Looking to avoid finishing last in a loaded AFC East

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

It’s strange to check the odds to win the AFC East at BetMGM.

The Buffalo Bills are favored, and the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins are not far behind. Then way behind those three teams comes the New England Patriots. It’s not weird that the Patriots would be, in essence, favored to finish last in the division. That will be the common pick. It’s just weird to see the rest of the AFC East so far ahead of the Patriots, given the recent history in the division.

The Patriots dominated the division for two decades. They won the AFC East 17 of 19 years, including 11 in a row. It’s one of the most impressive streaks in NFL history. New England hasn’t finished last in its division since 2000, Bill Belichick’s first season with the team. And now the odds say the Patriots are looking up at all three division foes that they bullied for so many seasons.

It wasn’t too long ago that the Patriots ruled the NFL, but it seems like it. Since the Tom Brady split after the 2019 season, the Patriots have settled into mediocrity. They have been in playoff contention into December in all three post-Brady seasons, and were alive in Week 18 last season. But they have made the playoffs only once in that stretch and were blown out in their first playoff game two seasons ago. The Patriots are 25-25 since Brady left, and that seems right.

It’s a boring franchise. They’re not good enough to compete for a title in an AFC East that suddenly got a lot better. Their roster doesn’t have enough blue-chip players. But Belichick is too good to let the Patriots become one of those AFC East teams that was at the bottom of the barrel during the Patriots’ dynasty. They’ll be a tough out all season, especially with a strong defense, but nowhere near Super Bowl contention. In three years they went from the epicenter of the NFL to being one of the league’s most unremarkable teams.

If there is hope for the Patriots to be something more than middle of the road, it’s a change on offense. It’s rare the entire world is right and Belichick is wrong on a football matter, but Belichick seemed to be the only sane football observer who thought his plan at offensive coordinator last season was a good idea. Having failed head coaches Matt Patricia (whose experience was on defense) and Joe Judge run the offense went as poorly as everyone expected. The Patriots offense was mostly a mess. This offseason the team hired Bill O’Brien, who you probably don’t want orchestrating a DeAndre Hopkins trade but has a good track record as an offensive coordinator.

“Bill’s familiar with what he’s doing, so it feels good,” Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne said of O’Brien, via CBS Boston. “You can tell he knows what he’s doing in all areas of the offense — receiver, lineman, running back. He knows offense a lot, so it feels good.”

The unspoken part of Bourne’s comment is probably that last year’s offensive staff wasn’t familiar with what it was doing, but everyone knew that already. Maybe the coaching upgrade will fix a lot of what was wrong with the Patriots.

Bill Belichick hasn't won a playoff game since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick hasn’t won a playoff game since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

It certainly can’t hurt Mac Jones. Jones had a good rookie season, then last year people were clamoring for fourth-round rookie Bailey Zappe. Jones’ antics seemed to turn many people off. There were reports that the Patriots were willing to trade Jones. But Jones remains, and perhaps we’ll see him look more like his promising rookie self than whatever last season was.

The defense will likely be good again. The offense can’t help but be improved. The Patriots won’t be bad. But they probably won’t be good either. And that’s the problem for the post-Brady Pats.

Offseason grade

At receiver, the Patriots signed JuJu Smith-Schuster but lost Jakobi Meyers, and that’s mostly a wash. Calvin Anderson and Riley Reiff were low-cost free-agent additions to the offensive line. Signing Mike Gesicki, hoping to recapture what he did for the Miami Dolphins before he was a misfit in Mike McDaniels’ offense last season, could be a shrewd move. They retained cornerback Jonathan Jones and safety Jabrill Peppers, which helps, especially with immensely valuable veteran safety Devin McCourty retiring. The draft was fine, with value picks on cornerback Christian Gonzalez in the first round and edge defender Keion White in the second. New England also became the first team since the 2000 Raiders to take a kicker and punter in the same draft. The Patriots’ offseason was much like the Patriots as a whole: It was decent.

Grade: C

Quarterback report

It seemed like Mac Jones might have lost his job in a Week 7 Monday night loss to the Chicago Bears. The two previous weeks, Bailey Zappe played pretty well in place of an injured Jones and the Patriots went 2-0. Jones came back against the Bears and was awful. He was 3-of-6 for 13 yards and threw a really bad interception early in the second quarter. Fans cheered when Bill Belichick benched Jones and put Zappe in. Zappe threw a 30-yard touchdown right away. At that moment, it seemed like Zappe was taking over the job. Zappe threw two more interceptions, the Patriots lost, and Belichick went right back to Jones in New England’s next game. Zappe didn’t play another snap the rest of the season. Who knows how things are different if Zappe throws a couple more touchdowns that night and avoids those picks? Jones and Zappe are said to be competing for the starting job this offseason but that seems to be window dressing. Jones seems unlikely to lose the job, though the offseason trade rumors indicate he’s not on firm ground either. It’s a pivotal season for Jones in New England.

