We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.
Let’s get this out of the way: No one outside New England is going to begrudge you a healthy dose of skepticism over the prospect of a 16-0 Patriots season. In the Super Bowl era, only two teams have ever run the table for the regular season, and there are a few obvious and enduring reasons why: Through the league’s salary cap, the draft order, and its scheduling rules, the NFL is designed to create parity. Those forces—together with the unpredictable nature of injuries and the uncontrollable variables related to weather and team chemistry and simple bad luck and bad bounces—mean that even the most supremely talented team needs everything to go right to win all 16 regular-season games.
Still, here we are again, talking about the Patriots’ potential to go undefeated. We have heard this prior to a few other seasons—after all, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s Pats proved it was possible when they went 16-0 back in 2007. With that duo intact, it’s sorta-kinda a remote possibility every year—but per Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman, the buzz around this year’s team doing it again has never before reached “the decibel you hear now when you talk to team executives and assistant coaches around the league.” USA Today’s Nate Davis got the undefeated ball rolling further when he predicted a perfect record for New England in his annual season preview. That’s bold, “kinda,” Davis admits, but it’s actually not ridiculous. That’s because this Patriots squad might be the deepest, most balanced, and—yes, really—best one we’ve seen yet. As much as most of us would hate it, they really could go undefeated. Here’s why.
Last year with Brady under center the Pats went 14-1, including playoff wins over the Texans, Steelers, and Falcons, and, at least on paper, appear to have improved more than just about any other club. With smart moves in free agency and a flurry of trades involving most of their draft capital, last year’s Super Bowl winner padded its already-great roster with new game-ready contributors (running backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, tight end Dwayne Allen, pass rusher Kony Ealy, and linebacker David Harris) and potential stars (receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore). New England is in win-now mode in Brady’s age-40 season—and it looks optimized to plow through all comers.
Unsurprisingly, then, the Patriots head into this season favored in every game. Now, that may not mean a whole lot—the Packers, with the help of the league’s easiest strength of schedule (based on 2015 win-loss records), were favored to win every game on their slate at this time last year … then finished 10-6. New England’s Vegas odds are also helped by the fact that their schedule looks incredibly favorable: Per Football Outsiders projections, New England will face the easiest schedule in the NFL this year. According Warren Sharp’s 2017 NFL preview, the Patriots have the fifth-easiest slate, and it should get easier as the year goes on—New England plays six bottom-10 teams (based on an index of forecasted win totals) over the final eight weeks of the season. This, as Sharp notes, “seems highly unfair.”
A big reason for that schedule luck is the division the Patriots play in. The AFC East has produced just one other playoff team since 2011: last year’s Dolphins. That squad just lost its starting quarterback for the season to a knee injury, and while there’s always the chance that the newly signed Jay Cutler could end up being a better option for Miami than Ryan Tannehill could’ve been, it’s safe to say that major upheaval at the most important position in sports has the potential to spark major regression. Meanwhile, the Jets have jettisoned almost all of their good players over the past few months, and the ones still left keep getting hurt; the Bills, who haven’t made the playoffs in this century, are going through yet another coaching and front-office leadership change. The road to a 6-0 division record looks pretty smooth, with New England’s biggest challenge likely coming in Week 14 at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, where the Pats have lost three out of the last four times.
As for the rest of New England’s schedule, the bulk of the best teams they’ll face will be visitors to the cozy confines of Gillette Stadium. The Pats have won 86 percent of their games there over the past decade—putting them a full 10 percent ahead of the next best team (Green Bay) in strength of home-field advantage. New England hosts the Chiefs in Week 1, the Texans in Week 3, the Panthers in Week 4, a Super Bowl rematch against the Falcons in Week 7, and the Chargers in Week 8. As for their road slate, one of the Pats’ most challenging away matchups comes in a neutral location, against the Raiders in Mexico City. Otherwise, two games stick out for their potential to derail a 16-0 year: New England travels to Denver (where they won 16-3 last year) to take on the Broncos in Week 10, then heads off to Pittsburgh (where they won 27-16 last year) to face the Steelers in Week 15. Denver’s defense will test the Pats passing game, but the Broncos could again struggle offensively. As for that Pittsburgh game, that should be a hell of a matchup—and the hope for everyone watching will be that both Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell will be out on the field for that game (unlike the two times they played last year).
But more than New England’s cushy schedule, what stands out most about the Patriots’ realistic quest for a perfect season is the balance and depth they have in all three phases. There’s little reason to believe the special teams unit, which finished eighth in special teams per DVOA last year and fifth the two years prior, will regress—ace kicker and four-time Pro Bowler Stephen Gostkowski returns, as do long snapper Joe Cardona and punter Ryan Allen. Along with returns and coverage units led by four-time first-team All-Pro special teamer Matthew Slater and 2016 second-team All-Pro special teamer Nate Ebner, you can pretty much count on this group to once again find itself in the top 10.
Cornerback Logan Ryan, pass rusher Chris Long, and linebacker Rob Ninkovich are gone, but the defense that led the NFL in points allowed last year returns most of its key components, and may even see a net talent jump with the additions of Harris and Gilmore. The Patriots’ weakness last season was against the pass, where they finished 22nd in DVOA per Football Outsiders, but by putting Gilmore opposite Malcolm Butler, New England will be able to use its new cornerback’s size to better match up with big receivers on opposing teams. With Harris—who has allowed the fifth-fewest yards per coverage snap among off-ball linebackers over the past five years, per Pro Football Focus—they get another experienced and versatile ’backer to pair with Dont’a Hightower. This team should continue to excel against the run (it finished fifth in DVOA there last year), and may see a jump in efficiency against the pass.
Offensively, while Brady may not have a Randy Moss–level receiver to throw to downfield, this might be the deepest skill position group New England has ever fielded. In addition to the return of a healthy, seam-running, big-play tight end Rob Gronkowski, dependable slot receiver Julian Edelman, and dangerous deep threat Chris Hogan—the Patriots added a complete receiver in Cooks, who’s dangerous down the sideline, in the slot, or taking a handoff out of the backfield. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, “Cooks’ DVOA (32.1 percent) when lined up wide was the highest in the league for any receiver with at least 35 targets there,” but he’s not just a run-fast-in-a-straight-line threat—the new Patriot was also best in the league on routes with more than one break, per Pro Football Focus. Throw in another steady tight end in Allen and a pair of versatile run-pass threats in Gillislee and Burkhead, and defenses will have a hell of a time matching up with this group. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that all this talent still rests upon the foundation of the greatest head-coach-quarterback pairing the NFL has ever seen.
NFL seasons are long, and there are dozens of variables that could derail all of this talk of another undefeated year. Brady has to stay healthy, and his 40-year-old arm must remain strong enough to make all the throws. It will help if Gronk can play all 16 games for the first time since 2011. The Patriots will need a little help from luck. They’ll need their opponents to make a few of mistakes. But in the 10 years since a mostly different New England team went 16-0, we haven’t seen another squad with such a clear path to perfection.