Bill Belichick 2020 Patriots Training Camp

New beginnings and old trends: What can we expect from the 2020 New England Patriots?

Last January, in the final minutes of a tight AFC Wild Card matchup in Gillette Stadium, Super Bowl 53 MVP Julian Edelman dropped a key third-down pass in a clutch situation, and Tom Brady failed to deliver.

Tennessee Titans 20, New England Patriots 13. Welcome to 2020.

This was simply an odd beginning to a mostly catastrophic and unprecedented year up to this point.

Now for New England, weird will be the new normal as Brady is in South Florida with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Patriots’ hopes on offense rest with former Carolina Panthers franchise quarterback Cam Newton.

Yes, Cam Newton is the starting QB for your New England Patriots, in a world where Brady is not retired and still playing pro football with the same burning desire that fueled an unprecedented 20-year run of success in the northeast.

So far, the Newton-Belichick pairing has been met with cheery optimism. Both Belichick and Newton have done nothing but overly praise each other to this point, and Newton appears as happy as he is motivated.

Instead of allowing him to play out the final year of his contract, the Carolina Panthers jettisoned the 2015 NFL MVP after failing to find a willing trade partner. Newton was hurt, and angry, but has seemed to have bottled that despair in the form of grueling training and recovery geared toward proving the Panthers and other doubters wrong via a bounce-back performance.

Belichick and the Patriots are surely the perfect facilitator for such a journey.

As previously mentioned, Newton took the league by storm in 2015. He was the league’s best player that year, leading Carolina to Super Bowl 50 — and subsequent loss to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

But that’s likely not the level of play the Patriots will be getting at quarterback in an unconventional 2020 season. Past shoulder and foot injuries, multiple surgeries, additional wear and tear, and a shortened offseason — with no preseason games — make it difficult to imagine Newton ever reaching his 2015 level again.

This leaves Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and new quarterback coach Jedd Fisch hoping for the 2018 version of Newton, before a shoulder injury caused the former No. 1 overall pick to drop his last eight starts heading into this campaign.

In 2018, under Norv Turner, Carolina began the year 6-2 behind a quick-passing game that saw Newton move on from his previous downfield passing barrage of earlier seasons with ample success. His ability to adapt to a new offense, and thrive while throwing precision-type passes to the likes of D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey and others prove that Newton is willing and able to adapt to a new scheme.

At that point in his career, Newton’s completion percentage was 58.5 heading into his eighth season, but after the aforementioned 6-2 start, Cam had a 67.3 completion percentage, and was squarely in another MVP race before Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt obliterated Newton’s throwing shoulder.

Cam Newton and Julian Edelman -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
With Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, can Cam Newton pick up where the GOAT left off in targeting Julian Edelman? (Screenshot: Patriots)

The difference here is that there is no McCaffrey or Moore on the roster. There are, however, James White and Julian Edelman, two wiley veterans in the roles of pass-catching running back and No. 1 wide receiver. Both are clutch, both are postseason heroes with a combined seven Super Bowl appearances and 1,096 career receptions (including playoffs).

After, that there’s not much in terms of experience and big-play potential at the skill position.

A wide receiver group that ranked dead last in average separation according to NFL Next Gen Stats has not been altered much since the end of last season.

N’Keal Harry returns as the top option at X-receiver along the boundary. Harry ranked 143rd (dead last) in the NFL last season in average separation at throw on all routes for receivers who ran at least 100 routes.

The 2019 first-round pick is listed at 6-4, 225 pounds but displays quickness and shiftiness of that of a smaller receiver. He can run reverses and use his power and running ability to create yards after the catch. But ironically, despite his size, he doesn’t appear to have the skill set for a dominating No. 1 type receiver on the outside.

Newton, of course, hasn’t played with such a player, but he has found a niche of throwing slants, 10-yard outs an hitches to bigger receivers. He had flashes of success on such passing patterns when targeting the likes of Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Newton’s throws those routes possibly better than any QB I’ve seen over the past 20 seasons, and perhaps Harry can become a factor on such plays.

He’ll need to, because 34-year-old Edelman — who will presumably get the most targets — can’t do it all, and certainly not at his age.

Julian Edelman -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
Julian Edelman, 34, will be heavily relied on by Cam Newton this season. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

After Edelman and Harry, Damiere Byrd projects as the Patriots No. 3 WR with WR2 production potential. Byrd played four seasons with Newton in Carolina before a one year stint with the Arizona Cardinals last season. He ran a 4.28 40-yard dash coming into the draft, and projects to fill a Phillip Dorsett-type roll for New England, with much better potential on underneath routes.

After that, second-year undrafted men Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers return as project players that likely will be thrown into the fire once more.

The pass-catching group is far from scary to opposing defenses. New England at least drafted two tight ends in the third round — Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene — in attempt to fix perhaps the worst position group on any team last season, and that’s not a hyperbole.

Asiasi (6-3, 260 pounds) has pass-catching potential as an athletic ‘Y’ who should find some success in the seams as well as the middle of the field. Newton’s No. 1 target for much of his tenure in Carolina was tight end Greg Olsen, and although that’s way too high of a production projection for Asiasi in Year 1, the rookie could find a role as a security blanked for Newton at times. His potential is burgeoning as an NFL tight end after a so-so college career at Michigan and UCLA.

Keene, 6-4, 251 pounds, projects as more of an off-line, H-Back option with fullback potential.

Believe it or not, Keene could be the biggest indicator of where the Patriots see this offense going with Cam.

When New England drafted Keene out of Virginia Tech, not to toot my own horn, I immediately thought of him as an H-back that fit in shotgun and pistol formations that were heavily utilized in some of Newton’s best seasons in Carolina.

But as months went by without an announced New England-Newton pairing, many, including myself, began to wonder if the Patriots were building a Kyle Shanahan-esque offense around second-year man Jarrett Stidham.

Think of San Francisco and Minnesota. An offense revolving around the running game, with under-center formations featuring outside zone, pulling guards, an athletic pass-catching fullback, tons of pre-snap motion and play-action passes designed to freeze linebackers after they’ve been gashed by the run. An easy game plan for a young quarterback, essentially.

There may still be some of that with Newton under center, but that doesn’t seem like a productive staple with a QB that athletic and talented.

At the time, the Patriots were also expecting “Superback” Danny Vitale to be the team’s fullback, but he has since opted out.

Now, New England fields Keene and second-year man Jakob Johnson, who is from Germany and is part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.

Neither is a bulldozing lead-blocking extraordinaire a la James Develin, but Johnson should improve as a capable traditional fullback in Year 2.

As for Keene, his presence to me indicates that New England is envisioning using a lot of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) or 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), depending on how Keene is viewed, or used. Keene may not even play often to start, especially with the offseason as it was, but eventually, expect the Patriots to use him at both fullback and H-Back/wingback.

This puts Newton and the Patriots tinkering with a heavy dose of shotgun, pistol and other formations featured around multiplicity and Newton’s ability to run the football both in designed plays and when improvising on passing downs.

Sure, New England will still utilize a traditional 11 set (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) at times. Edelman will likely see a slight down tick in snaps due to his age, but he should be on the field for most of the game, leaving Harry and Byrd fighting for time in 2-WR sets and both being used, with Edelman, in 11 personnel. Both Olszewski and Meyers each factor in as Z-receiver (flanker)/slot hybrids behind Edelman.

In 2018, the Panthers ran 11 personnel on 69 percent of snaps. Only eight teams used it more. But because of the Patriots’ current personnel, and lack of talent at wide receiver, expect Belichick to only use principles of Norv Turner’s Panthers offense from 2018. This will only be a slice of the pie, like the potential limited usage of Shanahan offensive concepts.

New England does field a diverse set of running backs, even if they are banged up some heading into the season. Sony Michel and Damien Harris should battle for lead back carries when Harris returns from injured reserve. White will be the third-down back, and Rex Burkhead will factor in both in the running and passing game as a do-it-all option who may be heavily utilized early (September) and late (December, January…February?) as a safe option in big games because of his versatility. But New England will likely limit his playing time to keep him fresh. And then there’s undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, a 5-foot-5 mighty mouse who is currently on the roster.

Here are two interesting notes from a recent episode of The Athletic Football Podcast via NFL’s Next Gen Stats:

With Michel on the field, New England ran the football 67 percent of the time in 2019. That’s the highest percentage for such a stat among running backs with at least 200 snaps last season.

Additionally, with White on the field, the Patriots ran a passing play on roughly 82 percent of snaps last season, which was good for fifth-highest among running backs.

If the offense is going to become less predictable by personnel, Michel will have to improve some as a pass catcher. But at the very least, you’d like to see him run wild in cold weather like he did down the stretch in 2018.

Basically, look for the Patriots to run the heck out of the football in 2020, and for them to do it out of a variety of formations, including many unique looks out of the shotgun. They may even roll with shotgun formations with both Burkhead and Michel in the backfield. Or Burkhead and White. Or all three.

Really, everything revolves around Belichick and Josh McDaniels once again to design a new offense with unique concepts, this time around a different QB.

Luckily for Newton, his NFL home is now full of men more adept than any other when it comes to tailor-made offensive game plans revolving around quarterbacks. And even better, Belichick and McDaniels have done this at a chameleon-like level of versatility, and they have done it on the fly.

Zone-reads, RPOs, designed QB runs. The Patriots will likely try to do it all with Newton. In a perfect world only in Belichick’s mind, the Patriots would run the football at a 2019 Baltimore Ravens level, plowing over teams on the way to the end zone.

No one really knows how Newton will fare as a runner in 2020. But you can bet that New England will look into it.

Additionally, Newton’s ability to tuck and run will encourage teams to play more zone coverage this season. Gone will be the days of 2019 where teams used man coverage across the board, doubling White or Edelman and blanketing New England’s passing game.

Newton should be able to buy time and find the open man, which will often be zone coverage spatial awareness mastermind, Edelman.

The Patriots will do this all behind an offensive line that will return center David Andrews to provide a stout interior core with guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Isaiah Wynn should improve as the team’s left tackle and with long-time right tackle Marcus Cannon sitting out this season, it looks like the Patriots may be relying on former Ravens guard Jermaine Eluemunor to play right tackle.

There is slightly less pressure on these tackles’ ability to pass block with Newton than there would be with Brady because of Newton’s ability to scramble, but the Patriots are still looking for strong play out of their O-line. This unit needs to be the constant. I suggest minimal problems with run blocking, at least.

The most exciting thing about this Patriots season is the offense under Newton. With no preseason games and a limited offseason, no one really knows what we’ll see. But we can make educated guesses, like I have here.

When Evan Lazar of CLNS Media asked what the offense will look like with him at quarterback, Newton smirked and gave this response: “Nobody knows, and nobody is going to know. You’ll just have to tune in and see.”

We’ll find out this Sunday.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Cam Newton

RB — Sony Michel 

FB/H-Back — Jakob Johnson/Dalton Keene

‘X’ WR — N’Keal Harry

‘Z’ WR/Slot — Julian Edelman

TE — Devin Asiasi 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — David Andrews 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Jermaine Eluemunor

Situational positions: 

Scatback — James White

WR3 — Damiere Byrd

WR4/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Scatback — J.J. Taylor

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste 

* * * * * * *

Unlike the offense, which will see somewhat of an overhaul, New England will likely use some of the same concepts on defense, just with different personnel.

By now, everyone’s aware of key opt-outs in linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung. New England should be able to get by without Chung, but losing Hightower could be a breaking point for a front seven that already lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, as well as nose tackle Danny Shelton.

This offseason, I watched every snap from the Patriots’ defense last season for a research project. Here are the formations the Patriots used for over two percent of their defensive snaps on the 2019 season, and how often they used them (rounded up to nearest tenth of a percent):

Nickel 2-4-5 (26.7%)

3-4 (16.4%)

Big Dime 1-4-6 (15.4%)

Big Nickel 2-4-5 (12.7%)

Big Dime 2-3-6 (10%)

Dime (4 CBs) (6.1%)

Quarter 1-3-7 (4.1%)

Nickel 3-3-5 (2.2%)

The Patriots switched to formations with 3-4 principles in 2019 because of their personnel. Because of their current personnel and shortened offseason, it’s worth wondering if Belichick will switch to more of a 4-3 concept, like he did when the NFL last had a shortened offseason in 2011 due to CBA discussions. Obviously, teams mostly use Nickel as their base in today’s game, but depending on how the Nickel defense is utilized, it will feature principles from the ole 3-4 or 4-3 looks.

In the front seven, only Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler return as consistent, sure things. Guy is versatile and has proven his worth by taking on multiple defenders up front, and Butler is a solid interior rusher who is steadily improving as a run defender.  After that, it’s a mystery.

Beau Allen was brought in to replace Danny Shelton at nose tackle, but Allen is currently on IR, ensuring he’ll miss at least the first three weeks. Deatrich Wise Jr.’s playing time decreased in 2019 due to a poor scheme fit, but the fourth-year defensive lineman has had a solid camp, and apparently has beefed up, meaning he may be able to slide into an interior role. Then there’s Byron Cowart, a fifth-round pick from last year who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation out of high school in 2015. The talent is there for Cowart, who could surprise as a fixture next to Guy up front in Nickel 2-4-5 sets.

Last season, New England generated a pass rush schematically by using Guy and other defensive lineman to eat up blockers up front, allowing Van Noy, Collins, Hightower and others to shoot the edge and gaps to rush the passer. If New England is to do the same this season, they’ll need a big second-year jump from EDGE Chase Winovich, who tallied 5.5 sacks on limited snaps as a rookie sub rusher in 2019.

Winovich is a little light to stop physical rushing attacks, but opposite him is strongman John Simon, who is entering his third season with the Patriots in sort of a Rob Ninkovich role. He is a strong-side EDGE defender who is versatile enough to play both stand-up or on the line. New England often switched their Nickel 2-4-5 into a 3-4 look last season in pre-snap. They’d bring Chung up into a linebacker role and have Simon play stand-up 3-4 defensive end, which looks unusual but was very effective for Belichick’s defense last season.

They’ll need Simon and rookie Anfernee Jennings to set the edge in the run game. Jennings projects to fill Van Noy’s in run defense only, but most likely won’t produce a pass rush anywhere near Van Noy’s 2019 level, nor will he play as many snaps as Van Noy did for New England last season.

In the middle of the defense, Ja’Whaun Bentley will need to evolve from part-time thumper linebacker to a full-time role as the front seven’s leader. He’ll essentially slide into Hightower’s role, but will be used a bit differently. And former New York Jet Brandon Copeland should factor in as an off-ball option, and perhaps the same with rookie sixth-round draft pick Cassh Maluia.

Josh Uche -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
There’s pressure on Patriots rookie LB/EDGE Josh Uche to catch on quick to the pro game. (Screenshot: Josh Uche (Twitter))

Then there’s Josh Uche, the team’s second-round pick out of Michigan. Uche played limited snaps in Michigan, but was a superb pass rusher, where he was opposite Winovich at one point. New England loves versatile players, and Uche will bring just that as a defender who will likely spend time as an off-ball linebacker on early downs and EDGE defender on passing downs. He’ll rush from both spots, and play some middle-of-the-field zone coverage, and perhaps, cover running backs.

Essentially, Uche will be used in Collins’ role from last season. Because of the lack of experience and depth at linebacker and EDGE, the Patriots are banking on Uche to learn quickly.

