Another NFL regular season has come and gone, and for the New England Patriots, consistency is once again the name of the game. In spite of the fact that the NFL succeeded in enforcing their “deflategate” suspension, and forced Tom Brady to miss the first four games of the season, the Patriots still managed a 14-2 record. Surprisingly, the two losses that the Patriots suffered did not both come during Brady’s suspension, one occurred during that time, while the other was a mid-season loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, to add to their first round bye and a division title. The road to the Super Bowl is guarded by teams devastated by injury, and it appears likely that the Patriots will represent the AFC in the title game. However, before considering their Super Bowl path, I would like to delve into the events during Brady’s suspension and the ramifications they have going forward. In a previous blog, I discussed the Patriots potential options at quarterback in the future, while anticipating the performance of Jimmy Garoppolo and even the potential play of their third-stringer, Jacoby Brissett. In that article Article Link, I wondered if Brissett would see playing time as well as questioning what options the Patriots would have if Garoppolo played well and looked like he could replace Brady. The first four games contained more excitement than even I could imagine. Garoppolo gave Patriots fans a taste of potential future greatness before suffering an injury midway through his second game. He earned a victory against the Arizona Cardinals, which seemed at the time to be a formidable opponent (Arizona missed the playoffs, so in hindsight, this is not quite as impressive.) He completed 24 of 33 passes compiling 264 yards and a touchdown facing an intimidating Arizona pass rush. His next game, however, teased an excited Patriots fans, before leaving them wholly unsatisfied. Garoppolo needed less than two quarters against the Dolphins to throw for 232 yards and THREE touchdowns. He had everyone in New England declaring the next 15 years a continuation of the Patriots dynasty.
Unfortunately, Miami Linebacker Kiko Alonso injected an air of mystery into the Patriots future, by knocking Garoppolo out of the game with a shoulder injury. Jacoby Brissett took over for Garoppolo on short notice and helped secure that Patriots victory in game two of the season. Brissett himself showcased some potential as well, although the playbook utilized with him under center was severely limited. Bill Belichick did not allow Brissett to throw many passes, his highest pass attempt number was 27 in his final game during Brady’s suspension. He did not throw any touchdowns but he did run for one, and he showcased a strong arm and great mobility in his time under center, therefore, many have declared his brief tenure as Patriots starting QB a success as well. The major aspect that attracted people to Brissett however, was the fact that he played through a thumb injury halfway through the Patriots week three game against the Texans and managed to continue playing until Brady returned. The injury eventually forced him onto injured reserve. This injury makes me optimistic that he may have played better had he been healthy and had more time to prepare as the starter. Brissett and Garoppolo’s strong play and the intrigue created by both of their injuries increases the mystery in their future value and where they may end up. It appears more and more that the Patriots are taking calls on a possible Jimmy Garoppolo trade, but as Adam Schefter reported recently, they are asking for a first and fourth round draft pick in return. This price is high, but Sam Bradford netted the same haul and he is one of the most overrated passers in the game. Others believe that the availability of veteran quarterbacks in free agency may weaken the market for Garoppolo. Mike Florio, believes that the potential availability of Tony Romo, Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick and Sam Bradford, will drive down the price for Garoppolo. As I mentioned in my earlier blog, if the Patriots do trade Garoppolo, they should do so with the intention of increasing Brady’s longevity. Brady has said he wants to play until he is 45, but it’s inevitable that his play will decline soon. If the Patriots do trade Garoppolo, they would need high draft picks in order to compliment Brady further. They could focus on drafting quality receivers in order to make Brady’s job easier, or they could improve their defense so that the offense doesn’t need to carry the team quite as often. The Patriots cannot afford to give Garoppolo away for a low price, even if they think he over-achieved in the time he played this year. They also cannot afford to lose him to free agency and retain no value for him, especially because he could sign with a team in the AFC east. The Patriots have not faced a good quarterback in their division since arguably Drew Bledsoe or even Dan Marino and I’m sure they are not eager to give one away. Some, including Boston sports talk radio show Felger and Mazz point to the fact that the Patriots have failed to resign many of their strong defensive core players including Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, who many believed they would resign, in an attempt, perhaps, to retain Garoppolo once his contract expires. This does require Jimmy Garoppolo to forgo a contract commensurate for a starting QB. In such a violent sport whose players usually only enjoy a short career, no one would blame Garoppolo for going for the money. Either way, the most vital thing is not to lose Garoppolo to a team within the division after next season. We’re onto the playoffs: While the Patriots offseason future is interesting, all fans care most about Super Bowls, and the Patriots are the favorite once again to win the Super Bowl in a month. With a victory over the Dolphins yesterday, the Patriots secured home field advantage for the entirety of the playoffs until the Super Bowl. With a Raiders loss, the Chiefs also moved into the second seed in the AFC, which was vitally important. Now, the Patriots will either face the Dolphins, or Texans, who they have played previously this year. They beat both teams handily in each game and both teams are having quarterback issues. Ryan Tannehill may be back from injury but that is still in question. The Texans are also suffering at quarterback. The Texans benched Brock Osweiler in favor of backup Tom Savage who suffered a concussion. Now the Texans must start Osweiler again, who did manage to defeat the Patriots in Denver last season. However, the Patriots shutout the Texans in New England this season and made Osweiler look inept. Finally, if the Patriots play the Raiders, they will face Matt McGloin at best, and possibly their third string QB Connor Cook. Additionally, since the Chiefs moved up to the second seed, they will likely face the Steelers in the divisional round. The Steelers and Chiefs are the two teams most likely to pose a threat to the Patriots, but since they face each other, the Patriots will only need to defeat one on their path to the Super Bowl. I would argue that the Patriots, should they make the Super Bowl, are most likely to face either the Packers, Cowboys or Seahawks. Of the three, I believe their easiest opponent would be the Seahawks, whose defense has been devastated by injury and whose offense no longer feature Marshawn Lynch. The Packers are red hot and the Cowboys feature likely the only offense that rivals the Patriots, including two potential MVP candidates in Ezekiel Elliot and Dak Prescott as well as all-league wide receiver Dez Bryant and a potent offensive line. With those offensive weapons, any defense would have difficulty, and the Patriots, for all of their strong defensive play recently, have shown a vulnerability to the pass. Aaron Rodgers also poses a threat, but the Green Bay offense does not include nearly as many weapons as the Cowboys. Either way, the Patriots have their reservation for the Super Bowl all but written down, the more interesting question is what they will do afterward.