BOSTON (CBS) — To state the obvious, this has been and will continue to be an unusual preseason for the New England Patriots. The coronavirus pandemic has changed how the team can prepare for the upcoming season. Eight players have opted to sit out the season. And Tom Brady is not the presumptive starting quarterback. Cam Newton is.

Those are the highlights. There’s plenty more.

But for all that’s changed, one thing is still the same. As WBZ-TV’s Levan Reid points out, “before the season started, if there was never a pandemic and we were just going our regular way, you would have thought the Pats would be behind the Chiefs and the Ravens, with Tom Brady. Without Tom Brady, they’re behind the Chiefs and the Ravens.”

Their standing in the AFC comes with a little added pressure. As Reid stresses, “this is Boston. They don’t like losers, as you can imagine. They’re used to winning. Tom Brady leaving didn’t change the bar.”

The task of leading the Patriots on the field now falls to former Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Of course, Newton is no stranger to Super Bowls himself, having guided the Panthers to Super Bowl 50 during his 2015 NFL MVP season. His postseason record doesn’t measure up to Brady’s (no one’s does). But his presence presents new challenges to opposing defenses.

“On third down, for 20 years, the defense pretty much knew that Tom Brady wasn’t going to run. Now, the playbook is opened a little bit more.” In the eight seasons Newton has played at least 14 games, he’s rushed for 500 yards in all but two of them. He’s averaged 5.1 yards per rushing attempt over his career. Brady has 1,037 rushing yard for his entire career.”

The changes extend far beyond the quarterback position. Eight Patriots opted out of the season due to coronavirus concerns. “It will affect the linebacking core. Once they lost Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy to free agency, and then they lose Dont’a Hightower because of the opt out. As an older team, many of us thought they were going to opt out a lot of players anyway, and as a team that has won so many championships.”

That veteran leadership, not to mention the coaching of Bill Belichick, will be key as the team ramps up during most unusual offseason in recent memory. “The Pats have not even put on pads yet. They put on pads on the 17th. And Belichick was very adamant about saying [that] I’ve got to get these guys up to the conditioning level that I’m used to having them. We didn’t have any OTAs, we didn’t have any mini-camp.”

To that end, the Patriots have taken steps to address preseason preparation in the time of coronavirus. “They brought in a guy named Jedd Fisch, who has a college coaching background, and Belichick knew him from being at the University of Miami and different places. Because Belichick is not used to getting a team ramped up without any preseason games. Where in college, that’s basically what you do. He brought in a guy with a little bit of experience to do that.”

The unusual preseason affects every team. And the goal, in New England and across the NFL, is still to deliver on the field come September. The Patriots remain the class of the AFC East. But the Bills would like to change that.

“As my man Ric Flair would say, ‘to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.’ And the Patriots have been the man in the AFC East for the longest period of time,” said Reid.

“The Patriots have a great coach. We know that. The coach will get them ready, and the players believe in the coach. And that’s what’s been going on for a whole bunch of years. That will continue right now. If the players believe that they’re put in the best position to win, then they’ll go out there and play in that situation,” he added. “And win or lose, they’ll feel comfortable with what they’re doing.”

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