The linebacking core also signals that the Patriots will likely have instances where they use a ton of safeties on the field at the same time. Like last season, they’ll use a lot of three-safety packages in the form of Big Nickel and Big Dime. They’ll use multiple safeties in the box as psuedo-linebackers, and turn around and use those same players as traditional safeties.

In the 2018 playoffs, the Chargers shut down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense by using seven defensive backs on 98 percent of their defensive snaps in an AFC wild card win. Adrian Phillips, one of the Chargers’ extra safeties in that contest, is now a member of the Patriots.

New England’s versatile set of safeties — Phillips, rookie Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks, Devin McCourty — can all play in the box, in attempts to field a faster defense congruent with some of the spread offenses in today’s game.

May this group, and the league’s best set of cornerbacks, limit high-flying spread offenses such as the Chiefs? Yes. Could they slow down Jackson and the Ravens by utilizing a ton of safeties at once (like the Chargers did in 2018) as opposed to last season’s unsuccessful heavy, stack-the-box personnel? Possibly.

But a team like the Titans could make mince meat out of this type of defense behind a 30-carry performance from bruising back Derrick Henry. Like always, Belichick will mix and match defensive game plans by the week.

In that case, it helps to have a constant in the league’s best group of cornerback and overall secondary. The Patriots should continue to rely on man coverage. According to PFF, New England has used Cover 1 more than any other franchise since 2015. Last year, they nearly perfected it with their versatile group of pass defenders.

Stephon Gilmore -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
Stephon Gilmore returns as the NFL’s best cornerback, and perhaps the best non-QB in the league outside of Rams DT Aaron Donald. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Stephon Gilmore, 30, remains the game’s best cornerback and perhaps the NFL’s best non-QB, non-Aaron Donald football player. He’ll continue to shut down opposing receivers in given assignments.

Opposite him, J.C. Jackson should overtake Jason McCourty as the team’s No. 2 cornerback on the outside, but both will get ample playing time, with Jonathan Jones manning the slot and occasionally playing two-deep safety, which he has done over the last two seasons (see: Super Bowl 53). Then there’s last year’s second-round pick, Joejuan Williams, a 6-foot-4 matchup piece that is learning the safety position.

It will be interesting to see how New England plays in the back end. The Patriots primarily used Duron Harmon as the lone deep safety last season, with McCourty moving up as a robber.

This season, New England can opt to keep McCourty as the free safety in Cover 1 or use Dugger in Harmon’s place. Dugger, and Phillips, are each certainly capable of filling Harmon’s old role. But it’s Dugger, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound athletic force, who may fit best there. Still, Dugger may find himself in man coverage on the likes of Travis Kelce and other tight ends who are  unleashed as jumbo wide receivers out of the slot.

Like the offense, there is a sense of mystery on how the defense will line up, but you can bet a lot of Belichick’s old trends will factor in. The only wonder is whether the front seven will rely heavily on a Nickel 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles, or more of a Nickel defense with 4-3 principles, but in the secondary, the Patriots will continue to play to their strengths by applying man coverage and often using three-safety packages.

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Lawrence Guy

Interior — Adam Butler

EDGE — Chase Winovich 

EDGE — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Josh Uche

LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

S — Kyle Dugger

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Beau Allen

Interior  — Bryan Cowart

Sub EDGE/Interior Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

LB — Brandon Copeland 

EDGE/LB — Anfernee Jennings

S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips

S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Terrence Brooks

CB3 — Jason McCourty

CB4/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

* * * * * * *

Projected record: 10-6 (AFC’s No. 3 seed)

Despite Brady’s departure, the mass exodus in the defense and the possible ascension of the talented Buffalo Bills, the Patriots still have Belichick and a former NFL MVP at quarterback.

The defense will need to remain a top-five unit and Newton will need not only to be healthy, but also capable of elevating a sub-par group of pass catchers. He’s done this before in Carolina. If the Patriots can establish a solid and unique rushing attack, Newton should be able to make enough plays for the Patriots to surprise many on offense.

Prognosticators have been a bit harsh on New England’s chances this season. Yes, the Bills are more talented, but there’s a good chance an inferiority complex kicks in as soon as the Patriots establish an offensive identity and begin to roll, in which they will at some point this season — most likely down the stretch after a tough early-season schedule.

For these Patriots, a 12th straight AFC East title is in play, as well as a trip to the AFC Divisional Round. After that, the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh will make it tough for them to go any further. Divisional weekend seems like a good bet for this team, which isn’t bad for a re-tooling (not re-building) year.

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick

A memorable ride for the Patriots: 20 years of Brady, Belichick are forever ingrained in NFL lore

After two months of speculation regarding Tom Brady’s football future, there it came.

On the morning of a gloomy and grey uncelebrated St. Patrick’s Day in New England, Tom Brady let the world know via social media that he would not be returning to the Patriots. Later that day, reports circulated that Tom Brady would be heading south, in a somewhat LeBron James-like move to Florida to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in hopes of boosting an existing team with young talent to a home Super Bowl in February of 2021.

The news was shocking, especially to Patriots fans, but it serves as a reminder that Brady is always chasing greatness. He’s always on his toes, ready to prove detractors wrong, no matter how silly or uneducated their points, and no matter how much Tom has already accomplished.

It’s likely no one will ever accomplish what Brady and Bill Belichick did in their 20 years together, and before we analyze what’s to come for both men, it’s time to make sense, in a vacuum, of the most historic run in sports history, spanning two decades.

2001-2006: Brady’s beginnings + 21st century’s first NFL dynasty

In college, Brady was a quarterback that battled Drew Henson to retain his starting job at Michigan. Months later in the NFL Scouting Combine, Brady fell down draft boards due to many criticizing his measurable characteristics, lack of quickness, and athletic ability. It appeared most evaluators were not overly impressed that Brady finished his Michigan career by leading the Wolverines to a win over rival Ohio State and an overtime victory over Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

Brady’s final college performances were actually a sign of things to come, in that perhaps his immeasurable intangibles, and a Michael Jordan-like competitiveness, were to become pillars of his game. That was certainly the case earlier in his career. And perhaps those are skills — the intangibles — that he channeled when he told owner Robert Kraft that he would be “the best decision the organization had ever made.”

Those are strong words coming from pick no. 199 in the 2000 NFL Draft. Brady, a sixth-round pick sitting fourth on the depth chart at quarterback, had a movie-like relentlessness, met only by his confidence, that was ironically instilled by relentlessly thinking of his detractors, and wanting to prove them wrong.

Thankfully, he landed at the right spot at the perfect time, with head coach Bill Belichick, and a cast of wily veterans that were ready to embark on a legendary four-year run.

Brady won the backup job in his second year, heading into the 2001 season. Soon, he’d take off.

In that same season, roughy two weeks after 9/11, Brady filled in for an injured Bledsoe that year, leading New England to a 14-3 mark the rest of the way. Brady famously beat the Raiders in the snow in his first playoff game, en route to a Super Bowl 36 victory over the Rams via a game-winning drive that culminated in an 48-yard, walk-off field goal by Adam Vinatieri.

Two years later, Brady and Vinatieri would strike again in a last-minute, game-winning drive in a Super Bowl 38 win over the Panthers. The year after, the Patriots put behind a slew of injuries on defense, with Belichick utilizing slot receiver Troy Brown as the team’s nickel back, just three seasons removed from his 101-yard catch season as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver in 2004. New England would go on to cement itself as the 21st century’s first NFL dynasty, with a 24-21 win over the Eagles in Super Bowl 39, claiming back-to-back titles, and three championships in four years.

As great as the three early-career Super Bowl victories were, Brady’s most impressive win to that point came in the 2004 AFC Championship Game when New England defeated Pittsburgh, 41-27. It was January 23, 2005 at Heinz Field. Facing rookie Ben Roethlisberger (13-0 as a starter at the time) and the league’s No. 1 defense — and after getting walloped there on Halloween of that season —  Brady eviscerated the mighty Steelers through the air, despite having a 103-degree fever. His stat line — 14 of 21, 207 yards, two touchdowns — doesn’t do his performance justice. Brady twice hit Deion Branch deep, once for a touchdown, in cold weather in the toughest of stadiums, against the toughest of teams.

Belichick explained to the media after the game that no moment or situation seems too big for Brady, and that he was always up for the challenge. “There’s no quarterback I’d rather have,” Belichick said.

Some of Brady’s greatest early-career moments can slip through the cracks as he has so many legendary performances. For instance, sandwiched between his first three Super Bowl victories in four seasons is his first full season as a starter, in which he led New England to a 9-7 mark in 2002. Fresh off a Super Bowl 36 victory, Belichick dealt Drew Bledsoe to division rival Buffalo for a first-round pick, leaving Brady as the team’s franchise quarterback. Amid speculation whether or not the Patriots were a one-hit wonder, the team did succumb to sort of a hangover by missing the playoffs on a three-way tiebreaker atop the division, but Brady tied Brett Favre for the league-lead in touchdown passes (28), proving that his best was yet to come.

In the early dynasty years, the Patriots were without an All-Pro-caliber offensive weapon, save for maybe Troy Brown in 2001. The team relied on a modest, but clutch, basketball-like lineup of different receivers with different traits. David Givens as the physical, possession-like receiver on the outside. Brown as a crafty slot receiver, and Branch as the team’s No. 1 option (from 2003 to 2005) as a receiver with inside and outside versatility, and quickness that New England covets at that position. Then there was the underrated David Patten, who was the team’s best deep threat during those seasons.

In the three early Super Bowl-winning seasons (2001, 2003, 2004) — excluding the 2002 season — Brady threw 35 passes or more just 15 times (4 times in the playoffs) in 55 games (nine in the playoffs). However, the Patriots were 12-3 in those games. This was impressive seeing as this was the backend of an era in which throwing the ball too many times usually spelled a loss, as teams would get desperate and throw for the football in hopes to get back into a game, similar to what goes on now, but pro football in the present day sees that at a larger scale. So it was apparent the Patriots could win by relying heavily on Brady’s right arm, but the team worked best as a balanced unit. Brady was third in the league in pass attempts (601) in 2002, more attempts than the three Super Bowl-winning seasons, but the team missed the playoffs. There was an order with those early teams, but when the moment came, Brady delivered.

To combat any reason for an overly pass-happy attack, the team also liked to rely on a power-running game, with Antowain Smith (2001-2003), and later, Corey Dillon (2004-2006). On defense, Belichick employed versatile looks but shifted from more of a 4-3 scheme from 2001 to 2002, to a unit based on 3-4 principles in 2003 and 2004. Richard Seymour was utilized in the interior as a wrecking ball as a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, the secondary was solid, relying around the likes of Ty Law and Rodney Harrison, and the veteran linebacking core of Teddy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest (EDGE/OLB) and others played a significant role.

From 2001 to 2004, the team’s approach was simple — if the defense played its part, they could count on Brady to make timely throws and lead clutch drives to put the Patriots over the top. On the slight chance that the defense would underwhelm, they’d need Brady to carry the team, and he’d deliver. It was a spot that would become familiar to Brady once more, in his last Super Bowl run in New England in the 2018 season.

Brady stepped up to the plate to compliment the defense in Super Bowl 36. He carried the team amidst a lousy defensive performance in Super Bowl 38, and a more mature, refined Brady grew closer to the quarterback many now proclaim the GOAT, in a 2004 season that finished with a Super Bowl 39 victory.

The Patriots’ quest for a three-peat died in 2005. Although Brady led the NFL in passing yards (4,110 yards), the team got older. One year after New England ranked 22nd in the league in pass attempts, the team ranked second in 2005, relying more on Brady as the defense and running game began to decline. In addition to the team getting older and veterans moving on (Ty Law, David Patten, Roman Phifer, etc.) the Patriots lost both coordinators in Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel the prior offseason. Quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels took over the offense. The Patriots limped to a 10-6 record after a winter run, even winning their home AFC Wild Card matchup against quarterback Byron Leftwitch (Brady’s new offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay) and the Jaguars.

Brady was 10-0 in the postseason before an untimely interception to Champ Bailey led to a 27-13 loss to the Broncos in Denver in their 2005 AFC Divisional matchup.

Already without cornerback Ty Law, who played the 2005 season with the Jets, Belichick began a re-tooling during the 2006 offseason that prompted the departures of kicker Adam Vinatieri (who defected to rival Indianapolis), linebacker/edge rusher Willie McGinest, and wide receiver David Givens.

The first possible slight from Belichick to his quarterback, in Brady’s eyes, may have came in that following 2006 season. With Givens gone, and Brown entering his age-36 season, No. 1 wideout Deion Branch, a clear Brady favorite was conducting a holdout in hopes of a new deal paying him closer to market value at the position. After all, Branch’s rookie deal was ending and he had outperformed the contract. Belichick ultimately traded Branch to the Seahawks for a first-round pick at the beginning of the season, leaving Brady with a ragtag group of afterthoughts at wide receiver (Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, etc.), and a running back tandem of Dillon (in his last season) and 2006 rookie first-round pick Laurence Maroney.

Brady had a few memorable performances, but the passing game sputtered for much of the season. One of the NFL’s best offensive lines and better one-two punches at running back, coupled with Brady’s elevating of his supporting cast, helped New England to a 12-4 record an No. 4 seed in the AFC. But after a Wild Card win over the Jets, and a stunning AFC Divisional win in San Diego, the Patriots blew a 21-3 lead in the 2006 AFC Championship Game in Indianapolis, to Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Brady and Manning had been pitted against each other as the game’s two best quarterbacks since the beginning of the 2004 season, a year in which Manning broke the NFL’s single-season passing touchdown record (49) but lost to Brady in Foxboro, Massachusetts in the postseason for the second straight year. In fact, up until 2005, Brady held a 6-0 record versus Manning, and had three Super Bowl rings to Mannings zero. Additionally, as the two entered that 2006 AFC Championship Game, Brady had a 12-1 postseason mark, and Manning’s was just 5-6. The Brady-Manning debate raged on, but many felt as if Belichick gave Brady the upper hand, and that Manning was the better QB, with the other side arguing that Brady was more clutch, a winner, who elevated the play of a lesser-known offensive cast.

Tom Brady and Peyton Manning became the NFL’s all-time quarterback rivalry, with the early-to-mid 2000’s serving as a starting point. (Photo: Sports Illustrated)

Where Belichick opted to prioritize the defense and trenches (O-line, D-line) over offensive playmakers, near the top of the draft, the Colts built a star-studded supporting cast around Manning. When the Colts defeated the Patriots, 38-34, in that 2006 AFC Title Game, Manning heavily relied on four first-round picks as playmakers on offense — running back Joseph Addai, tight end Dallas Clark, and wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. All except Harrison were drafted after Manning had been selected by Indianapolis as the top pick in the 1998 NFL Draft. They supplied Manning with an abundance of offensive talent, which left the team bare bones on defense save for an elite pass-rushing duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

If Manning needed an additional offensive weapon, General Manager Bill Polian and the Colts front office obliged. The team went from Marshall Faulk to Edgerrin James to Addai to Donald Brown at running back during the Manning era. All were first-round picks, and all but Brown had Pro Bowl-level success, with Faulk and James at an even higher All-Pro level. The offensive line was stockpiled with talent, including Tarik Glenn, one of the league’s best left tackles. Quite simply, the Colts were loaded on offense, but shorthanded on defense, an opposite trait of the early-to-mid 2000’s Patriots teams, which relied heavily on Brady and a running game on offense, and for Belichick to utilize top-tier talent mixed with veterans on defense to stifle high-flying offenses such as the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams and the record-breaking Colts under Manning. Belichick had success against those top offensive units, and Brady had some success versus a Colts defense that wasn’t one of the league’s better units.

