By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s something to be said about unpredictability. It often creates situations that are exceptionally captivating, rendering witnesses unable to look away. When you don’t know what will happen next, you’ve simply got to keep your eyes locked in, so that you may see the resolution.
And when it comes to the New England Patriots, most years, unpredictability is an absent element. That’s not a complaint, of course. Witnessing a team maintain unparalleled dominance in a league built to prevent just that has been nothing short of remarkable. When you lay it all out — all the 14-2 seasons, the 16-0 season, and those “disappointing” 12-4 campaigns — it’s simply staggering.
Surely, if you’re the Patriots, you’d like to continue that run of excellence. But the feeling as the 2018 preseason comes to an end is that this year more than most recent years, some questions are still left unanswered.
Now, that’s not to say that the national media and football fans at large are forecasting a precipitous decline from Bill Belichick’s team. You’d really have to work hard in order to find a set of preseason predictions that has any other team winning the AFC East. Most prognosticators will pencil in 11 or 12 wins for the Patriots, seemingly out of habit.
No, the bandwagon is not at all empty. But for the first time in a long time, you really don’t know. The most comparable season would of course be 2008, when Tom Brady went down with a knee injury in the opening minutes of the season opener. From that point forward, nobody knew what to expect on a weekly basis from the team that had just gone 16-0 and came within a miracle catch of completing a 19-0 perfect season. It was, in a beautiful sports sense, pandemonium. They’d get blown out on national TV in San Diego one week, only to blow out Denver on Monday night the following week. Their playoff fate was not known until 7 p.m. on the Sunday of Week 17. It didn’t end how most Patriots fans would have liked, but every single week presented a new set of unpredictable factors. While not ideal for the Patriots, it was a thoroughly fascinating season.
While the 41-year-old Brady is expected to suit up for all 16 games this year, it’s not at all difficult to pick out quite a few games on the Patriots’ schedule that actually look like they could be losses. To wit …
WEEK 1: Vs. Houston
Now, past results don’t mean much for future predictions. But the Houston Texans did ride into Foxboro last September, and Deshaun Watson did throw for 301 yards with two touchdowns (and two picks) while rushing for another 41 yards, and the Texans did stretch a two-point lead to a five-point lead with 2:28 left to play in the fourth quarter, and Brandin Cooks did sort of bobble the football as he fell out of bounds with the game-winning touchdown.
The Patriots over the years have used the Texans as a punching bag. But this was a legitimate contest — one that required arguably the single greatest performance of Tom Brady’s career for the Patriots to win. This year, coming off an unconvincing performance in the third preseason game, and factoring in the Patriots’ occasional slow starts to seasons, this year’s season opener carries with it some real intrigue.
WEEK 2: at Jacksonville
The Super Bowl — and the Malcolm Butler benching, the defensive catastrophe, the Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski’s performance that came with it — tends to be remembered most when thinking about the Patriots’ 2017 postseason run. Overshadowed in that, though, would be the AFC Championship Game.
That was a game that, if Myles Jack had not been ruled down after recovering Dion Lewis’ fourth-quarter fumble, would have been won by the Jaguars. The Jacksonville Jaguars. And Blake Bortles. In Foxboro.
It was a game which the Jaguars led by 10 points in the fourth quarter. It was a game in which the Patriots needed Danny Amendola to catch five passes for 57 yards and two touchdowns (plus a 20-yard punt return) in a span of eight minutes. (Amendola caught two touchdowns during the entire regular season, by the way.)
That was very much a loseable game for the Patriots. Now they’ll switch venues, and the Patriots won’t have Amendola, nor will they have Julian Edelman to make up the difference against a defense that last year ranked second in yards allowed, second in points allowed, second in interceptions and second in sacks. Not an easy week for the Patriots. Not at all.
WEEK 3: at Detroit (Sunday Night Football)
It may not jump out as a particularly harrowing challenge. The Lions are coming off a 9-7 campaign, and they’re also the Lions. The Lions haven’t beaten the Patriots since 2000. They inspire no fear in Foxboro, and rightfully so.
But, given the challenge of the first two weeks, and given that head coach Matt Patricia might know a few insightful strategies to attack a Patriots offense that is playing without Edelman, this prime-time road game should not be considered a cinch by any means.
WEEK 4: vs. Miami
Again, not a fearful opponent. But don’t forget this: The Patriots got their butts absolutely whooped the last time they played Miami. On a Monday night in early December, playing without a suspended Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots trailed the Dolphins by 17 points entering the fourth quarter. Brady had his worst game of the season, throwing two picks in a game for the only time all year, taking two sacks, and only throwing a touchdown on a short pass to James White in the flat.
Worse yet, the Patriots allowed a moderately interested Jay Cutler to slice them up, to the tune of 263 yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
Do the tables turn with the game in Foxboro, with Ryan Tannehill replacing Cutler, and with Ndamukong Suh on the other side of the country? Probably, yes. But let’s not forget the most recent meeting when we’re preparing for this one.
