Where will the Patriots be in the standings when Tom Brady returns?
- New England will face the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills without their franchise QB. Will it matter in the AFC East race?
The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld Tom Brady’s four-game suspension, leaving Brady with only a long shot attempt to get the Supreme Court to weigh in on the Deflategate proceedings, should Brady and the NFLPA opt to continue the fight.
Barring an unexpected turn of events, third-year quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be at the helm for the Patriots when they open the regular season at the Cardinals on Sept. 11. The Patriots also are scheduled to face the Dolphins, Texans and Bills—all at home—before Brady is eligible to return for Week 5, at Cleveland.
Having three games in Foxborough during the Brady-less stretch should help, but it’s a tough start to the season either way. So, where will New England stand when its Hall of Fame quarterback rejoins the lineup?
Week 1 at Cardinals (Sept. 11, 8:25 p.m. ET, NBC)
The NFL handed New England arguably the most difficult season-opening draw—a Sunday nighter in Arizona, against a Cardinals team that is 19–5 on its home turf over the past three seasons.
The defending NFC West champs boasted the league’s most productive offense in terms of yards last season, so this matchup could be as much a test for New England’s defense as it is for Garoppolo and the offense. It still stands as a significant early roadblock for the young signal-caller, though.
Arizona brings an athletic and aggressive defense to the table. The pass rush was a disappointment last season, producing just 36 sacks (tied for 21st most), but oh, right, the Patriots sent Chandler Jones to the desert this off-season. First-round pick Robert Nkemdiche also joins the weapons along the Cardinals’ defensive front, a group that will test New England’s tweaked offensive line.
How that line holds up will be central to New England’s hopes all season, but especially so while Brady is out of action. More or less every member of the O-line was injured at some point last season; everyone is back in action now, with ex-Cardinal Jonathan Cooper (part of the Jones trade) and rookie Joe Thuney in the mix. How quickly and effectively can that unit pull it together ahead of the regular season?
The Cardinals were very strong against the run last season (sixth in the NFL), and their secondary is dynamic. A wild card here is Tyrann Mathieu’s health as he tries to come back from a late-season knee injury. With or without him, the Cardinals will keep the Patriots’ hands full.
Patriots prediction: Loss (0–1)
Week 2 vs. Dolphins (Sept. 18, 1 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Patriots steamrolled their divisional rivals in Foxborough last year, 36–7 in Week 8. Miami exacted a little revenge in Week 17 with a 20–10 upset, a game in which Garoppolo actually threw four passes (one completion for six yards).
The first matchup, a Thursday nighter, was dominated by the Patriots’ offensive triumvirate of TE Rob Gronkowski, WR Julian Edelman and RB Dion Lewis—they combined for 19 catches, 297 yards and four touchdowns. Neither Lewis nor Edelman played in the Week 17 game.
Any success Garoppolo has likely will start with the same sources, assuming all are healthy. (Lewis, coming back from an ACL tear, is a question mark heading into training camp.) That’s going to be the case whether Garoppolo or Brady is throwing passes. Unlike, say, the Arizona offense that New England will see in Week 1, which often relies on slower-developing deep balls, the Patriots love to attack the flats and over the middle with quick timing plays. Garoppolo should benefit from such an approach, assuming his reads are accurate.
There is minimal regular season evidence to assist with any guesses about Garoppolo’s reliability, but he was sharp during preseason action last year, completing 76.2% of his passes (61 for 80) over three games, with two TDs and two interceptions. He also is more mobile than Brady, even if no one will confuse him with a dual-threat QB.
Add it all up and the Patriots should be able to neutralize, to some extent, the Dolphins’ fearsome pass rush that includes Ndamukong Suh, Cameron Wake and now Mario Williams by attacking outside the hash marks.
Patriots prediction: Win (1–1)
Week 3 vs. Texans (Sept. 22, 8:25 p.m. ET, CBS/NFLN/Twitter)
All three of the home games New England has scheduled during Brady’s suspension are toss-ups. Miami should be better than it was in 2015, Houston is coming off an AFC South title, and Buffalo may be the team most ready to challenge the Patriots’ supremacy in the East.
For the third consecutive week (en route to four), the Patriots’ O-line will have its hands full—this time, with the game’s most dominant defender in J.J. Watt. The matchup provided minimal trouble for New England last season during a 27–6 win at Houston. Watt was held without a sack in that game, as the Patriots threw bodies upon bodies at him, often sliding a guard, tackle and running back in his path.
The strategy did leave a few opportunities for others—Jadeveon Clowney dropped Brady twice and Whitney Mercilus added a sack—but eliminating Watt was the key. Garoppolo still will have to account for him, because he can alter every play even when his pass rush doesn’t get home.
What really secured the Patriots’ win in the teams’ last meeting was a brilliant defensive showing. New England sacked Brian Hoyer five times and allowed just 189 total yards.
This year, the Texans will trot out big-ticket free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler. He should have some confidence from lifting Denver to a 30–24 overtime win over New England last season. If he or any QB that the Patriots face without Brady can turn things into a shootout, it’s trouble. At this point, that’s a tall order for the Texans.
Patriots prediction: Win (2–1)
Week 4 vs. Bills (Oct. 2, 1 p.m., CBS)
Rex Ryan usually saves his best for Brady, so the Patriots’ 40–32 shootout victory over Buffalo in Week 2 last season came out of nowhere. The Patriots’ later 20–13 win was more consistent with this rivalry—a methodical, defensive-oriented game in which neither team topped 300 yards.
Garoppolo’s comfort level should be at a high by this point on the calendar. His potential lack of comfort cannot be overlooked earlier on, particularly with Edelman and Lewis limited right now and the Patriots testing a plethora of new WRs in their place: Chris Hogan, Nate Washington and rookies Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien.
What sort of rapport will Garoppolo be able to find with his playmakers? If they struggle to get on the same page, the outlook for Weeks 1 through 4 gets a little dicier.
Miami and Houston would disagree, but as the first Patriots–Bills game of 2015 showed, this might be the opposing offense most capable of putting Garoppolo behind the eight ball. Tyrod Taylor was a quiet star last season and he returns just about all of his main weapons, sans Hogan (and assuming Sammy Watkins’s foot holds up).
Whatever Ryan has in his bag of tricks, count on him saving a couple looks for Garoppolo. Trying to trick Brady into a misread can be a fool’s errand, but Garoppolo obviously does not have the same level of experience. The Bills could flip the field with a couple turnovers.
It is very possible that the Patriots come out the other side of this opening gantlet at 3–1, thanks to that homestand. We’ll pencil in this one as a loss for now because 2–2 feels more probable—you don’t just remove one of the greatest QBs of all time without a little fallout.
Anyone expecting the wheels to fall off with Brady out, though, will be disappointed.
Patriots prediction: Loss (2–2)
A 2–2 start would be palatable for Bill Belichick & Co., if not desired. Brady is scheduled to return for a Week 5 trip to Cleveland, before the Bengals visit New England in Week 6.
Better yet for the Patriots, a glance at the schedules of their AFC East rivals makes it hard to find another team in the division that will be sitting at 3–1 or 4–0. Miami plays at Seattle in Week 1 (if New England’s game isn’t the toughest opener, that is), and the Dolphins also have a Week 4 trip to Cincinnati on top of their Foxborough visit. The Jets host those same Bengals on Sept. 11, visit Buffalo the next week and then face a Kansas City–Seattle back-to-back. And Buffalo visits Baltimore in Week 1 and hosts Arizona in Week 3.
In other words, the Patriots should be in fine shape when Brady returns, provided Garoppolo merely keeps it together.