It was a rivalry that defined the NFL in the 2000’s, but Indianapolis had won the last two meetings in Foxboro since 2005, and won a third straight versus the Patriots in the 2006 playoffs en route to their first (and only) Super Bowl win under Manning. Additionally, while Brady nearly led the Patriots to a fourth Super Bowl win in six years, he had to do so without Branch, or any first-round pick wide receiver on offense. Brady’s most reliable receiver in the 2006 postseason was Jabar Gaffney, picked up in October after being released by his second team that season. While Manning, a two-time NFL MVP, had help on offense, Belichick had spread out talent throughout the roster, but not at wide receiver, and even traded away Brady’s best offensive weapon (Branch) at the start of the season.

After three losses to the Colts in roughly 15 months, it was clear that something had to change. Enter the 2007 offseason.

**********

2007-2013: Brady’s physical prime, New England’s two transcendent offensive styles and big-game heartbreak

Entering the 2007 season, most outside of New England had come to the conclusion that Manning, with his first Super Bowl title, was a better quarterback than Brady, and that it was Belichick that was the major cog in New England’s first three Super Bowl titles.

Sure, Manning had the much better offensive weapons, but many insisted Belichick was the game’s best coach (he was…and is) and that Brady had a better defense for much of the decade up to that point.

Everything about those notions were true. But the 2006 Colts, a team with a horrendous run defense, saw that unit turn a corner in the 2006 Playoffs, thanks to the return of injured safety Bob Sanders. In fact, Manning had a stat line of three touchdowns to six interceptions during that postseason run, despite winning Super Bowl 41 MVP. It was the defense that played a major role in three of Indianapolis’ four postseason victories.

The Colts’ lightning quick-defense had suddenly improved into an formidable unit in 2007, as they built a young and talented defensive backfield revolved around Sanders, who would win the league’s DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) award in 2007, and a fast front seven that still had Freeney and Mathis terrorizing quarterbacks.

AFC stalwarts such as the Colts and Chargers were turning into talented juggernauts, while the Patriots were left with a team of veterans and a lack of offensive weapons, even at the average level, in terms of pass catchers.

Belichick made it a point to address the wide receiver position that offseason, first signing speedy deep threat Donte’ Stallworth to a six-year contract that was basically a one-year, prove-it deal, and later trading second and seventh round-draft picks to the Dolphins for slot receiver and punt returner Wes Welker and a fourth-round pick to the Raiders for Randy Moss, the best perimeter receiver and deep threat in NFL history.

One of the unanswered questions in the Brady-Manning debate was: How would Brady fare with top-tier talent at the receiver position?

We were about to find out.

Between Brady’s quest to prove he belongs among the statistically elite, and Belichick and the rest of the roster ready to punish opponents after questions about the validity of their success after SpyGate at the season’s start, the 2007 Patriots became a rocket ship built off of detractor’s remarks serving as fuel.

Quite simply, despite their eventual doom at “18-1,” this was the best football team ever assembled.

Although the slot receiver was not a new concept, utilizing the role on a full-time basis was. The Patriots revolutionized the position with Welker, who would lead the NFL in receptions (112) in 2007 and later have seasons of 111, 123, 122 and 118 catches in a Patriots uniform.

With the Patriots striking deep only strategically in earlier years, they began firing downfield to Moss at will. Moss shook off two disappointing seasons with the Raiders to set an NFL single-season record with 23 touchdown receptions, passing Jerry Rice.

Welker and Moss became the best 1-2 punch at the receiver position, and after them, New England employed several complementary weapons. Stallworth served his role as a speedy outside wideout and Gaffney, the only holdover from the previous year at wide receiver, was a fine possession receiver. Then there was Kevin Faulk, a Patriots fixture from 2000 to 2011. New England revolutionized the pass-catching running back, or scat back, like they did the slot receiver position, and Faulk, along with J.R. Redmond, was the first in New England, before the likes of Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen, Dion Lewis and James White.

Although not at the All-Pro level, first-round picks Laurence Maroney and Ben Watson were fine players at the running back and tight end positions. And New England’s offensive line was a  juggernaut, featuring three All-Pro level blockers.

As for Brady, the answer to how he would fare with elite offensive weaponry became clear. Brady won his first NFL MVP award by the way of 49 of 50 votes (some dimwit voted for Brett Favre) and broke several single-season passing records, including Manning’s touchdown passing record, as Brady threw for a then-NFL record 50 scores.

But most importantly, the Patriots became the first NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season. And the team was actually talented on both sides. The Patriots’ highest-priced free agent that offseason was actually EDGE defender Adalius Thomas, who played as a traditional outside linebacker, 3-4 outside linebacker and defensive end in the Patriots scheme. New England also employed the best 3-4 front possibly ever assembled in All-Pros Ty Warren and Richard Seymour at defensive end, and Vince Wilfork at nose tackle. All three were first-round picks. Additional veterans such as Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Teddy Bruschi and Junior Seau (joined in 2006) also helped, and 2003 draft pick turned top-three NFL cornerback Asante Samuel had become a deadly playmaking machine at defense, to the chagrin of NFL passers. The Patriots had become loaded in just one offseason.

But we know how the season ended. After a Week 17 loss to the Patriots at home, the Giants shocked the world with the help from a helmet catch and ferocious defensive line. From 18-0 to 18-1. The season ended in heartbreak.

According to Ian O’Connor’s book, ‘Belichick,’ it was the coach who took the blame for the loss immediately after the game. As told by O’Connor, via Stallworth, Belichick apparently walked into the locker room after the 17-14, Super Bowl 42 loss and took accountability.

“This was my fault,” Belichick said, according to Stallworth, through O’Connor. “And as he walked out, Donte Stallworth told me, it was like he just faded to black and disappeared. I actually think that’s one of his finest moments as a head coach – that he tried to help get his broken team through that moment by blaming himself,” O’Connor said.

The loss was rough, but Brady had arrived. For years, he was snubbed on best players lists such as Peter King‘s and Pete Prisco‘s, usually finishing at the No. 2 slot behind Manning, at least the past few seasons, despite his superior winning success.

This time, Brady topped both Prisco’s top 100 players list, and King’s top 50 players list in Sports Illustrated. Tom had finally been given respect as the NFL’s best player and quarterback.

The future was bright. Despite losing the likes of Samuel (Eagles) on defense and Stallworth (Browns) on offense, the Patriots retained Moss on a three-year deal and still had Welker, a stout offensive line, and veteran defense. They were the obvious Super Bowl favorites heading into the 2008 season, being led by the game’s best quarterback, who turned just 31 in August of 2008.

Despite what would two Super Bowl losses to the Giants during the upcoming span, 2007 to 2011 would end up being Brady’s physical peak. His zip on passes of variance was unrivaled at any point throughout his career. Tom won two NFL MVP awards with two completely different offenses (we’ll get to the second offense later).

But the 2008 season came crashing down in Week 1 Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard — who would later be known as the “Patriot Killer” for four such devastating, season-altering tackles that inflicted season-ending injuries on important Patriots — rammed into Brady’s knee, tearing his ACL and ending his season before it really started.

New England missed the playoffs via a top-of-the-AFC East tiebreaker with the Miami Dolphins, but the Patriots went 11-5 under backup quarterback Matt Cassel, who enjoyed a fine season while being thrusted into the starting role.

Although their numbers were slightly down, Moss and Welker had successful seasons with Cassel throwing them the ball. This sparked controversy as many believed this proved, again, that it was Belichick who was the main engine, and Brady merely a cog that could be replaced by the likes of Cassel or others.

That was a silly notion, obviously, but that season did prove Belichick could make due, whatever the circumstance. His ability to adjust as a coach and team manager is second to none, even after losing his most valuable player. The team adapted to become the no. 6 rushing offense in football (142.4 yards per game) behind a four-prong, committee attack at running back, and the defense remained one of the league’s better units.

Still, a team that nearly went 19-0 the season before finished 11-5. The drop-off from Brady to Cassel was a five-win differential in the regular season.

A major counter-question to the silly television segments that suggested that Brady should be traded in favor of Cassel that offseason would be: Would those same Brady detractors feel that way if the Patriots’ five-win drop-off was, say, from 12-4 to 7-9? Additionally, what is to make of Brady’s 50-touchdown season to Cassel’s 21-touchdown performance with Moss, Welker, Gaffney and others the following year?

Ultimately, despite a having a surprisingly successful season without Brady, the Patriots went 3-5 versus teams that finished with a winning record. It appeared the Patriots could somewhat succeed with Belichick and not Brady, and maybe even Brady, and not Belichick. But for New England to achieve the level of success that would see them make reach Super Bowls and 13 AFC Championship Games in 18 Brady-led seasons, the Patriots needed both the greatest quarterback (and player) in NFL history, and perhaps the greatest coach in NFL history, and perhaps, sports. The level of success they attained was so wildly absurd, that it makes sense that both are the greatest at what they do, despite many detractors’ need to diminish one part of the tandem by proving them less valuable.

Belichick ended up shipping Cassel and veteran Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs, and Brady returned to the field in 2009, reuniting with Moss and Welker to hopefully return to top contender status.

The team went through a variety of changes, but they made an important draft pick at the end of the 2009 NFL Draft. Seventh-round draft pick Julian Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State, but was selected by the Patriots presumably because of the “Wildcat” fad started by the Dolphins in 2008.

To the Patriots, Edelman was seen as a football player that was a piece not yet used in the offensive puzzle.

Would he be a slot receiver, pass-catching running back, or a Wildcat QB? Belichick loved his versatility, and praised Edelman when he scored his first professional touchdown on a punt return versus the Eagles during the 2009 preseason, even foreshadowing him to Welker as the Lou Gehrig to his Wally Pip, meaning Edelman could be the more-known successor of Welker years later.

As for the regular season, the Patriots began the year 6-2 before a key meeting at 8-0 Indianapolis. It was the 11th meeting between Brady and Manning. The Patriots jumped out to a 31-14 lead behind two scores from Brady to Moss, and one to Edelman, the rookie, for his first career score. But the Colts stormed back to cut the deficit to 34-28 before Belichick made a decision to go for it on 4th-and-2 from their own 30-yard line with just over two minutes to play. Brady’s pass was caught by Kevin Faulk just inches short of the first down. The Colts took over on downs and Manning would win the game on a short touchdown pass to Reggie Wayne with 13 seconds remaining. Colts 35, Patriots 34, the final score read. Indianapolis moved virtually four games ahead of the Patriots in the AFC standings, instead of New England being just one game back, and with the tiebreaker. The loss changed the course of the season.

The Patriots then dropped two of their next three games and finished 10-6 before being blown out by the Ravens, 33-14, at home in an AFC Wild Card matchup at home in which Brady threw three interceptions.

The team struggled without Welker, who tore his ACL the week prior in a near-meaningless game that ended in a loss to the Texans in Houston. The player who tackled Welker during the play where he was injured? Patriot-killer, Bernard Pollard.

In Welker’s place, the rookie Edelman caught two touchdown passes, but New England was overmatched.

Earlier in the year, NFL Films caught a conversation between Brady and Belichick on the sideline while filming Belichick’s two-part ‘A Football Life’ episode.

A Football Life, Belichick and Brady
NFL Films captured a conversation between Brady and Belichick that showed their frustration with the 2009 team, and that change was to come in the offseason. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

“We just have no mental toughness,” Belichick told Brady about the current state of the team. “We can’t play the game the way we need to play it…I just can’t get this team to play the way we need to play. I just can’t do it. It’s so fucking frustrated…And the tougher it gets, the lest likely we are to do it.”

That conversation came two weeks after the rough loss in Indianapolis, on a Monday night massacre in New Orleans, that saw the eventual Super Bowl 44 champion Saints bludgeon the Patriots, 38-17, with speed and creativity.

While New England went one-and-done in the playoffs for the first time in the Brady-Belichick era, Manning had won his fourth NFL MVP award and led his Colts to Super Bowl 44, where a Manning-thrown pick-six would doom them, and Drew Brees’ Saints would win. The Patriots’ roster was nowhere near the class of those teams.

It was clear, the Patriots were in need of a major overhaul, on both sides of the ball. The run of veterans that helped the defense throughout the 2000’s would be gone entering 2010, save for nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who was drafted in 2004.

Seymour was traded that 2010 offseason to the Raiders for a first-round pick. Bruschi and Harrison had retired before the 2009 season. Ty Warren would play his last season as a Patriot in 2009, as he was put on injured reserve before the 2010 season before being released, and 2007 marquee signing, Adalius Thomas, was released after the 2009 season after a year that featured a bumpy relationship with Belichick and a decline in on-field play. The defense was completely shot.

Enter the 2010 offseason, which became the most impressive draft of Belichick’s tenure, to date.

In need of an infusion of young talent on both ends of the ball, the Patriots drafted cornerback Devin McCourty in the first round, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the second and fourth rounds, off-ball, thumper linebacker Brandon Spikes in the second round and picked up a starter over the next few seasons at both boundary cornerback and nickel back in Kyle Arrington, as an undrafted, rookie free agent.

Heading into 2010, Manning and Brees were now considered the best quarterbacks in football by many, with Brady on the outside looking in, with the likes of the up-and-coming Aaron Rodgers. Two years removed from a brutal, season-ending knee injury, Brady was finally feeling healthy, after a subpar 2009 season in which he showed signs of skittishness in the pocket for the first time of his career. What came next, was one of the most memorable seasons of his legendary career.

Brady was otherworldly explosive in 2007, but just as efficient in 2010. ESPN‘s Gene Wojciechowski, one of the most respected NFL columnists of the 2000s, inferred Brady was better in 2010 than he was in 2007 in a column after the Patriots defeated the eventual Super Bowl 45 champion Packers, albeit without Super Bowl 45 MVP Aaron Rogders, 31-27 via a game-winning drive on a frigid December night at Gillette. Brady needed just 43 plays, compared to the Packers’ 80, to seal a victory against an uber-talented defense that featured that season’s Defensive Player of the Year award winner — Brady’s former Michigan teammate, Charles Woodson.  Efficient. A smooth offense orchestrated by the coolest of cats at quarterback.

Brady smoothly operated through what easily could have been a rough midseason transition. The Patriots drastically shifted their offense from the season before, relying on two-tight end sets with Gronk as a monstrous, traditional tight end, and Hernandez as one of the most effective offensive swiss army knifes in NFL offensive history, as he played tight end, wide receiver, H-back and even lined up in the backfield. With the offense relying on the tight ends, and Welker (who had an off year recovering from an ACL tear of his own the year before) the team relied less on Moss early in the season, and after Moss vented his frustration to the media about not receiving a contract extension, Belichick shipped the wide receiver back to his initial NFL team, the Vikings.

To replace Moss as the team’s No. 1 boundary receiver, Belichick traded back for Brady’s old friend, Deion Branch, who was still effective, but hardly the player he once was. New England deemphasized the permitter receiver position, and instead relied on Brady’s familiarity with Branch and Welker, and mismatches with Gronk and Hernandez. At running back, former 2006 first-round pick Maroney was shipped to the Broncos before the season, leaving 2008 undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis, “The Lawfirm,” as the Patriots ‘ running back, with Danny Woodhead, another undrafted player, and former New York Jet, to fill the scatback role. Kevin Faulk was lost for the season in Week 2.

