By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Oh, baby. Football season is here.

No, it’s not a normal one, but the league is indeed starting, and it all will indeed count in the history books. While the empty stadiums (and mostly empty stadiums) and COVID restrictions and roster rules and everything else that’s wacky and wild in 2020 will make things feel a bit strange, the reality is that the commissioner will be handing over the Lombardi Trophy in February.

As such, it’s a real season, with real stakes. And the real games begin now.

It’s an intriguing season for roughly seven million reasons, but among the biggest is whether or not the Patriots can continue their run of dominance of the AFC East and success overall as a perennial Super Bowl contender.

Tom Brady is gone, as are some key cogs on defense — Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung opted out, while Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton departed via free agency — so it’s fair to wonder if the Patriots are in for yet another double-digit win season and an 12th straight AFC East crown? Will the playoff streak extend to a 12th straight year? Or will they miss the postseason for just the third time since 2001?

Well, we’ll find out in the coming months. For now, here’s what the experrrrttts around the internet are saying about the Patriots, in the form of POWER RANKINGS.

CBS Sports’ Pete Prisco
Patriots’ Rank: 20th

What are the Patriots doing down here so low? Take a look at the roster. Even with Cam Newton at quarterback, this season will challenge Bill Belichick like none other with the Pats.

The Ringer‘s Danny Kelly
Patriots’ Rank: 15th

The team’s top-tier defense certainly provides a comfortable floor for the team to compete this year, but it’s unlikely that unit reaches the heights we saw last season. New England could struggle to create takeaways at the same rate it did last year (when that unit notched 36 total takeaways, including a league-high 25 interceptions), and the Patriots will face a tougher schedule (ninth hardest) this season than they did last year (easiest). Of course, Cam Newton is the obvious X factor for New England’s prospects this year. Newton won’t benefit from being surrounded by a surplus of talented playmakers at the skill positions, but he really never has in his career. I won’t be surprised if Newton plays well, though, and I expect the Patriots to shoot up this list as the year goes on.

Isn’t the point of a power ranker to account for the future? If you think a team will shoot up the list, shouldn’t they be up on the list? I don’t know. I’m no power ranker. Back to the action!

NFL.com‘s Dan Hanzus
Patriots’ Rank: 15th

It’s impossible to know if Newton is close to the same guy who won MVP with the Panthers a half decade ago, but he really is the perfect bridge to whatever comes next in New England. One day — whether it’s next year or five years from now — the Patriots will invest a premium draft pick in a young quarterback. Newton, even if things don’t work out in Foxborough, provides a buffer between Tom Brady and the next boy who would be king.

ESPN‘s Football Power Index
Patriots’ Rank: 9th

The former Panther, who wears No. 1, said he doesn’t feel like the team’s starter, and that he’s not where he wants to be mentally at the line of scrimmage at times, but his acclimation holds the key to the offense. Add on that Newton was named one of the Patriots’ eight captains last week, marking a quick rise after he officially signed with the team July 8.

Fox News’ Daniel Canova (Fox News does NFL power rankings??)
Patriots’ Rank: 16th

The Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era is officially over after 20 seasons together. In the offseason, the Patriots signed free agent quarterback Cam Newton to be the successor for the future Hall of Famer. Experts are already burying the Patriots, but don’t count them out so fast.

Thanks, Fox News! Appreciate the insight.

Pro Football Network‘s Matt Williamson
Patriots’ Rank: 16th

The Patriots defense was excellent last year, but one (of many) ways this side of the ball helped Tom Brady’s offense was giving New England the league’s best average starting field position.

Pro Football Talk‘s Mike Florio
Patriots’ Rank: 4th

Whoa! Fourth?

The chaos and uncertainty and unpredictability of 2020 plays right into New England’s hands. Getting a highly motivated and by all appearances extremely healthy Cam Newton helps, too.

Fun point! But fourth?? Bold.

Sports Illustrated‘s MMQB Staff
Patriots’ Rank: 15th

Obviously we are all focused on how Cam Newton replaces Tom Brady, but the number of defensive players who opted out of New England this season could be just as a big a story.

So true, MMQB staff. So true.

Walter Football
Patriots’ Rank: 16th

I became way more bullish on the Patriots when they signed Cam Newton, but all of their opt-outs could prevent them from winning the AFC East. The Marcus Cannon and Dont’a Hightower opt-outs were especially painful.

Walter Football has spoken.

The Sporting News‘ Vinnie Iyer
Patriots’ Rank: 13th

The Patriots are settling on Cam Newton to replace Brady in the short term, but they have plenty of other offensive issues to iron out as they try to tap into Newton’s MVP upside. Defensively, they have lost a lot of pass rush but gained more youth and versatility for Bill Belichick. Belichick can do his best coaching job yet if he gets these particular Patriots to the playoffs. 

The Athletic‘s Sheil Kapadia
Patriots’ Rank: 16th

Hearing Belichick gush over Newton in recent weeks has me scared I’m going to get crushed by Old Takes Exposed after the Patriots win 11 games. My issue is it won’t be enough for Newton to operate within the offense. He’ll need to carry the offense on his back because they’re just not that talented. The secondary should still be good, but New England has a bunch of question marks in its front seven. Belichick will give them a chance every week, but it’s hard to see them winning many one-on-one matchups.

Bleacher Report‘s Staff
Patriots’ Rank: 19th

No team has a bigger disparity of opinion among our analysts than the New England Patriots.

If the Patriots can somehow overcome all of those losses and win the division again, it will likely be the best coaching job of Bill Belichick’s career. But it’s equally possible (if not more so) that New England’s days of dominance in the AFC are done.

Yahoo Sports‘ Frank Schwab
Patriots’ Rank: 12th

The notion that Bill Belichick and Cam Newton couldn’t get along was always misplaced. Belichick wants players who are serious about football, and Newton is that. Newton is the starter, already a captain, and if he doesn’t work out in New England it’s not going to be because he didn’t get along with the coach.

USA Today‘s Nate Davis
Patriots’ Rank: 17th

Bill Belichick is already thriving without Tom Brady – perhaps you’ve seen the Subway ads? Now … can we get some banana peppers with that defense?

OVERALL
Patriots’ Average Rank: 14.5

If I may be quite frank … this was a cowardly showing by so many power rankers.

Clearly, a lot of them anticipate a flop of a season out of the Patriots. (Make no mistake: Being the 15th-best team in football is a flop as far as Patriots seasons go.) Yet they remain ever-so-worried that Bill Belichick and all of his coaching mastery will make fools of them, so they’re going with a safer pick in the mid-teens juuuuuuust in case the Patriots end up looking like, well, THE PATRIOTS™. Preseason power rankings are no place for tepidity. Shame on you, power rankers. Shame. On. You.

I commend Mike Florio and Pete Prisco for at least being bold, and their rankings — fourth and 20th, respectively — are perfectly indicative of the complete unknown that is the 2020 Patriots season. They might be worse than we’ve seen them in a long time. They might win the damn Super Bowl.

Who knows. But we can say with a fair amount of certainty that they will not under any circumstance be boring.

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