BetMGM odds breakdown

The Patriots’ win total at BetMGM is 7.5. It’s hard to take the over considering New England appears to be the worst team in its division. But New England went 8-9 last season with a bad defensive coordinator running its offense. The roster isn’t any worse. The schedule is a problem, projected to be the toughest in the NFL by Sharp Football Analysis. But fading Bill Belichick has rarely been profitable. I’m laying off.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “The Patriots have a history of finding undervalued assets on the rosters of their division rivals; if we look back far enough, we remember Wes Welker and Danny Woodhead. Perhaps Mike Gesicki will be another hit.

“Gesicki was a square peg in Miami’s round-hole offense last year, a miscast player who became less relevant as the season went along. Now he’s on a New England roster that has ordinary wide receiver talent, wants to use multiple tight ends, and finally has a respectable OC back in play with the hiring of Bill O’Brien. Let’s stay grounded with this; Gesicki is no league-winner. But he’s currently being drafted as the TE20, and there’s a decent chance he’ll smash that draft slot.”

Stat to remember

Bill Belichick’s defense has finished in the top 10 of either yards allowed or points allowed for 11 straight seasons. Last season’s defense was very good. It finished third in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. It was behind just the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, and not by much. Only Devin McCourty doesn’t return among last year’s defensive starters, and New England used its top three draft picks on defense. There might not be a superstar on the defense (edge rusher Matthew Judon probably comes the closest) but it’s filled with very good defenders and there’s no obvious weakness. Given the continuity and Belichick’s track record, it seems like a safe bet that the Patriots defense will be good again. It’s just a matter of how good the defense is and whether it’s good enough to keep the team in playoff contention.

Burning question

Can Rhamondre Stevenson carry the offense?

Rhamondre Stevenson officially started just seven games last season. He averaged only 12.4 carries per game. He was the Patriots’ lead back but the team didn’t overwork him. In the three games they gave Stevenson more than 16 carries last season, he had 409 yards on 63 carries and produced games of 161 and 172 yards. Maybe it’s time for the Patriots to see what Stevenson can do with a bigger workload, especially with Damien Harris gone in free agency. The Patriots also waived James Robinson in June, eliminating another option. Stevenson has looked very good since he broke in with the Patriots, and maybe more of Stevenson could be a good thing for a Patriots offense that needs to make a big improvement.

Best-case scenario

The Patriots weren’t too far off from having the best defense in the NFL last season. If they can remain at an elite level on that side of the ball, maybe the offensive coordinator change leads to a big leap on that side. It seems like a long time ago, but in 2021 Mac Jones had the best rookie season among a hyped QB draft class. The Patriots have plenty of options in the passing game and Rhamondre Stevenson could have a monster season if the team is finally ready to give him a big workload. The rest of the AFC East is stacked and it’s hard to get the Patriots into contention to win the division, but could they get a wild-card spot like two seasons ago? Sure.

Nightmare scenario

A lot of this probably has to do with Mac Jones’ development. You don’t want to draft a quarterback in the first round, get a good rookie season out of him and be ready to move on by the end of year three. But that seems to be on the table if Jones struggles. Bill Belichick is 71 years old. Will he stick around for a reset at quarterback? The Patriots are expected to finish last in the AFC East and that would be a sobering result for a franchise used to being the class of the NFL. But that era is over, and it’s hard to know how the Patriots get out of their rut.

The crystal ball says …

The Patriots might be the best last-place team in the NFL this season, but it would still be a last-place finish. Bill Belichick hasn’t finished in last place since Tom Brady was at Michigan. I don’t think the Patriots will have a terrible season but I can’t pick them higher than fourth in the AFC East. That said, they could be a fourth-place team on the fringe of playoff contention in December. The AFC East is really good. Maybe the Patriots will surprise, but it’s probably another decent season, then another offseason wondering how to get beyond decent.

Other team previews

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Houston Texans

30. Chicago Bears

29. Tennessee Titans

28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Colts

25. Washington Commanders

24. Las Vegas Raiders

23. Carolina Panthers

22. Denver Broncos

21. Atlanta Falcons

20. Green Bay Packers

19. New England Patriots

18. New York Giants

17. Minnesota Vikings

16. New Orleans Saints

15. Pittsburgh Steelers

14. Cleveland Browns

13. Los Angeles Chargers

12. Jacksonville Jaguars

11. Seattle Seahawks

10. Baltimore Ravens

9. Miami Dolphins

8. New York Jets

7. Detroit Lions

6. Dallas Cowboys

5. San Francisco 49ers

4. Buffalo Bills

3. Cincinnati Bengals

2. Philadelphia Eagles

1. Kansas City Chiefs

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