Brady was making due with the most awkward of transitions. It was an offensive overhaul, and the franchise quarterback delivered a 36-touchdown, four-interception (a single-season, ratio record) season that would win him his second NFL MVP award, while being the first unanimous choice up to that point.

As for the AFC landscape, the Chargers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2005, and longstanding injury issues to Manning’s neck caused the Colts to become a 10-6 shell of themselves that were ousted in the wild card. In fact, Manning had thrown a game-ending interception to James Sanders in a 31-28 loss to Brady and the Patriots earlier in the season. The Patriots’ new main rival would be Rex Ryan and the loudmouth Jets, who voiced their arrogance in a victory at home over New England in 2009, a season that saw the wild card Jets make the 2009 AFC Title Game, where they’d lose in Indianapolis.

Ryan and the Jets beat the Patriots in New York again in 2010, but in a national-televised Monday Night game in December, the Patriots destroyed the Jets in Foxboro, 45-3, taking control of the AFC en route to a 14-2, No. 1 seed season. That was a rare blowout win for Brady’s Patriots versus a Rex Ryan-led defense. A former Ravens defensive coordinator, Ryan was well-versed with the Patriots, and with the offense shifting to more of a middle-of-the-field attack, the Jets were able to adjust to the Patriots’ offensive scheme after their humiliating loss, to shock the Patriots, 28-21 in an AFC Divisional Playoff rematch.

After blitzing 22 times versus Brady in their December loss, the Jets scaled back, and instead clogged the middle of the field with loaded coverages (explained in a brilliant piece by NFL.com’s Elliot Harrison), which befuddled Brady and stifled the Patriots’ unique attack. Ironically, after a season in which the Patriots adjusted their offense perfectly without Moss, New England missed Moss on the perimeter in their disappointing playoff loss.

New England needed to adjust once more. Additionally, they needed help on defense. The Patriots defense played well in transition in 2010, but that was mostly due to their 38 takeaways, which ranked them second-best in the league. This was the beginning of the bend-but-don’t-break defenses the Patriots housed often in the 2010’s, and in 2011, they were about to break.

Thanks to the 2010 NFL draft class drafted by Belichick, the Patriots were back as an NFL power after a two-year hiatus in 2008 and 2009. Of course, Brady was owed some thanks, too. Twice, he adjusted to new personnel, new schemes, and a new offensive play-caller (Josh McDaniels, Bill O’Brien) since Charlie Weis left in 2005. Brady had success with two, trend-setting offenses (2007, 2010), that according to Football Outsidersare the two best offenses of all-time by a wide margin, based off the site’s well-respected DVOA stat. During a nine-game span in 2010, Brady threw for 21 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

The Patriots didn’t do much to help their defense in the 2011 offseason (save for signing defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who was cut midseason), which was a mess because of the CBA deals, much like this current 2020 offseason, because of that, and mostly the COVID-19 pandemic. They did, however, sign the boisterous Chad Ochocinco to fill Moss’ role as the boundary receiver. Ochocinco, 33, was thought to have at least one more great season win him, and Belichick, who had shown his affinity toward the receiver during a pre-preseason game talk with the former Bengal in 2009, was trying to supply Brady with an adequate boundary receiver after the Patriots’ undoing the prior year without Moss.

Brady began the season with a 509-yard performance versus the Dolphins, and the Patriots fielded a juggernaut offense, but Ochocinco failed to catch on, again leaving the Patriots without a true outside threat at the position. The defense was even more disappointing, as McCourty and Arrington fell victim to sophomore slumps, and New England’s defense was left without top talent besides Wilfork and 2008 first-round pick Jerod Mayo at linebacker.

New England sat tied with the Jets at 5-3, before they defeated Rex Ryan’s bunch in New York, beginning a nine-game winning streak that took them to Super Bowl 46. After ending Tebowmania in the AFC Divisional Round, the team barely skated by a tough Ravens squad, but they failed to escape without trouble. Patriot Killer Bernard Pollard again victimized the Patriots, injuring Gronk, who had been a breakout star in his sophomore campaign, scoring 17 touchdowns in 2011, making the Patriots’ forget about their lack of a true No. 1 wide receiver on the outside.

With Welker having a career year in 2011 (122 catches, 1,569 receiving yards, nine touchdowns), and Hernandez acting as a versatile piece, the Patriots were in position to find just enough, while balancing the running game, to hopefully win a fourth title, but it was the Giants that stifled them again, 21-17, in Super Bowl 46.

Gronkowski was a shell of himself with his ankle injury, and was basically used as a decoy in the game, as he was targeted just three times. The Giants ferocious defensive front, again led by defensive end Justin Tuck (the breakout player of Super Bowl 42) was once agin able to hone in on Brady with just a four-man front of defensive ends (Giants’ ‘NASCAR’ package), and despite Brady completing a Super Bowl-record 16 straight passes (two touchdowns) to give New England a 17-9 lead, it was now two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning who had the better fourth quarter.

Of course, there was the key Welker drop in the fourth quarter. Then there was a failed, but almost-completed Hail Mary pass by Brady. Then, after the loss, Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen’s had an infamous rant after being sworn by reporters.

In 2012, the Patriots replaced Ochocinco with 31-year-old Brandon Lloyd (911 yards, 12.3 yards per reception, 4 touchdowns in 2012) to some avail. Welker put in another fine season, despite a lingering issue regarding his expiring contract. And as for the twin towers, both Gronkowski and Hernandez missed time with injuries. Gronk scored 11 touchdowns 11 games before virtally being lost for the season, and Hernandez missed six regular season games.

With Bill O’Brien leaving, Josh McDaniels returned as the team’s offensive coordinator in 2012 (he rejoined the staff during the 2011 postseason) and the Patriots relied on a hurry-up approach on offense, with Steven Ridley at running back.

Brady’s old nemesis, Peyton Manning, who sat out the entire 2011 season before being released by Colts, had spectacularly returned to lead the Broncos to the AFC’s top seed, despite New England beating Denver earlier in the year.

But the Patriots (12-4, No. 2 seed) caught a break when the Ravens upset the Broncos in double overtime, or so they thought. Baltimore exacted revenge over the previous AFC Title Game, by downing the Gronk-less Patriots. Bernard Pollard struck again, injuring Ridley on a fumble-inducing hit in the fourth quarter, and the Ravens won 28-13, eventually winning Super Bowl 47.

New England’s misfortune continued into the 2013 offseason, as the Aaron Hernandez saga unfolded, and complications with Gronk’s forearm and back forced multiple surgeries that saw him miss the beginning of the year. As a cherry on top, Brady’s most trusted target, Welker, left the Patriots for Peyton Manning and the Broncos in free agency.

Not only did Welker leave, but he signed a modest deal of $12 million over two years to be in Denver. The Patriots had reportedly offered Welker a deal worth just $10 million over that same span, but Welker had felt slighted by Belichick’s hard-ball approach.

Brady never voiced his frustration publicly, but several sources close to Brady claim that he was upset over the decision. Additional news came out that inferred Welker had gone back to the Patriots after the Broncos offer, but that New England informed Welker that they had planned to replace him with another free agent. That would be Danny Amendola, who spent time in McDaniels’ system with the St. Louis Rams.

That, coupled with the details of Amendola’s contract (5 years, $31 million) made it clear that Belichick had preferred Amendola, and had little intention of bringing back Welker, Brady’s friend. This ordeal also came roughly a month after Brady had reportedly restructured his contract to give the team more flexibility. ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported that a source that had direct contact with Brady said the quarterback was “bummed out.”

As a Patriot for six years, Welker had more catches over that span than any other NFL player. He was now gone. The shifty, do-it-all, tight end-receiver-running back hybrid Hernandez was in prison facing murder charges. Boundary receiver Brandon Lloyd was not resigned. Additionally, the role of the pass-catching running back was a question mark, as Woodhead left to sign with the Chargers that offseason, and Faulk had retired after the 2011 season.

Moreover, with Gronk out indefinitely, the Patriots began the season expecting to rely on Amendola in the slot and second-round rookie Aaron Dobson as the team’s perimeter wide receiver. But the team also made an under-the-radar move to bring back reserve receiver and punt returner Edelman back on a low-end, one-year deal.

Edelman (105 catches, 1,056 yards, six touchdowns) ended up being Brady’s top target that year as a flanker/slot receiver hybrid.

But with Gronkowski out, and Hernandez, Welker, Lloyd and Woodhead gone, Brady struggled and New England struggled to find their identity on offense.

Gronkowski returned for seven games, boosting the Patriots offense for span, before being lost for another season after suffering a torn ACL and MCL later in the year. In 2013, Brady’s offense produced 30.6 points per game with Gronkowski, but that number fell a bit (27.7 points per game) without him. That doesn’t sound too bad statically, but the truth is, the Patriots were not a formidable offense at that point without Gronk. Without him, they relied on undrafted rookie Matthew Mulligan from Maine at the position, exposing their team’s depth at the position.

Brady had success throwing to Edelman, but Amendola wasn’t as effective as Welker, and the likes of undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins and Dobson on the outside wasn’t going to cut it.

With Gronk, the Patriots erased a 24-point deficit to defeat Manning’s Broncos and dropped 55 points in a home win over the Steelers. Without him, they turned to bulky running back LaGarrette Blount, who ran wild (24 carries, 166 yards, four touchdowns) in an AFC Divisional Playoff win over the Colts, but was stymied in New England’s 26-16, AFC title game loss in Denver. Brady and a mostly-hapless group of pass catchers were unable to match Denver’s mighty attack.

Manning, Welker and the Broncos were headed to the Super Bowl. Brady had suffered his worst statistical season since 2006, another year where he had inadequate receivers, and Manning had re-broken the NFL single-season passing touchdowns recored (55) and many other single-season marks, as the 2013 Broncos became the highest-scoring team of all-time.

It’s not as simple as saying Manning had the weapons, and Brady didn’t, but Denver and GM John Elway had clearly tailored their team to Manning, while Brady fit into whatever current Patriots roster that Belichick constructed.

Most would agree that the 2006 and 2013 squads were clearly inadequate, and not the roster that Belichick had envisioned. But many would also agree that the way Belichick did business, and the way Brady fit into the “Patriot Way,” was a major reason why they continued to be a contender. But like the 2007 offseason, Belichick would have to make the team significantly better in 2014.

The pass-happy Broncos ultimately were run over by the new-age, defensively unique Seahawks, 43-8, in Super Bowl 48, but one thing was clear, the current broader picture: Peyton Manning had gained the upper hand on Brady in their see-saw race toward Joe Montana, to become the greatest of all-time at the quarterback position.

A 37-year-old Manning had revived the Broncos with help from Welker, one of Brady’s best friends during his Patriots tenure. He was viewed as the game’s current best passer heading into the 2014 season. And if not him, then it was Rodgers in Green Bay, who had already won a Super Bowl and an NFL MVP award, and was most likely only getting better. After those two, there were some who even put Brees in New Orleans over Brady, for his recent statistical prowess with the Saints. The Brady-Manning debate raged on, but for many covering the NFL nationally, Brady was becoming an afterthought in the “Who’s the best QB?” debates, and he was entering his age-37 season.

Despite the porous offensive cast around him, and a third straight AFC title game appearance, there were questions surrounding Brady by the media. That would only intensify after New England selected quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois in the second round (no. 62 pick) of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Brady had insisted he had no thoughts of retiring anytime soon, but Belichick clearly was at least thinking about life after Brady. It appeared that time may finally be in focus, even if it were a couple of seasons away.

Heading into 2014, the Patriots were almost 10 full years removed from their last Super Bowl win. Their quarterback was aging. Their pass-catching personnel outside of Edelman, and an oft-injured Gronk, was barren, and their slightly-above-average defense was not good enough to carry the team.

For the Belichick-Brady era, the end was near…or so we thought.

2014-2018: Brady’s prime + Dynasty comes full circle with second wave of titles

Extraordinary, Brady’s actual prime didn’t begin until his age-37 season.

Brady’s magnum opus on a macro level came from “on to Kansas City” in 2014 through Super Bowl LII at the end of the 2017 season. On a micro level, it was Super Bowl LI. After a lengthy battle with the league over the embarrassing (for the league) DeflateGate scandal, Brady’s four-game suspension was deferred to the 2016 season. The GOAT came back with a vengeance, winning 14 of his next 15 games en route to his most memorable performance — turning a 28-3 Super Bowl deficit versus the Atlanta Falcons into a 34-28 overtime win for the Patriots.

But before all that, the Patriots entered the 2014 season with some uncertainty.

Belichick banked on Gronkowski returning into form, to go along with Edelman, Amendola and the newly-signed Brandon LaFell (outside threat, perimeter) as the team’s wide receivers.

On defense, the Patriots spent money on cornerbacks in former All-Pro Darrelle Revis and the lengthy and muscular Brandon Browner, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound press coverage cornerback who had success with the defending champion Seahawks.

The thinking by Belichick was that he needed a better defensive backfield to combat Manning’s record-setting Broncos offense.

New England began the year with a sloppy 2-1 mark, with both Gronkowski and Revis looking rusty enough to assume their past level of play was only a distant memory.

In Week 4, the Patriots would travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs on a nationally-televised Monday Night game in raucous Arrowhead Stadium.

The Patriots were massacred, 41-14, in a game that would not only change the course of the next five years, but eventually, Brady and Belichick’s legacy. At the time, who would have ever imagined the success that would follow the duo after what looked like the nail-in-the-coffin loss of a great run? I guess, Skip Bayless knew, judging by his ESPN column proclaiming that Brady would “rise like the Phoenix from the ashes” and win Super Bowl 49. But you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who agreed with that take at the time.

Brady had thrown two picks (one pick-six), fumbled twice (losing one) and was eventually benched late for Garoppolo, who came in and produced an impressive touchdown-scoring drive, albeit in garbage time.

As expected, mayhem in the media ensued.

On NFL Network, Donovan McNabb suggested the Patriots would be better off with Garoppolo. Pro Football Focus adamantly declared that “we’ve seen the best of Brady,” and during ESPN’s postgame of the Patriots loss, Trent Dilfer infamously called New England a “weak team” that was no longer a good bunch. (Although, Dilfer later came to bat for New England following the ridiculous DeflateGate scandal later in the season. Keep reading.)

The media asked Belichick during a press conference leading up to the next game about all that went wrong. Almost every one of his responses was an answer of “On to Cincinnati,” which became a slogan throughout the year.

At one point in the presser, someone asked Belichick if the “quarterback position would be evaluated”, to which Belichick deflected the question with a quick laugh infused with disgust for the question even being asked.

It was a moment that spoke volumes. Brady, even at age 37, was still the team’s quarterback, and Belichick had come to his defense in a time of need.

The Patriots adjusted on both offense and defense after that, as Brady had an MVP-level season the rest of the way. Gronkowski shook off the rust from September, and at times looked as dominant as he had ever been throughout his career, that season. After struggling with different coverage concepts earlier in the year, New England switched back to a Belichick favorite scheme in heavy man coverage, allowing Revis to shine, along with Browner, who started playing after serving a four-game suspension.

