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Can Anyone De-throne the Patriots in the AFC East?

Is this finally the year another team takes advantage? Don’t count on it.

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The Patriots have taken the AFC East crown in 12 of the past 13 seasons, and have won at least a dozen games in the past six. With Bill Belichick on the sidelines and Tom Brady under center, the team has never had a losing a record. Just one problem — Brady won’t be there for the first four games of this season after being suspended by the NFL for his role in Deflategate. Is this finally the year another team takes advantage? Don’t count on it. As Bill Simmons, Cousin Sal, and Joe House explain on the latest episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, the Patriots are still the best bet to win the division.

To listen to the crew preview the rest of the NFL, check out the full episode here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

The Pats’ Schedule Works in Their Favor

The team starts by visiting the Cardinals, a team with legit Super Bowl hype, before getting the Dolphins, Texans, and Bills at home. As far as opening schedules go, that’s very manageable. Miami and Buffalo ranked in the bottom third of the league in defensive DVOA last year, and though Houston made it to the playoffs, the Texans were just a 9–7 team.

Bill Simmons: I don’t think they’re going to go 1–3, first of all. I’m hoping for 3–1. I’d be disappointed if they weren’t at least 2–2. But they [play] at Arizona on a Sunday night, Week 1, and then [are] home for the next three. Home for Miami, home for Houston on a Thursday night. So Houston is home for [Kansas City], and then four days later is playing at New England on a Thursday. That’s a tough game for Brock Osweiler. And then [the Patriots] are home for Buffalo, so that should be 2–2.

Cousin Sal: I think you can get to 2–2.

Joe House: Feels very 2–2.

The Bills Are the Next-Best Bet, but They Have Major Problems

Buffalo lost its second-round pick, linebacker Reggie Ragland, due to an ACL tear, and its starting defensive tackle, Marcell Dareus, is suspended for the first four games. Meanwhile linebacker Shaq Lawson is expected to begin the season on the PUP list. It’s safe to say the team’s offseason has not gone as planned.

C.S.: But I also think the Bills ran into a lot of trouble in the offseason. They lost Lawson and Ragland [to injury] and Dareus to suspension.

I think the Patriots at minus-225 is nice, because like you said, heading into Week 16 or Week 17, you’re going to have a shot at [the division].

B.S.: I would say I think Buffalo has the best chance, but they’ve had the offseason from hell.

J.H.: I’m on the opposite side. The other and opposite side. I have a preseason perfect parlay that includes the Bills that goes dramatically in the other direction.

I’m taking the Bills under, I’m taking Rex Ryan to get fired first. I’m taking a parlay for New England over and the Bills under. I’m working the Bills under like Cici at Spearmint Rhino worked over my back.

The Patriots Can Finally Run a Double Tight End Offense

Martellus Bennett has never had a 1,000-yard season, but his addition to the Pats’ offense opens up what the team can do at the tight end position for the first time since it had … er … Aaron Hernandez.

C.S.: You would like to have a running game these first four games. Like, Tom Brady was your leading rusher in the AFC championship game with 13 yards and you take a hit with Dion Lewis [who will start the season on the PUP list]. You’d like to get, you know, you don’t want to have too much squarely on [Jimmy] Garoppolo’s shoulders.

B.S.: We’re breaking out the double tight end offense that I’ve been waiting my whole Brady life to have. Martellus Bennett and Gronk.

J.H.: Well, you had it, but one of those guys is in jail now.

B.S.: No, but that’s the thing is there’s this misnomer that [Bennett] was this blocking tight end. He was an H-back. He was listed as a tight end.

C.S.: You had the tight end, which [allegedly] turned into a double homicide.

The AFC East’s Scheduling Makes It Tough for the Other Division Members

The division plays the NFC West and the AFC North, the two best divisions in football, in some order. Though every AFC East team will have it tough with these divisions, the Patriots play just the Cardinals before Brady returns to the field.

C.S.: First of all, if you’re looking for overs, the AFC East is not the place to go. They play the NFC West and the AFC North and both those divisions sent two teams to the playoffs last year. Tough schedules for the whole division.

But my under is the New York Jets, under 7.5 wins. I’ve never heard a schedule this tough. First six [games]: Cincinnati, at Buffalo, at Kansas City, Seattle, at Pittsburgh, and at Arizona.

That’s insane. And they’re on a short week four times, [and] six of their first nine on the road? That’s tough. And I think the defenses figure out the [Ryan] Fitzpatrick scheme. I go way under there.

B.S.: And they’re going against the NFC West, so you know they’re going to have three tough games [against] three good defenses.

C.S.: And the AFC North, [with] Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

B.S.: The other thing is that they didn’t luck out. They didn’t catch [a game against the Pats with] Garoppolo. They miss Garoppolo. I agree with you.

The Patriots Are Too Consistent to Bet Against

They’re a perennial 12-win team with Belichick at the controls. They’ve ranked in the top 10 in points scored for 12 straight seasons — even in the year with Matt Cassel at quarterback. No team in the NFL is a better model of consistency than the Pats during the Belichick era.

B.S.: If I had to bet on any over/under, I’d bet the Pats [at] 10.5 [wins]. I’d be shocked if they didn’t go 11–5.

I’m not even being an arrogant Pats fan about it, and I know you love it when I’m an arrogant Pats fan. I just think until it doesn’t happen, you have to assume it’s going to keep happening, right?

C.S.: And last year we had it at minus-140 when it was assumed that Brady was suspended, and then obviously he wasn’t suspended.

B.S.: And this feels like the same thing. The four-game suspension is throwing off all of these odds and meanwhile it’s like, Garoppolo, if you’ve watched him, is really good at throwing 11-yard passes. He throws tight line drives to tight ends. That’s what he does. House, you don’t care either way? Do you agree it’s stupid to bet against the Patriots until we actually see some real signs of decay?

J.H.: I don’t think it’s stupid. I actually am going to allocate some of my hard-earned capital on New England. Minus-225 to win the division, New England on the over 10.5 — until demonstrated otherwise.

Ultimately, the Patriots Will Only Lose the Division If They Implode

Brady is a 39-year-old quarterback, after all, the same age Peyton Manning was last year when Manning was arguably the worst starting QB in football.

J.H.: The answer is, it gets botched because [of] Brady. Something happens to the Patriots, it’s not that a team in the AFC East is going to rise up and steal the throne from the Patriots. It’s that something happens to Brady or Belichick that completely derails them and then—

B.S.: To Belichick? What are you insinuating, House? What do you mean, to Belichick? What, he’s going to have a heart attack? What can happen if he doesn’t play? He doesn’t play, nothing’s going to happen to him.

J.H.: Do you even know how old he is?

B.S.: But let’s say the Pats had the year from hell. Let’s say [in] the [first] four games they go 1–3 without Brady. Brady comes back; they [finish] 9–7. Can anyone else in the AFC East even go 10–6?

C.S.: 1–3 is your cutoff. If it’s any worse than that, you’re kinda in trouble. If it’s any better than that, it’s gravy with Garoppolo, I would say.

Wait, What About the Dolphins?

Do they have any chance?

C.S.: Are people going to be mad that we don’t mention the Dolphins at all?

B.S.: No, let’s ignore them. They’re like the guy in your fantasy draft who has no idea how the salary cap works.