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Pats have questions as 2018 begins


09/12/18



 Questions, questions, questions. 

That is what I have for your New England Patriots as they get ready to strap it on to begin the season on Sunday after a tumultuous off-season, a season with more questions to be answered at the start than at any time since 2001, which was the last time they started a season 0-2. 
Starting 0-2 is a possibility too, as they open with Ryan Griffin (of the Litchfield Griffins) and the Houston Texans. Then comes the rematch with mouthy Jalen Ramsey and his Jaguars in the searing Jacksonville heat. Given how lucky they were to survive the early season 2017 match-up with Houston when the D got shredded by rookie Deshaun Watson and knowing the Jags will want a piece of Brady and company after their last-minute playoff loss in January, it is a challenging start.  
Starting 0-2 would fortify the claims of the many national pontificators joyfully saying the end may be descending on the dynasty. But, as we know, they are the Patriots and haven’t done what they’ve done under Coach B for almost 20 years by letting the outside stuff get to them. History says they have the grit to grind in the worst of times and while they haven’t always won, name a time outside of 2009 when they haven’t battled it to the end. That dichotomy is what makes the questions surrounding their issues so interesting as the year gets underway. 
So here are the questions to be answered as they go for their ninth straight AFC title game and third Super Bowl appearance in a row. We’ll start with potential distractions.  
The Brady-Belichick Saga: They’re apparently like an old married couple who just irritate each other. Bill’s grating way gets on Brady’s nerves (and Gronk makes two) and he thinks after 19 years Coach B should ease off. Though it sure did look like Brady was having fun on the sideline vs the G-Men. Anyway, Earth to Bill: Tom knows what he’s doing, ease up some. 
Alex Guerrero: We don’t know the details, but two things are certain. Brady is very touchy about it and it ain’t going away until he answers the question. So Earth to Tom: Stop being a baby, come up with a good answer, tell the media you’ll answer it once and be done with it. 
Pass Rush: The bend but don’t break Matt Patricia is gone as defensive coordinator and we’ll finally see if the maddening B-B-D-B stuff was his concoction or the bosses’. Talk all you want about Malcolm Butler, but putting zero pressure on Nick Foles had a lot more to do with losing the Super Bowl than Butler not playing. Put another way, Bill, how much more can Tom Brady do to save the defense from itself than throwing for 503 yards in the SB? If you need more than that you’ve got trouble. They have injury-prone Dont’a Hightower back along with new faces Adrian Clayborn and Derek Rivers; maybe that will help – but we’ll see. I know, I sound like a broken record.
Tom Brady’s Transition: TB-12 may make it to 45, but he’ll be less dominant as it happens. I hated not addressing their defensive issues in the draft, but I wonder if taking a guard/tackle Isaiah Wynn (now out for the year) and running back Sony Michel was the start of building an offense to eventually rely less Brady and more on a balanced attack. It’s a bit of an overstatement to say the running game has been mostly used to keep the pass rush off Brady’s back, but it will be interesting to see if it’s emphasized more than it has been in recent years. 
Wide Receiver: They did not add much after losing clutch Danny Amendola and speedy Brandin Cooks so they are thin. Thus we’ve been hearing comparisons to the Reche Caldwell-led 2006 group. But please, they still have Gronk, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan so this group is far better. But depth is an issue while Edelman’s suspended to start the year and for when the injuries hit. But I suspect by the time you read this they’ll have added someone new after 1,184 guys around the league are cut on Saturday. 
Protecting Brady’s Blindside: No disrespect to Nate Solder, a solid contributor for many years, but the price to keep him was far too great. The question is, can massive Trent Brown replace him after being a right tackle in San Francisco? Having never seen him play, I have no idea. At 6’8” and 380 pounds you know he’s got power, but does he have the quickness on the outside to keep Brady upright? Uber O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia working with him is a big plus – but we’ll see.  
The Schedule: The pessimistic view is adding Miami, who they always seem to have one bad game against, to Houston and Jacksonville it could be a 1-3 start. The optimistic view is a split of the first two, then wins vs. Detroit and Miami to be 3-1 in September. After that, with Pittsburgh, Tennessee and the dreaded annual Miami trip on the road and Minnesota, KC and Green Bay at home, it seems tougher than recent years. 
AFC East: The Bills have not-ready-for-prime-time rookie Josh Allen at QB with the Ravens, Chargers, Vikings, Packers, Titans and Texans up first, so they could start 1-5. Given their schedule the Jets could hang around .500 the first 10 weeks, but unless Sam Darnold comes faster than I expect they’ll likely lose five of their last six. With a similar schedule, Miami could lead the division at mid-year, but with the tough part on the back end they should win just eight or nine.  
Prediction: I see 11-5. Not bad for most everyone, but their worst since 2009. Good enough to win the AFC East, but home field throughout the playoffs or maybe even a Week 1 bye.
Email Dave Long at dlong@hippopress.com.  





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