Other contributing defensive players that would become household names included Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan. New England also brought Chung back at safety after his one season with the Eagles, and traded for edge rusher Akeem Ayers at midseason. And then there was undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler, the team’s No. 5 cornerback, who would later make a name for himself.

New England shook off a 2-2 start to win their next seven games in a row, which included a thumping of the Broncos in Foxboro, which became the lasting see-saw in the careers of Brady and Manning. Manning would struggle through the rest of 2014 and in his very last season in 2015. He’d look like a shell of himself from there on out, (albeit winning a Super Bowl) while Brady shook off the impending doom of the early part of 2014, to begin a five-season run that would lift him to a never-before-seen stratosphere of quarterbacks, and NFL players.

New England went 12-4, earning the No. 1 seed, and after falling behind by 14 points twice during one AFC Divisional Playoff game versus the rival Ravens, Brady erased both deficits to win the game, 35-31. If the “Tuck Rule” game back in 2001 kicked off the Patriots initial dynasty, it was this game that kicked off the dynasty’s second wave of postseason success.

Baltimore, who along with maybe the Giants, were the only consistently fearless bunch that didn’t give a damn about going into Foxboro. And the Ravens had stuffed any hopes of a New England rushing attack, leaving that aspect of the offense non-existent.

But Brady delivered, throwing the ball 50 times for 367 yards and three scores, erasing both deficits and throwing the game-winning score late to Brandon LaFell. The pass remains of his greatest legacy throws.

Perhaps the most impressive stat for Brady is not his best-of-all-time winning percentage (minimum 100 starts — 219-64, .774) as a starter, but his record in the playoffs when throwing the ball 50-plus times. The high number, usually a sign of a team in trouble, meant a team was often trailing, and in need of their quarterback to bail them out.

Brady’s career record in the playoffs with 50 or more pass attempts is 6-2. All other quarterbacks in NFL playoff history are a combined 3-32 with that same stat. Brady also has the highest winning-percentage in such occasion in the regular season.

This is a ridiculous stat that showcases Brady’s ability when the game is solely in his hands. As expected, teams enter games with a game plan, and any team would love to have balance, with success on the ground to compliment the passing game.

In the 2014 playoff win over the Ravens, any hopes of a rushing attack (that was surely at least in the game plan, somewhat) were dashed early, and Belichick and McDaniels felt comfortable leaving the game solely in Brady’s hands. As he usually did, he delivered.

The Patriots relied on Blount and their rushing attack the next week, as they bullied the Colts, 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game.

And just as New England began to gear their focus toward the defending champion Seahawks in Super Bowl 49, the infamous DeflateGate scandal came about. By Monday morning, it was all everyone wanted to talk about.

Like the SpyGate scandal, people absurdly started questioning the validity of the Patriots success.

Kraft, Belichick and eventually, Brady, all conducted press conferences on the matter. There was some evidence that Brady may have conspired a plan to doctor the balls. But the clear evidence of weather was also at play.

The NFL and NFL PA combined, ended up spending roughly $22 million (roughly $14.7 million for the league itself) on independent investigations, legal fees and more, on the air pressure in a few footballs.

ESPN’s Chris Mortenson was given incorrect information from a source that told him 11 of the Patriots’ 12 footballs were under-inflated by league standards (which was not true), which solidified the running theme of ESPN having it out for the Patriots, which is probably not true, but it’s impossible to completely ignore some of their stances on the Patriots, including a failure to apologize about the initial misinformation from Mortenson’s source. It didn’t help that the NFL, too, failed to correct the information in a pubic statement. They put out nothing, adding to the misleading hysteria over what actually happened.

By all measures, the saga was an embarrassing shit show, to say the least.

Many believed that Belichick shined a light directly on Brady, during the coach’s conference. To be fair, it did seem as if Belichick had no idea what was happening. Many thought Kraft also failed to come to bat for Brady when he allowed the league to dish out the eventual punishment, months later, of a fine, loss of a two draft picks — including the team’s first-round choice in 2016 — without a fight. If SpyGate fell directly on Belichick, DeflateGate would fall on Brady.

The scandal bled into Super Bowl 49, a game between the mighty dynastic Patriots, and the defending-champion Seahawks, whose “Legion-of-Boom” defense was perhaps the best pass-defending unit of all-time. The game was fascinating in that the betting line was dead even, a pick-em, heading into Super Bowl Sunday. It was an even match between the league’s clear two best teams, something that hasn’t always played out.

After an early, back-and-forth effort, Seattle managed to score 17 straight points to take a 24-14 lead. In with that same score, on a 3rd-and-14 for the Patriots with less than 12 minutes remaining, NBC’s Chris Collinsworth brought up the scandal once more, as Brady was attempting the game’s most important throw to that point.

Brady delivered an iconic, first-down strike to Edelman. He ended up leading two consecutive, touchdown-scoring drives to give New England a 28-24, Super Bowl 49 victory, with help from his friend, undrafted rookie, Malcolm Butler.

In the mighty fourth quarter, Brady went 13-for-15, with 124 yards and two passing scores, to erase the 10-point deficit against the best passing defense of all-time.

The win gave him his fourth ring, tying Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, along with his third Super Bowl MVP award, joining Montana.

The game is still, perhaps, the greatest Super Bowl of all-time, and it’s the best Super Bowl representation of Brady, Belichick and the Patriots as a collective unit. Brady eviscerated the NFL’s top defense late, and Belichick’s Jedi mind trick late on Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, caused a hectic atmosphere that may or may not have caused a panic, that resulted in a Patriots victory.

It was the first Super Bowl win for the Patriots in 10 years. Any “they haven’t won since SpyGate/DeflateGate” jokes were officially put to rest.

What was not put to rest, however, was the looming suspension of Brady, who was lucky to be reinstated for the beginning of the 2015 season when judge Richard Berman vacated Brady’s four-game suspension just before the start of the season.

After a 10-0 start to the 2015 season, the Patriots lost three of five to end the year, eventually losing in Denver in the AFC Championship Game, where Brady failed to convert a two-point conversion in the closing seconds, despite some heroic, clutch efforts with Gronk, to get to that point. Despite serving as only a game manager at QB, Manning got the best of Brady in his second-to-last game of his career, and Denver ended up beating Carolina in Super Bowl 50.

To make matters worse, Brady’s four-game suspension was back in play for the beginning of the 2016 season, and this time, he’d serve it.

New England began the year with Garoppolo at quarterback, wining their first two games, but losing Garoppolo to injury in the process. The Patriots split the next two games with rookie, third-stringer Jacoby Brissett at the helm.

With a 3-1 record and a Week 5 contest to be played in Cleveland, Brady returned.

What ensued was a revenge tour de force that saw the Patriots finish the year winning 14 of 15 games under Brady, despite losing Gronkowski to yet another year-ending injury midseason, and despite having a mediocre defense.

New England’s defensive unit did step up later in the year, and ended up allowing the lowest points per game total in the league, but defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s unit was more of a bend-don’t-break unit.

After a masterpiece performance in the AFC Championship Game win over Pittsburgh, Brady entered Super Bowl 51 with a chance to become the only quarterback to win five Super Bowls, and perhaps more importantly, would get a chance to force Goodell to shake his hand after a Super Bowl victory, the same year he served his suspension.

Everything was set up for a career-defining moment.

The NFC champion Falcons had other plans, racing out to a 28-3 lead via an electric, fast-paced offense that broke the Patriots’ bend-but-don’t break offense in the game’s first three quarters.

It wasn’t just the Falcons offense that was on fire, their fast defense victimized Brady for a pick-six, and their man-coverage game plan forced New England’s pass catchers to beat their defenders. Through three quarters, that wasn’t happening.

But the stars aligned that night, or should I say, Brady happened.

The most memorable single-game comeback in sports history, and biggest comeback in NFL postseason history, happened that night.

The Patriots erased a 28-3 deficit that stood with as late as two minutes remaining in the third quarter, while relying heavily on Brady’s right arm and coverage-directing, football mind.

If some of the early-dynasty Super Bowl wins were more of Belichick’s accomplishments, this Super Bowl (and that entire season) would be Brady’s magnum opus. This was his moment.

Brady went 43 of 62 for 466 yards and two passing scores to win his NFL-record fourth Super Bowl MVP award, which came along with his fifth Super Bowl ring.

The win ended any argument over who was now the greatest quarterback of all time, and to many, put Brady over the likes of Jim Brown and Jerry Rice to be crowned the greatest football player of all time.

Brady was now, the GOAT.

In an iconic moment after the game, Brady broke down, surrounded by reporters and photographers. Running back LeGarrette Blount, and then, Belichick, came over to rejoice with him.

A few minutes later, Brady received a handshake from commissioner Goodell, and later, received the Lombardi Trophy.

“We’re bringing this sucker home!” Brady shouted toward the confetti-drowned crowd, while hosting the trophy.

That offseason would be the last period of complete harmony (at least from the media’s standpoint) between Brady and Belichick, which seems hard to believe, seeing as two more consecutive Super Bowl appearances would follow.

After seeing his Patriots receivers struggle to get separation on Atlanta’s man coverage defense in the first half of Super Bowl 51, Belichick realized that Brady needed speed at the position.

In a trade involving multiple assets, Belichick unloaded the Patriots’ first-round pick (No. 32) to the Saints to acquire speedy wideout Brandin Cooks. A first-round pick himself in 2014 for New Orleans, Cooks was a basically a three-prong route-runner (fly, comeback, slant) as opposed to a five-tool receiver with inside and outside versatility.

But Cooks, and the return of Gronkowski, would be all Brady needed to silent detractors again by uncorking an efficient deep passing game in 2017, that Patriots fans hadn’t seen since the Randy Moss-era.

Brady won his third NFL MVP award in 2017, at age 40, but the team had some problems.

First off, Edelman, fresh off one of the most miraculous catches in Super Bowl history, and being Brady’s most trusted target for the past few seasons, was lost with an ACL injury in the preseason.

Secondly, defensive leader and big-game linebacker Dont’a Hightower, would also miss the remainder of the year after an early-season injury.

Thirdly, the Patriots’ bend-but-don’t-break defense would be at its worst form since 2011, when the unit helped cost the team a Super Bowl. With injuries afoot, prime offseason acquisition, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, struggling with zone schemes to start the year, and a lack of a pass rush, the Patriots were left vulnerable to high-flying offenses, particularly ones fielding an Andy Reid-like offense, Like the one coached by Reid himself, in Kansas City, as the Chiefs rampaged the Patriots in New England on Super Bowl-banner-dropping opening night, for a 42-27 win.

As the cherry on top, ESPN‘s Seth Wickersham had released a long-form exposé on the supposed divisiveness between Brady and Belichick, citing Brady’s trainer and friend, Alex Guerrero, as a locker room rift-causing presence irking Belichick, and the presence of Garoppolo, who had played well in filling in for Brady in 2016, as as an annoyance to Tom.

Although slivers of the truth may have been present, everything seemed force, along with zero on-the-record quotes. And again, an ‘ESPN vs Patriots’ stance was taken, either outright, or subliminally, between all that discussed the subject.

Kraft, Belichick and Brady released a joint statement shooting down the report and any of its supposed truths, as did Brady’s agent, Don Yee.

And as an important bit of information pertaining to the January 2018 column published right before the playoffs…backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had already been traded roughly two months earlier before the trade deadline.

Realizing that Brady had fought off any passing-of-the-torch with Garoppolo, and that the Patriots would not have had the cap space to pay the impending free agent and Brady, Belichick shipped the promising young quarterback off to Brady’s favorite childhood team, the San Francisco 49ers, for a second-round pick.

Wickersham’s article stated that Brady had forced Kraft’s hand by insisting he force Belichick to trade Garoppolo, which Wickerham thought that explained the low return value for a promising young passer, and that Belichick wanted Garoppolo to succeed elsewhere, so he sent him to a franchise under good leadership and offensive brain trust.

But the reality is, there was no way the Patriots could pay Garoppolo that offseason, and there was no way they could let go of Brady in the midst of the best four-year run by any quarterback, ever.

ESPN’s Ian O’Connor, one of the great columnists out there, said it right, when he wrote a piece detaining how Brady had survived the Patriot Way. Belichick always rids of players a year too early, rather than a year late, and Garoppolo clearly was his quarterback of the future, but Brady out-performed the planned takeover, and it would be silly to assume Belichick would be angry over that, and the continued winning.

The winning was continuing. The Patriots raced to Super Bowl LII that year after Brady made due without Gronkowski once more (injured in the AFC title game) to defeated the league’s newest top defense, the Jaguars, 24-20, by erasing a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit in Foxboro, despite slicing open his hand earlier in the week due to an incident at practice — a botched a handoff to running back Rex Burkhead.

Brady had done it again. New England was heading to it’s second straight Super Bowl, and third and four years, just like their early-2000s run. And just like that run, Brady was attempting to win his third ring in four years against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The game seemed ripe for the taking. Because of an injury to Carson Wentz, Philadelphia was rolling with backup quarterback Nick Foles. But the Eagles were run by head coach Doug Pederson. Pederson, fresh from the Andy Reid-coaching tree, had installed a fast-paced, high-flying offense that incorporate Reid schemes with RPO’s (run-pass-options) that were masterfully conducted by Foles that postseason.

The Eagles were a team feeding off the underdog narrative, led by some such as Chris Long and LeGarrette Blount, who had both been on the Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning team the year before.

The game was a weird contest that got off to a mind-numbingly odd start when starting cornerback Malcolm Butler, the Super Bowl 49 hero, was seen crying during the National Anthem.

Supposedly benched by Belichick, Butler would play only a few special teams snaps that game. To this day, no one knows the reason for Belichick’s benching of Butler on a defense that was already a mess of a unit. That would also be Butler’s last game as a Patriot, as he’d leave for the Tennessee Titans that offseason.

Despite 505 yards and three touchdowns by Brady, the Patriots lost Super Bowl LII, 41-33. Many remember Brady’s dropped pass on a trick play, or his fumble late in the fourth quarter on a blind-sided rush by Brandon Graham. But the fact of the matter is, this was Belichick and the defense’s doing.

The Patriots had trailed the Eagles all game, but Brady led New England back to a 33-32 lead in the fourth quarter, before the defense fell one more. The Eagles amassed a total of 538 yards, with New England garnering a Super Bowl-record 613.

The Patriots needed one stop, but the Malcolm Butler-less defense could not provide it.

Tom Brady -- Super Bowl LII
The Patriots lost Super Bowl LII, despite a 505-yard performance from Tom Brady. (Screenshot: Tom vs. Time)

That offseason, reports swirled around regarding a deteriorating relationship between Brady and Belichick.

Belichick tried to trade Gronkowski to the Lions before Brady reportedly stepped in. The near-completed trade was confirmed by Gronk months later.

“Yeah it happened….Brady’s my quarterback, that’s all,” Gronk told reporters. “I wasn’t going anywhere without Brady.”

Brady had also alluded to some discord during the post-Super Bowl episode of his ‘Tom vs Time’ series.

His wife, Gisele gave the most telling statements.

“These last two years have been really challenging for him, in so many ways,” Gisele said. “He tells me ‘I love it so much, and I just want to feel appreciated and have fun.'”

A few months later, in an interview in Los AngelesBrady “pleaded the fifth” when asked a question about whether or not he felt appreciated by the Patriots.

It was clear that there was at least some level of unhappiness from Brady’s standpoint.

As for the team, Belichick sent Cooks to the Rams for a first-round pick, and let Danny Amendola, a trusted Brady target since 2013, walk in free agency to eventually join the rival Dolphins.