WEEK 6: vs. Kansas City (Sunday Night Football)
Nobody needs a reminder of what the Chiefs did last year when they visited Gillette. Andy Reid’s team took a banner celebration and turned it into a dismantling of the Patriots’ defense, exposing flaws that reared their ugly head five months later in Minneapolis.
Now substitute Alex Smith with a quarterback who can actually throw a deep ball? We’ve got ourselves some intrigue.
WEEK 9: vs. Green Bay (Sunday Night Football)
Provided Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady both stay healthy, we’ll bear witness to just the second-ever Brady-Rodgers matchup. Considering they’re the best in the business, that’s a bit of a sin. (As a second-year backup, Rodgers did play for the second half in 2006, after Brett Favre exited due to injury.)
The Packers, obviously, have some questions of their own to sort out in the coming weeks and months. But given the way the Patriots’ defense can look at times against the aforementioned Smith and Cutler or, say, Nick Foles — well, a visit from Aaron Rodgers is a daunting prospect.
WEEK 10: at Tennessee
At this point in time, the Titans look to arguably be the most improved team in the AFC. How they live up to that billing, we shall see. But the team that visited Foxboro and acquitted itself with moderate decency last January (the Titans led 7-0 after the first quarter) has no doubt already circled this one on the calendar.
That’s in part due to some of the obvious Patriots connections — Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis wouldn’t mind saying hello to their former boss by delivering a victory for the Titans, and first-year head coach Mike Vrabel might like beating the coach who helped turn him into an All-Pro. But beyond that, the Patriots have been the class of the AFC for decades. The Titans want very badly to climb that mountain, and they’ll be using this midseason matchup as the ultimate test to see if they can measure up.
WEEK 13: vs. Minnesota
With the Patriots choosing to not make any marquee additions on the defensive side of the football (outside of Adrian Clayborn, technically), one would figure that the Brady-led offense is going to have to win a lot of games for this year’s team. So the prospect of facing a real, elite defense does not figure to favor the Patriots very much.
The Vikings, of course, boasted the NFL’s best defense last year, both in terms of points and yards allowed. With an upgrade at quarterback from Case Keenum to Kirk Cousins, they figure to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2018. (They’ll also have plenty to commiserate with when they visit Foxboro, with regard to getting torn apart in a playoff game by Nick Foles.)
Like the Lions, the Vikings haven’t beaten the Patriots since 2000, when Bill Clinton was still in office. It’s been a while. The Patriots have won their last three meetings with Minnesota by an average of 19 points. The fear my not be there. But this is a tough one.
WEEK 14: at Miami
Some things defy logic. For the Belichick/Brady-era Patriots, it’s playing in Miami. It’s just a bad mix.
Despite all of the Patriots’ success (and despite the lack of Miami’s success), New England is just 8-10 in Miami since the 2000 season. In the eight seasons that the Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl, they’ve gone just 4-4 in Miami.
Is there a logical explanation for it? Of course not. But it’s very much real.
WEEK 15: at Pittsburgh
Make no mistake about the clarity of this: Jesse James didn’t catch the football. But he should have. And with that catch, the Steelers should have won the game, and they should have earned the home-field advantage that came with it.
Now, you know — ifs/buts/candy/nuts — that didn’t really matter. The Steelers lost at home to the Jaguars in the divisional round, so Pittsburgh can’t feel too sore about that whole fiasco. But, as it relates to this game, last year’s contest should be looked at as an indicator of how small the margin of victory and error can be whenever two conference powerhouses meet late in a season.
This game will take place months from now, so it’s hard to properly analyze it in late August. But knowing what we know, this just may feature the AFC’s two best teams once again squaring off in a pre-playoff postseason-type of game. It takes a lot to win ’em.
WEEK 17: vs. New York Jets
Just kidding. The Jets stink. Ha ha ha ha.
Anyway, you get the idea. That right there is a look at 10 out of 16 games that figure to be major challenges for the 2018 Patriots. Whenever Belichick and Brady are involved, there’s always a chance that things remain the same, that no matter which other players filter in and out, New England will find a way to win 12 games, waltz away with the AFC East, and earn at the very least a trip to the AFC Championship Game.
But given so many of the uncertainties — whether it’s the lack of linebacker depth, or the receiver concerns, the always-present Gronkowski injury threat, fears of signs of aging from Brady, general worries about the defense, etc., etc., etc. — it’s not at all difficult to foresee a season that will present significant challenges to the Patriots.
That’s all thanks to the unpredictability. You can sit here, right now, and say you know how this season will play out. But that would be a lie.
That may not be the best news if you’re someone whose happiness depends on the success of the local football team. But from an entertainment standpoint, this figures to be one of the more exciting seasons in recent memory.