McDaniels may try to operate without Edelman. The Patriots should be the better team that night (Bill Belichick, after all, will know all of Patricia’s coaching tendencies as well), but a win on that Sunday night is far from a guarantee.
Then there is Week 4, when the Patriots return home to host the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots do tend to beat up on their divisional Floridian foes, but the last time we saw these two teams meet, it was the Dolphins who were laying a beatdown on the Patriots. In Week 14 on Monday Night Football last December, the Dolphins held the Patriots to just 248 total yards of offense. That was by far New England’s lowest total of the season (their second-lowest total was 330 yards in Week 17 vs. the Jets), though that was without Gronkowski, who was serving his one-game suspension at the time.
Nevertheless, the Patriots are always liable to drop at least one divisional game in the season. And as their Week 4 flop in 2016 the Buffalo Bills to end the Brady suspension showed, those losses don’t always have to make a whole lot of sense.
Ultimately, Edelman’s four-game suspension (provided he doesn’t win his appeal) most likely won’t kill the team’s chances of contending for a Super Bowl. As previously mentioned, four extra weeks to rehab a recovering knee is not the worst thing for a player who figures to be one of the most significant contributors in January. But with Amendola in Miami and a number of question marks across the receiver position, the Patriots are certainly at the risk of starting the season with a couple of losses in the opening month.
Obviously, starting the year 2-2 didn’t sink the Patriots last season. But with 2018 home games scheduled against the Chiefs and Packers and with trips scheduled to Pittsburgh and Tennessee, the 2018 Patriots seemingly have a bit of a more difficult schedule. Getting off to a better start, without Edelman, won’t be easy.