Luckily, Gronk stayed put for one final season, and Edelman, recovering from his injury, would return.

But in return from his injury, Edelman tested positive for a banned substance that would land him a four-game suspension. Additionally, Gronk was slow to get going in the regular season, his final.

The Patriots began 2018 with a lowly 1-2 mark in which the offense looked utterly inefficient.

Many in the media were giddy to discuss the end of the Patriots dynasty. Several assumed Brady’s career had reached its end.

Of course, a familiar story played out, even for one final time.

Edelman came back, Brady improved, as did the defense, and New England would win five straight games before suffering another midseason mess, in which they lost two straight to drop to 9-5, including a last-second, ‘Miami Miracle’ loss.

But the Patriots would put that stretch in the rear view mirror, too.

In perhaps the most endearing run of the Patriots dynasty, either because of the finality of the Brady-Belichick era of success, or the F-U attitude displayed, New England put on a clinic in mental toughness, with a shift back to it’s early-dynasty philosophies, with a prime-Brady twist infused.

New England quietly dismantled the Bills and Jets in Weeks 16 and 17 to secure the AFC’s No. 2 seed, then, with many picking the talented Chargers to win in Foxboro, the Patriots dismantled Los Angeles in a home AFC Divisional Playoff win, 41-28, in a game that was never close.

Brady went 34-of-44 for 343 yards, and the Patriots, led by rookie first-round pick Sony Michel, ran for 155 yards as a team, and forced two takeaways on defense.

It was a masterpiece that would serve as an hors d’oeuvre for what was to come.

“I know everyone thinks we suck..and you know..can’t win any games…we’ll see” Brady told CBS’s Tracy Wolfson after the game.

New England would go onto Kansas City for the AFC Championship Game. Arrowhead Stadium is one of the hardest places to play, the Chiefs were fresh off a magical season in which young phenom QB Patrick Mahomes won NFL MVP for his 50-touchdown passing season, for an offense that was simply unstoppable.

Belichick and the Patriots gave Mahomes fits in the first half of a home win over the Cheifs earlier in the year, but after second-half adjustments by Kansas City, New England was lucky to escape with a 43-40 win.

This time they had to win in Kansas City. And they did.

The game is perhaps the last great legacy game for Brady and Belichick. It became perhaps the greatest, or one of the greatest, conference title games in NFL history.

The Patriots slowed down Mahomes and Kansas City again in the first half, limiting his downfield passes with a ferocious pass rush, all while controlling the clock with a dominant running game.

New England led 14-0 at the half in a game that was vintage for the Patriots, before another second-half shootout between Brady and Mahomes took place.

The Patriots scored three touchdowns in the closing four minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, with Brady converting three third-and-long conversions along the way to Edelman (twice) and Gronkowski.

After Burkhead’s game-clinching, two-yard score in overtime, Brady lifted off his helmet, and jumped for joy, into the arms of teammate Kyle Van Noy.

The final score read Patriots 37, Chiefs 31, and New England was heading back to its third straight Super Bowl, and fourth in five years, in what would become the final Super Bowl for both Brady and Belichick together.

In Super Bowl 53, New England reverted back to their defensive ways, completely befuddling the offensively-driven Los Angeles Rams, the same way they halted the Greatest-Show-On-Turf-led St. Louis Rams in New England’s first Super Bowl win in 2002.

Brady struggled for much of the game but he repeatedly found Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman (10 catches, 141 yards) on timely throws, and on the game-winning drive, Brady took control, completing a beautiful pass to Gronkowski down the seam, in play that would be Gronk’s final NFL catch, and Brady’s last legacy throw.

New England won the game 13-3. Afterward, Brady, Edelman and Belichick exchanged hugs and “I love you’s” amidst a media mob, as an elderly Belichick and grey-bearded Brady celebrated their sixth Super Bowl title together. Brady had become the only player in NFL history to win six rings, and in turn, tied Michael Jordan in a debate that may have lifted him into “greatest team sport athlete of all-time” consideration (I think so).

Like the early-dynasty teams, the Patriots had won this title with a complete unit packed with a solid defense, a tough ground attack, and few bail-out performances from the greatest quarterback of all-time, who now had that distinction.

The Patriots had officially created a second wave of the dynasty. They were the youngest team in NFL history to win a Super Bowl back in 2014. Now, with many of those same players on hand, they had won their third title in five years in that era, with the oldest squad in the NFL.

A year later, many things would change, but during that 2018 season, one thing remained the same — Brady and Belichick were Super Bowl champions, and their history of success would forever be ingrained in NFL lore.

The 2019 season was dissected ad nauseam. New England had the league’s best defense, a distinction that has been the case since the 2018 playoffs, and may continue in 2020, but the offense struggled.

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, the Patriots’ pass-catching group ranked dead last in total separation.

Despite going 12-4, the offense struggled to get going, and Brady seemed frustrated all year. New England went from a 10-1 start to a 12-5 finish that saw them lose to Mike Vrabel, Logan Ryan and other former Patriots headlining an underdog Titans squad. Tennessee out-muscled New England in the AFC Wild Card win.

Brady’s last throw as a Patriot would be a pick-six to Ryan. His last throw to Edelman was an Edelman drop. Titans 20, Patriots 13, and Brady would join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two months later.

This is not how many envisioned it ending, but if you take a closer look, the final season of success, the year before, was the perfect bookend to the dynasty.

The Patriots accomplished more than any ever dreamt of.

There was a lot of great reporting done by the likes of Seth Wickersham, Jeff Darlington, Adam Schefter, Tom Curran and others.

It’s likely no one hit this whole thing on the head. I still have my quarrels with some of Wickersham’s piece back in January of 2018. At the time, I thought the story was out of nowhere, and was completely overblown, so I owe Seth somewhat of an apology on that front. He’s an excellent reporter who clearly uncovered something.

We won’t know exactly what happened unless Brady and Belichick are willing to share, long after their careers are over.

Personally, it seemed apparent that Brady was irked by the presence of Jimmy Garoppolo, drafted by the Patriots in 2014 as a second-round pick by Belichick, slated to be Brady’s successor.

But it doesn’t appear logical that Belichick was ever frustrated with having to deal Garoppolo, or frustrated with Brady in general.

If I had to guess, the animosity is non-existent, the discord way overblown, and if anyone was frustrated, it was Brady, and only Brady, and not to the extent that most loved to assume.

In a way, this is exactly how it should be for Brady. Believe it or not, this decision is congruent with the rest of his career.

Once again feeding off his doubters, who scoff at Brady’s quest to remain at the top of his game at this age, the 43-year-old sees an opportunity with a talented young offense featuring threats at outside receiver, the slot, and tight end, and an up-and-coming defense that could compliment that. Brady believes he can win a Super Bowl with this team, and it would be unwise to doubt him.

As for Belichick, the mad scientist is likely eyeing a severe re-tooling, rather than a rebuild.

It was the defense that kept the team afloat last season, and that should be the case again in 2020.

Some important pieces — Kyle Van Noy, Duron Harmon — and some complimentary players — Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton — will now be missing from that defense, but New England has already begun tinkering for under-the-radar replacements in nose tackle Beau Allen and do-it-all, swiss army knife Adrian Phillips, who mostly played at safety for the Chargers, but can also play linebacker and nickel back.

This Patriots team can still be very good, with a veteran, top-tier defense, a stout offensive line and a modest offense, perhaps under Jarrett Stidham, a hand-picked fourth-round pick of Belichick’s in last year’s draft.

Or perhaps, the Hoodie could be eying 2021 — a year in which he ironically the Buccaneers (and probably, Brady) will play in Gillette Stadium — as a return to clear contender status. The team’s two most vocal leaders, Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty each just signed two-year deals through that season, and marquee Patriots dynasty member Julian Edelman is under contract until then, as well as the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore.

Furthermore, New England is set to have roughly $110 million in cap space next offseason, according to Over The CapShould the team exhibit some fight in 2020 — and they should, considering their head coach and defense — the Patriots would be well positioned to make major moves to fill their cap with talented players to join the fray to battle the likes of new-age AFC stalwarts such as the Chiefs and Ravens

In a sense, both the Patriots and Brady are set up for some success for the next year or two, even if that seems unfathomable for many predicting the demise of both parties.

As for the Brady-Belichick relationship , I believe both will likely keep things close to their vest in retirement, but if anyone is more likely to give an intimate thought into the breakup and their relationship to the media a decade from now, it’s probably Brady. But by then, any animosity, no matter how slight or perceived, by Tom toward his coach should dissipate. Maybe then, Brady will show admiration similar to what Belichick exemplified in his statement a few weeks ago, when Tom announced his departure.

“Sometimes in life, it takes some time to pass before truly appreciating something or someone, but that has not been the case with Tom,” Belichick stated. “He is a special person and the greatest quarterback of all-time.”

In the end, the Patriots have come full circle in team personnel and philosophy. In between two, mostly defensive-driven Super Bowl wins over the Rams, there were several iterations of the Patriots that revolved heavily on Brady’s right arm, and he delivered. New England should compete in the AFC, no matter who the quarterback is, with their current roster. And Brady’s presence should make this talented Tampa Bay squad an NFC contender. Both Brady and Belichick have something to prove, which should make for a fascinating season watching these two great minds of football. And for that, we’re all still, extremely lucky.

Brady was asked a litany of questions about the Patriots in his introductory press conference call as a Buccaneer. He reiterated his respect and love for Kraft, Belichick, his former teammates, and the Patriot organization, even calling this transition “emotional.”

But that’s as far as he’d go. His overall take was simple, and similar to the mantra both Brady and Belichick have lived by, at least when answering questions with the media.

The last question of the conference call came from The Athletic‘s Jeff Howe, a respected, long-time Patriots beat reporter. Howe asked what would have had to happen for Brady to have remained a Patriot. It was the question that spurred the aforementioned word “emotional” from Brady, when describing his departure from his former teammates. But the first words of his answer captured his overall tone of the call when asked questions about his former team.

“I don’t want to talk about the past because that’s not relevant to what is important in my future and what is going on in this offseason for me,” Brady said.

Well, I’d like to talk about the past, or at least reminisce a bit. Many in the region of New England likely would, too.

Sometime in the next seven to ten years, there will be a ceremony in Canton, Ohio. Both Brady and Belichick will be there. Brady will almost certainly express more emotion regarding his days with the Patriots then, as he looks back, similar to what I’m doing now.

The Brady-Belichick era in New England is finally over. What a memorable ride it was.

Deshaun Watson vs KC

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Watson outduels Mahomes + What football means to the Schwartz family

When I went to journalism school in Northwestern in 2017, our class with media veteran J.A. Adande consisted of writing about topics of our own choice.

My most passionate paper that year was when I lobbied that Deshaun Watson should be the first quarterback taken in the 2017 NFL Draft. I later doubled down on Watson in a NFL Draft recap show us students created a few weeks later.

The National Championship-winning quarterback from Clemson has made me proud thus far.

His stats — 30 of 42, 280 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions — weren’t as flashy, thanks to a number of dumbfounding drops. But the result, a 31-24 win over the Chiefs in Kansas City, tell the real story.

As soon as Watson converted a 4th-and-3 on a gutsy pass to DeAndre Hopkins to seal the game, one thing was clear: Watson is an MVP candidate worthy of lofty comparisons to fellow new-wave superstars Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson.

While his moxie and leadership skills were already uncovered in college, it’s Watson’s pure passing skills that have kept the Texans in the mix in the AFC, despite having a slew of roster efficiencies like their offensive line.

The Texans head to Indianapolis next week, meaning we should know more about the division then. As admirable as Jacoby Brissett has played, he’s no Watson. But the Colts have the vastly superior team and the better head coach.

Good news for Houston — Watson produces when the chips are down, and stacked against his squad.

*******

For Kansas City, this is the second week in a row I featured their loss at the top my column. Two AFC South teams have beaten the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium last week, showcasing what we already knew about the 2018 AFC finalists — even Patrick Mahomes and this explosive offense will have trouble making the Super Bowl with this defense.

Even with a change at defensive coordinator — Steve Spagnuolo replacing Bob Sutton — and a slew of player additions — Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu — Kansas City’s defense remains futile.

Their inability to stop the run will only make things harder for them come January. Although this is a new era of football capable of producing a champion with a team of this nature, don’t bet on it. The Chiefs should and will explore the trade market for additions on defense this month.

LIFE AND FOOTBALL — THE GREAT SCHWARTZ INTERSECTION

Truth be told, basketball was my favorite sport until I was about 10 years old. I was also better at basketball than I was at football until I grew into my body around age 16 or 17.

But the moment I became hooked on football — which is basically the Schwartz family crest — was midway during the 1999 NFL season. I began watching after asking my Dad one simple question: “Who is our team?”

“The New England Patriots,” he responded, almost non-caring.

To be a Patriots fan was to barely care, at that point. Boston was a town ruled by the rich history of the the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins.

I cared though. And I cared a lot, even though it all started on a whim.

Doug Flutie and the Buffalo Bills defeated the Patriots 17-7 in the first game I remember watching. The Patriots missed the postseason in 1999, and again in 2000, when they sported a measly 5-11 record under new head coach Bill Belichick.

But football quickly became my favorite sport to play and follow. I took in and processed all the information about the NFL that I could through Almanacs, Sports Illustrated issues, NFL preview magazines, Madden, and the internet back in the dial-up days — and that’s while I lived in Germany.

At one point during a holiday vacation to a resort in the Grand Canary Islands in December of 2000, I begged my dad to take me to the internet cafe so I could check the scores.

Unfortunately, my eagerness to learn was at a much higher level than the Patriots’ success.

That didn’t last long.

In September of 2001, a week after 9/11, the NFL resumed, and the 0-2 Patriots had dropped a close home game to the 2-0 New York Jets. But a major event happened — Tom Brady had replaced an injured Drew Bledsoe. And the rest was history.

I’d say three of New England’s six Super Bowl wins — Super Bowls 36, 49 and 51 — would make the top five of my favorite moments in life at this point, seeing as I am a 28-year-old, yet-to-be married dude who has no kids (yet).

Through the Patriots, I became ultra-close with my Dad’s mother, Grandma Schwartz, when she followed us to Jacksonville, North Carolina in 2005 after we moved there from Germany the year before.

I was often dropped off at her house during NFL Sundays — the first being a Patriots loss to the Panthers in 2005.

The most memorable moments with her were probably New England’s unbelievable upset over the Chargers in San Diego in the 2006 playoffs, and celebrating the Patriots clinching a 16-0 record together in their 2007 Week 17 win over the Giants. We even hugged with joy after the record-breaking Brady-to-Randy Moss score for the win.

The thing is, football brought our family closer. And although much of the Schwartz family were already Patriots fans, I do take credit (not fully) for spearheading the brigade, from when I became a fanatic. Soon, my Father, a UConn football alum who loved football but just casually enjoyed the NFL, was a huge Patriots fan. My mother became a fan, and my sister even ride or dies with the team.

Through football, my cousins Ryan, Brandon, Dylan and Kyle — who are basically like brothers — all love the game as much as I do, and we talk non-stop, almost each day, about the Patriots and the game.

The Patriots are so important to me that I could tell you where I was for just about every game since 2001. It’s insane. I remember those moments probably more than any other type of event in my life.

And the weirdest thing is, things seem to happen based on what has happened in my life. Of course this is probably all a coincidence, but it is weird that the Brady-Belichick era began JUST after I became interested in the sport.

And after a 10-year title drought, filled with SpyGate jokes and such, New England brought home the title on Malcolm Butler’s interception in Super Bowl 49, just three months after my Grandma Schwartz passed.

New England then won Super Bowl 51 just after my Grandpa Schwartz, another die-hard New England sports fan, passed away. That greatest-of-all-time comeback that cemented Brady as the greatest of all time, happened to be my year in J-School, and I covered the event that week down in Houston, even attending the press conference with Brady and Belichick the following morning.

Football has taught me about love, heartbreak, the importance of family and friends, and an arsenal of other lessons.

I suffered one bad adult breakup in my life, as we all do. Looking back, I’m obviously no longer sad as I was, but how bad as it was then, it was NOWHERE NEAR as sad as some of the Patriots biggest losses — the 2006 AFC Championship Game, Super Bowls 42, 46 and 52, etc.

But during those times, I was with family and/or the best of friends. And after ignoring sports media for a few days, I got back up on the horse, and looked forward to next season. I persevered, and my family was right there with me, ready for the new season.

Nowadays, I call my Dad after almost  every game to discuss, even if he just likes talking to me, and can care less how well New England balanced the run and the pass.

As we enter the fall and winter once more, the Patriots are 6-0 and on track for a run at an unprecedented seventh title.

I’ll travel to both North Carolina and Dracut, Massachusetts, this Holiday season, as I have for the past few years. And I’ll enjoy the games with my immediate family, my extended family (shoutout to Uncle Kevin, Auntie Linda and the Dracut clan, which is like my second home, or home 1B) and with lifelong friends.

What a great tradition.

*******

I decided to write this section this weekend after dealing with the loss of my last childhood dog, Mickey.

To deal with the loss of a pet, one should try to look at the bright side, with all the memories you will forever have by sharing with the lovely creature. A lot of my memories will involve watching football with family, with Mickey hovering around, gleefully. So I remembered those times while also reading some of my favorite dog obituary columns by the great Peter King and Bill Simmons.

Brent and Mickey
Several memorable moments in my life have come from watching big Patriots games, often with the late Mickey, and her sister Spock. They were great dogs.

This is not meant to be an overly-somber cheesy memorial. Mickey was an awesome dog, and whatever lies after life on Earth, she’ll be there with her sister rat terrier pup, Spock — named by me, of course — waiting for the rest of us.

Mickey is no longer with us in a physical presence. Sometime in the way distant future, neither will my father, or even, me.

But the bond in our family created by the Patriots, and football, remains.

*******

Now without further ado, more fun and football. Here is my first take on the NFL MVP race this season:

NFL MVP RACE

This is my first ranking of NFL MVP candidates for 2019. I plan on including this section again after Week 9, Week 12 and then each week after Week 14.

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks. Wilson willed the Seahawks to wins over the Rams and Browns, and has officially ushered in Seattle’s new era under his leadership. His legacy will be defined by this era. This is a good start.

2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers. Judging by voting in recent seasons, McCaffrey is probably slated for the OPOY award, but not the MVP. Voters like quarterbacks. There was a time when running backs often won this award.

3. Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs. He has the offensive weapons, but his protection is waning, and his defense is still awful. He makes up for a lot.

4. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans. Even behind a lackluster offensive line, Watson keeps his cool, and delivers.

5. Jacoby Brissett, QB, Indianapolis Colts. Yeah, I said it. He has a great coach and team backing him, but Brissett was thrust into this spot after Andrew Luck’s retirement, and he’s kept the Colts’ playoff aspirations afloat. His stats are pretty, too. He belongs here.

Next up: Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

THE BETTER HALF

1. New England Patriots (6-0) (Last week: 1). I somehow found myself in the middle of a heated Twitter debate on Sunday, defending Julian Edelman’s name to a portion of NFL Twitter that continues to dog him. It’s incredible that this happens on a Sunday in which New England wasn’t even playing. Listen, Edelman will likely have to play three more seasons, and would have to provide some more memorable moments to help win another Super Bowl or two, to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He just doesn’t have the regular season success. But the way in which football twitter places him as a system player not worthy of even top-25 receiver discussion at the moment — I believe Edelman is certainly in the top 20 right now, and was once a borderline top-10 pass catcher — is just nauseous.

Did they see his sweet move to beat a Giants double-team on Sunday?

Even in a game in which New England struggled on offense, and he was often doubled in coverage, Edelman hauled in nine catches for 115 yards on 15 targets. They don’t win any of these past three Super Bowls without him, and Brady’s play without him in the last few seasons is well-documented. He isn’t as good as Rob Gronkowski but he’s as equally — possibly more —  important to this Patriots run of the 2010’s. He’s a major part of the offense. As it stands, New England should be searching for another receiver to add to their arsenal, but make no mistake — without Edelman, they’d be in much more trouble offensively.

2. New Orleans Saints (5-1) (Last week: 2). Another defensive-led win for the Saints. Teddy Bridgewater is solid, but when Drew Brees returns, the Saints know they may finally have the team and formula needed to win their second Super Bowl.

3. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 5). Aaron Rodgers and the Packers defense should be able to squeeze by the Lions tonight.

4. Seattle Seahawks (5-1) (Last week: 6). Going west to east for an early kickoff is always going to be a tough one for the Seahawks. Thankfully, Russell Wilson pulled another one out of his hat. MVP?

5. San Francisco 49ers (5-0) (Last week: 10). They’re up top in the NFC despite semi-shaky play from Jimmy Garoppolo. That’s scary, because he’ll improve as we get farther away from the date of his brutal ACL injury. In the last two weeks, the defense has allowed a combined 10 points versus the star-studded offenses of the Browns and Rams.

6. Indianapolis Colts (3-2) (Last week: 8). The Colts move up during the bye week. They have perhaps the AFC’s most complete team.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (4-2) (Last week: 3). Patrick Mahomes is still Patrick Mahomes. But it appears even he can’t win a Super Bowl with this defense. Will they attempt to make some midseason changes?

8. Minnesota Vikings (4-2) (Last week: 16). Maybe a three-touchdown performance will temper Stefon Diggs’ desire to leave? Regardless, Kirk Cousins was awesome on Sunday, even if he was pitted against Philadelphia’s atrocious secondary.

9. Philadelphia Eagles (3-3) (Last week: 4). Their defense is holding them back. They need to swing a trade for Jalen Ramsey or Patrick Peterson, badly.

10. Los Angeles Rams (3-3) (Last week: 7). Yeah, they have issues. But I still think there’s a few more memorable moments to come in the Sean McVay-Jared Goff era. Let’s be patient. I think this tweet by a Rams beat reporter sums things up for now.  But losing back-to-back games to NFC West opponents puts them squarely in the wild card race. I don’t think they’re winning the division.

11. Houston Texans (4-2) (Last week: NR). Big win for the Texans. They have a more important game next week in Indianapolis. A win over the Colts would put them 1.5 games ahed of Indy in the division.

12. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 13). They have the second-best winning percentage in the AFC, and a laughable schedule the rest of the way. It’s time to start thinking of these Bills as the AFC’s No. 5 seed come January.

13. Dallas Cowboys (3-3) (Last week: 9). Three straight losses. All in ugly fashion. So much for the Dak Prescott MVP/new contract talk. If they lose at home to the Eagles on Sunday Night Football this week, they may fully spiral out of control. The talent is there. This is a perfect game for them to get back on track. Especially since it seems the NFC East may only send one playoff team.

14. Baltimore Ravens (4-2) (Last week: 14). Lamar Jackson and the Ravens have been sloppy after their two easy wins to begin the year. Had Ben Roethlisberger not gotten injured, I think the Steelers would take the AFC North. But with Ben’s injury and the Browns’ disastrous season, Baltimore should win the division. With that cushion, they should work on fixing their issues before January.

15. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: 12). Other teams impressed this week, so they move down a few spots during their bye. They have a chance to move back up in a big way with a home bout with the Saints. They can win this.

16. Carolina Panthers (4-2) (Last week: NR). The Panthers have won five straight games with Kyle Allen, and have lost eight straight games with Cam Newton at the helm. Newton is certainly a better football player right now, but sometimes things just need to change. Allen is the hot hand, and Carolina should stick with him if he continues to play like this.

Next up: Detroit, Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver

Tom Brady -- Super Bowl LIII

Seventh Heaven? Brady, Belichick make attempt at record seventh title

This week marks the beginning of yet another season for Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the once-again defending Super Bowl champions. Few could have predicted their still-dominant place in the league at this time just five years ago, after the team was steamrolled on a Monday night in Kansas City. Yet, the Patriots remain at the top of the league, with more success since that Fall night in 2014 than perhaps any five-year stretch of their greatest-of-all-time dynasty.

Per usual, the team has gotten a makeover consisting of several wrinkles — some are smaller (Patriots shifting to more two and three-man fronts along the defensive line) and some are larger (Rob Gronkowski’s retirement)  — that will help shape their 2019 season and it’s end result.

The two constants — Brady and Belichick — can be addressed without too much of a deep dive. Belichick returns for his 20th season as the Patriots head coach, implementing new trends and defensive schemes to help keep his team at the top.

Brady returns for his 19th season as the franchise’s key player and leader. After signing a two-year extension masked as a one-year deal, it’s officially fair to assume Brady is now on a year-by-year basis despite insisting that he’d still like to play until the age of 45. Can he play that long at a fairly-high level? Almost certainly. Will he? Especially if New England does indeed pull ahead as the only franchise to win Super Bowl titles in 2019? That’s a question to be addressed six months from now.

Brady has certainly reached uncharted territory — as has 40-year-old New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees  — but anyone doubting him would be a fool to do so, and there are many doubters.

* * * * *

It’s well-known that New England’s offense (and defense) adjust on the fly better than any other franchise over the better part of the last two decades. In 2019, the team will likely retain their chameleon approach to their opponents, which is something that has been more prominent in recent seasons with Josh McDaniels’ offenses.

“We were adaptable” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said on NFL Network’s ‘Do Your Job Part 3’ special. “You know, Tom [Brady}, if he’s supposed to hand it off 37 times and win that way, then he’ll do it. If we need him to throw it 52 times, then he’ll do that too. It’s the same way Bill [Belichick] is. Bill doesn’t care if we win 43-40 or 13-10. The willingness to be able to do that is a special trait.”

Last December and January, the Patriots relied heavily on a power-running game featuring rookie rusher Sony Michel and lead-blocking fullback James Develin. Expect that to carry over into the 2019 season as a staple of the offense with Rex Burkhead and rookie Damien Harris spelling Michel.

But with the subtraction of the game’s all-time greatest tight end, New England will have to rely on either Broncos castoff Matt LaCosse or 2018 seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo — and later Benjamin Watson — to provide support in the running game.

Neither of these players is Gronkowski, who is perhaps the greatest receiving threat and blocking threat at his position in the history of the sport. With a lackluster group at tight end, expect the position to be deemphasized in the passing game. To make up for the absence of Gronkowski, the Patriots will turn to an array of larger-bodied receivers to assist Brady. The newest Belichick trend has brought in former Broncos All-Pro Demaryius Thomas (6-foot-3, 229 pounds) and rookie first-round pick N’Keal Harry (6-foot-4, 225 pounds) to join the team’s top option on the permitter, Josh Gordon (6-foot-3, 225 pounds).

Gordon projects to be the on-the-line ‘X’-type wide receiver, while Thomas and veteran Phillip Dorsett will likely split time at the ‘Z’ receiver. The Patriots placed Harry on injured reserve with a designation to return earlier in the week, which opened up the door for Thomas to return. Later in the season, Harry may snatch away snaps from Thomas and Dorsett to become a starter in three-receiver sets (’11’ personnel). But for this entire season, Brady will likely rely on Gordon as the team’s stalwart on the outside with any consistent success coming from Harry, Thomas, Dorsett or undrafted rookie Jacoby Meyers being a treat.

This means the GOAT will rely heavily on old friends Julian Edelman and James White.

At age 33,  Edelman is now two years removed from his brutal ACL injury, but is also pressing up against Father Time, like his quarterback. Still, the tenacious Super Bowl LIII MVP projects to have the most targets of any pass catcher on the Patriots roster, working in the middle of the field in three-receiver sets, and as the flanker (‘Z’) with the option of going in motion in two-receiver sets with Gordon.

White returns as perhaps the NFL’s best pure situational scatback. Last season, he hauled in 55 receptions in the team’s first eight games before the team turned to Michel and the running game in the Winter months. Still, White caught 15 passes in the team’s AFC Divisional Playoff smackdown over the Chargers, and made several crucial catches in the AFC Championship Game win in Kansas City.

Every player in the Patriots’ projected Week 1 ’11’ personnel for the passing game brings something different to the table. Thomas has excelled in wide receiver screens, while Dorsett is speedy enough to be an occasional deep threat. Gordon is a physical specimen who excels at slants, jump balls and posts, while Edelman and White can run a variety of option routes from anywhere along the line of scrimmage, or in the backfield. In undrafted rookies Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, the team hs a flaker/slot hybrid and a slot receiver and punt returner capable of being groomed behind Edelman. When Harry hits the field, Brady will have a jump ball specialist who can line up on the outside and as a ‘big slot’ receiver capable of replacing Gronkowski as a seam-route runner operating out of the slot in shotgun situations.

But knowing the Patriots, they’ll change their offensive philosophy and strategy depending on the opponent. But sometime during the stretch run of the season, the team will likely look to employ a power-running game as their base offense. Last year, the team alternated between two-tight end sets with Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen, I-formation sets with Gronkowski or James Develin, or sometimes an I-formation with Develin and both tight ends.

“Our strengths this year will be different than some of our strengths last year” McDaniels said. 

With their uneventful tight end group at the moment, expect Develin to see the field more often, and possibly even as a H-back or blocking tight end at times. One of the last few full-tine lead-blocking full backs, Develin is an integral part of the Patriots offense.

Sony Michel vs Chargers
Sony Michel is set up for a monster sophomore campaign. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

He’ll pave the way for Sony Michel’s potential breakout sophomore season. After a slow start to his rookie campaign, Michel cruised for 336 yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games. A projected stat line of 15 touchdowns and over 1,100 yards is not out the question. But expect Michel to be spelled by rookie Damien Harris and do-it-all back Rex Burkhead as rushers that may seem time carrying the ball between the tackles. White will also spend time as a feature back depending on the opponent.

Still, all facets of the offense won’t have much success if the Patriots can’t keep up their own pace as one of the game’s best offensive lines. Dante Scarnecchia is unquestionably the greatest offensive line coach of all-time. His teaching skills will be put to the test once more as New England will work with a change at left tackle for the third straight year, and the season-long absence of team captain and starting center David Andrews.

2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn should fill in nicely as Trent Brown’s replacement. Although smaller for an NFL tackle (6-foot-2, 311 pounds), Wynn has much more potential than Brown. Plus, Wynn was the best blocker for Sony Michel while the two played at the University of Georgia. In Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason, the Patriots likely have the bets combo of guards in the AFC, if not the NFL. Thuney, a solid all-around lineman, is due for a big pay day this offseason when his rookie contract expires. Mason, who already received his payday last offseason, is arguably the best run-blocking guard in football. The Georgia Tech product came from a run-heavy triple-option offense in college. But it was his improvement as a pass-blocking guard in 2018 that vaulted him into the top-five discussion. Mason worked vigorously to improve at that aspect after allowing Eagles rusher Brandon Graham to run past him and cause the game-changing turnover in Super Bowl LII. On the right side of the line sits former All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon, who still has some juice left.

With Andrews out, New England will rely on veteran Ted Karras, the team’s top backup interior offensive lineman, to fill in as a quality starting center. Karras will be monitored closely. If Karras proves incapable, James Ferentz, who recently re-joined the team after Russell Bodine was released, may get a chance to shine.

In all, the Patriots will likely mix-and-match, shifting the identity of their offense to match their personnel, as well as their opponent’s defensive personnel and schemes. While many will be worried about the absences of Gronkowski and Andrews, as well as the turnover at left tackle and center, the Patriots should find a way to do what they always do on offense — score enough points to win 12 games en-route to at least the AFC Championship Game.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Tom Brady

RB — Sony Michel 

‘X’ WR — Josh Gordon 

Slot WR — Julian Edelman

‘Z’ WR — Demaryius Thomas (Phillip Dorsett will likely split time with Thomas here) 

TE — Matt LaCosse (Ben Watson will replace LaCosse after serving his four-game suspension) 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — Ted Karras 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Marcus Cannon

Situational positions:

FB — James Devlin

Scatback — James White

WR4 — Phillip Dorsett 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Korey Cunningham 

 

* * * * *

 

If Brady, the power running game and New England’s offense is good enough for a routine trip to the AFC Championship Game, it’ll be Bill Belichick and the defense that finishes the job.

On a Monday night contest in Los Angeles last November, the Chiefs and Rams, the two highest-scoring teams of last season, combined for 105 points in a 54-51 Rams victory. With the exception of Patrick Mahomes’ fourth quarter outburst in the AFC title game, the Patriots allowed just 10 total points in seven quarters to those two clubs, in the two biggest games of the 2018 NFL season.

To win Super Bowl LIV, New England may very well see the Chiefs again, in the NFL’s version of the final four, followed by a prolific NFC offense like the Rams, Saints or Eagles in the big game in Miami.

Luckily for New England, Belichick has readied a unique and versatile defensive roster capable of carrying out complex schemes that Belichick seems set to employ in 2019.

A ‘base’ defense is a relative term in 2019, seeing as base usually pertains to a 4-3 or 3-4 defense, and not a nickel defense, which is the personnel teams usually use the most in today’s pass-heavy NFL. But a seven-man front is still sometimes used on early downs. And this season, the Patriots will shift for more of a 3-4 approach, moving away from their four-man fronts of last season.

In that front, Danny Shelton is slotted as the run-stuffing nose tackle, with Lawrence Guy and rookie fifith-round pick Byron Cowart projecting to be the team’s big-bodied, 3-4 defensive ends. Guy’s versatility as both a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle is what Belichick values in his defensive lineman. He was the best defensive lineman outside of Trey Flowers in 2018, and should play up to that level this season. Cowart, a former top recruit of out high school, has the potential to thrive under Belichick’s tutelage.

But New England should spend most of their time with five or more defensive backs on the field. In doing this, the Patriots will go to more exotic fronts with just one or two defensive lineman. This is where they’ll turn to their prize offseason acquisition and best defensive lineman, Michael Bennett.

Bennett, who will turn 34 in November, quietly had a productive campaign (9.5 sacks) with the Eagles last season before being shipped to New England, along with a seventh-round draft pick, for a fifth-round draft choice. Like his brother Martellus in 2016 (and briefly in 2017), Bennett is slated to make an immediate impact as a possible replacement for Flowers, who joined Matt Patricia and the Lions on a mega-deal.

Of course, Bennett and Flowers are different players. Both are versatile, but Flowers serves as a more complete player across the board in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, where as Bennett’s versatility stems from his ability to rush the passer both from the edge and the interior. Bennett is still productive as a run stuffer, but not as well as Flowers at this stage of his career. But despite his veteran status, Bennett will be a much better pass rusher than Flowers, especially in Belichick’s schemes.

Michael Bennett - Patriots Training Camp
Michael Bennett will bring his versatile pass-rushing skills to a defensive front that should up their sack total in 2019. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

At one point in NFL Network’s original ‘Do Your Job’ special, Patriots director of research Ernie Adams mentions how Bennett disrupted New England’s entire offensive game plan in Super Bowl XLIX versus the Seahawks. Before Cliff Avril left in concussion protocol, Bennett had gotten to Brady on numerous occasions. But the absence of Avril allowed New England to key on Bennett via double teams. Expect Bennett to disrupt many opponents’ game plans in favor of the Patriots this season.

In two-man fronts, Bennett will mostly be joined by Guy along the interior, as he’s their next best defensive lineman. On obvious passing downs, Guy may be subbed out for Adam Butler, who is purely a sub-package rusher.

The edge should be occupied by a mix of Bennett and a few of the Patriots’ stacked linebacking core. John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich project as stand-up edge rushers in a 3-4 scheme. In New England’s third preseason contest, which is usually the week of dress rehearsals for the regular season, Winovich started along the edge. He’s a diminutive, Tasmanian Devil on the outside, capable of wrecking havoc on tasing downs. The third-round pick out of Michigan is a sleeper pick for the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Don’ta Hightower and Kyle Van Noy return as two of New England’s most important players. Their versatility has already been showcased in the preseason, as they’ve been moved all around the defense. Despite slimming down this offseason, Hightower still projects as more of an off-the-ball linebacker, despite the initial notion that he may move to the edge full-time. Although Van Noy will be moved around the formation, it appears he’s due for a new role as a 3-4 outside linebacker or stand-up edge rusher in most cases. This seems like the perfect fit for Van Noy, who may be in for a career year.

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Then there’s the return of Jamie Collins. A second-round pick by the Patriots in 2013, Collins blossomed as one of the league’s most athletic players before his rookie contract timed out, and he was shipped to Cleveland midway through the 2016 season. After making some money in Cleveland for two-and-a-half years of uneventful football, Collins returns and he’ll project as linebacker that will spend time as an edge rusher, as well as off the ball. Like Hightower and Van Noy, Collins’ versatility is what makes him valuable. But he’s also much more athletic than those two defensive cogs, even though he’s been burned often in man coverage by tight ends (Owen Daniels in the 2015 AFC Championship Game) and running backs (Marshawn Lych in Super Bowl XLIX). If Collins can keep his freelancing in zone coverage to a minimum, he should make it more difficult for opponents’ quarterbacks to dump the ball off to their own version of a James White.

Recently-named team captain Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley will battle for the role of the ‘thumper’ linebacker, which is a bigger inside linebacker who is mostly in to stop the run on early downs. They should each see time next to Hightower as inside linebackers in the Patriots’ 3-4 formations.

In the secondary, New England trots out perhaps the deepest group of cornerbacks in the league, led by the NFL’s very best at the position in Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore is perhaps the best in man coverage since Darrelle Revis’ heyday and figures to follow opposing team’s No. 1 receiver in most situations. But Belichick often likes to matchup his top cover player one-on-one with an opposing team’s No. 2 receiver, if that player is enough of a threat. This leaves another cornerback covering a team’s No. 1, with help over the top from safety Devin McCourty.

J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty will battle it out for snaps as the team’s No. 2 guy, but both should see significant playing time. Jon Jones projects to start as a slot cornerback who can also see time at safety, a position he started and played most of the game at in Super Bowl LIII. To revisit Belichick’s scheme of putting Gilmore on a team’s secondary pass catcher, the Patriots employed Gilmore on Watkins, Kansas City’s No. 2 receiver and No. 3 pass catcher, but best traditional receiver, in the AFC title game. They did this because of Tyreek Hill’s speed and downfield ability. New England then stuck it’s fastest player, Jon Jones, on Hill with Devin McCourty shading overtop. J.C. Jackson’s ability as a bigger press-man cover corner made him a suitable match for the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce, a psuedo receiver disguised as a top-tier tight end. Expect Belichick to employ different strategies against different offenses.

The Patriots’ deep group of cornerbacks ends with rookie Joejuan Williams. The second-round pick is a cornerback with massive size (6-foot-4, 208 pounds) capable of playing press man coverage on tight ends and bigger wide receivers. Williams will fight Jackson and Jason McCourty for playing time, but he projects as more of a situational matchup piece in his rookie season, while being groomed to be the team’s No. 2 cornerback of the future, or even as a replacement for Patrick Chung as a Kam Chancellor-type at strong safety.

With Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon and Patrick Chung, the Patriots will employ an aging-yet-affective trio of safeties capable of playin in three-safety sets, like they’ve done often over the past few seasons. In two-safety sets, Devin McCourty plays his usually role of free safety while Chung plays in the box. On clear-passing downs with all three on the field, Chung serves as a presss man coverage option on tight ends, while McCourty tends to play all over the field, leaving Duron Harmon as the free safety, or center fielder, on third-and-long situations. This could be the last season for both Chung and the McCourty brothers, but they still have enough left in the tank for a very good season.

Like the Patriots’ offense, Belichick will have a different game plan for each opponent. But the team’s deep group of cornerbacks and seemingly revitalized group of pass rushers have fans excited for what could be an exceptional season on this side of the ball.

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Michael Bennett 

Interior — Lawrence Guy

EDGE/LB — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE/LB — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

‘Thumper’ ILB — Elandon Roberts 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

SS/Nickelback — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Danny Shelton 

3-4 DE  — Bryan Cowart

‘Thumper’ ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

EDGE/LB — Chase Winovich 

EDGE/LB — John Simon 

S (FS in ‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Duron Harmon

CB3 — Jason McCourty

CB4 (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

Sub Interior Rusher — Adam Butler

 

Projected record: 12-4 (AFC’s No. 1 seed)

The Patriots should revert to their knack for producing 12-plus win seasons after an 11-5 campaign in 2018. Their schedule is pretty easy throughout, but there is a potential murderer’s row from weeks 8-to-14, as the team will face Browns out home before visiting the Ravens and Eagles before returning home to face the Cowboys, playing the Texans in Houston , then ending with a home bout with the Chiefs.

With Andrew Luck’s retirement, and Derwin James’ injury the Chiefs serve as the only real threat at this point, with the Steelers, Jaguars and Browns looming as just potential threats before they prove otherwise. New England will fend off the upstarts and experienced teams to beat the Chiefs at home in the AFC Title Game. Their home-field advantage will be won when they beat the Chiefs in Week 14.

Then in Miami for Super Bowl LIV, the Patriots will break a tie with the Steelers by winning their seventh Super Bowl, while exacting revenge on the Eagles in the process.

At least for one more year, the NFL will belong to Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots.

Julian Edelman -- Super Bowl LIII

Edelman, the NFL’s most clutch receiver, adds to legacy in Super Bowl LIII

For three quarters, the Rams’ talented defense played like a unit that holds the Super Bowl-record with seven first-round picks. Even with two of those players lined up as cornerbacks (Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib), Julian Edelman made a mockery of Wade Phillips’ otherwise brilliant zone defense that confused Brady for much of the game.

Super Bowl LIII was the lowest scoring Super Bowl in NFL history. And yet, Brady’s most-trusted receiver hauled in 10 catches for 141 receiving yards, earning him the Super Bowl LIII MVP award.

Julian Edelman -- Super Bowl LIII
Julian Edelman celebrates a third-down conversion versus the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

Often lining up across from Nickell Robey-Coleman or Corey Littleton in matchup zones, Edelman feasted by using his spacial awareness and elite quickness to find open spots in the defense. This not only gave Brady an open target, but allowed him to look for Edelman in YAC (yards after catch) situations, for bigger gains.

According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Edelman amassed 70 yards after the catch, which is good for almost exactly half of his production. Additionally, he averaged just about four yards of separation on his team-high 12 targets from Brady.

—————

Edelman is the epitome of what it means to be a Patriot. A coachable, gritty, hard-working underdog at his core. Like Brady, Edelman found success in the NFL by utilizing real slights against him (from his past) and then kept that chip-on-the-shoulder mentality thoughout the rest of his career, even after he became a household name.

Julian Edelman - Super Bowl LIII parade
Edelman embraces fans at the Super Bowl LIII parade in Boston. (Screenshot: WBZ/CBS Boston)

That’s a much-needed mantra in New England, that epitomizes the attitudes of past team leaders from the franchise’s first dynasty — Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest.

Like other postseason heroes of the Patriots’ past, at his position, there is a little of Troy Brown and Deion Branch in Edelman. But he has somehow become Brady’s best friend of all, and most trusted target.

From climbing out of Wes Welker’s shadow, to running routes in the offseason at Brady’s Montana home.

Edelman could have retired after Super Bowl LI. But instead, he ventured on another journey, to fight off more setbacks, to become a champion, once more.

—————

The last 24 months of Edelman’s life have been a whirlwind.

Virtually, two years ago to the very weekend, Tom Brady’s most trusted target hauled in one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history, in helping the Patriots secure the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Edelman - Super Bowl LI
Julian Edelman hauled in one the most improbable catches in NFL history in Super Bowl LI. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

Fast forward six months later to August 2017. In a preseason game in Detroit versus the Lions, Edelman took a routine drag route from Brady, slipped past defenders and then fell to the ground without being tackled.

It was a complete ACL tear, which ended his 2017 season.

Edelman watched Danny Amendola, another one of football’s most clutch players (and one of Edelman’s good friends), step up in his absence, in taking over the slot receiver position full-time. Brady threw for 505 yards and three touchdowns in Super Bowl LII, but the Patriots fell to Nick Foles and the Eagles, 41-33.

Then, Amendola departed in free agency, joining the Dolphins. This put more pressure on the health of Edelman, who needed to be himself for Brady and the continuity of the team to remain intact.

But in a twist, Edelman was served a four-game suspension in June for performance-enhancing drugs, in a story that was first reported on Reddit.

While waiting for Edelman to return, Brady and the Patriots struggled mightily on offense, starting the season 1-2. When No. 11 did return to the field, he looked almost like his usual self. He garnered 74 catches for 850 yards and six touchdowns in just 12 games, but New England struggled early in December, dropping consecutive road games to the Dolphins and Steelers. They rallied enough — ironically, with help from Foles and the Eagles — to hang onto the AFC’s No. 2 seed.

Then the magic began.

Edelman reeled in nine catches for 151 yards agains the Chargers in their AFC Divisional Playoff win. He was virtually uncoverable agains the Chargers’ zone scheme.

Then, after a near-muffed punt, and a subsequent drop-turned-interception in the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, the slot master embarrassed all of his ‘Ball Don’t Lie’ detractors on Twitter with three huge catches down the stretch in the team’s overtime victory.

Julian Edelman -- 3rd and 10
Edelman reeled in back-to-back 3rd-and-10-converting catches in the AFC title game. (Screenshot: NFL Films)

Edelman brought in two tough grabs on tight man coverage on consecutive 3rd-and-10’s on the game-winning drive in overtime. He ended the game with seven catches for 96 yards.

The moment was a microcosm of his career. From being counted out since being an undersized high school kid growing up in Northern California, to receiving no D-1 college scholarship offers, to falling to the seventh round of the 2009 NFL Draft, Edelman has always beaten the odds.

Most of the excitement toward his fourth-quarter miscue in Kanas City was due to the hatred that most outside of New England have for Tom Brady and the Patriots. If detractors really can’t stomach the Patriots cleaning house of the NFL’s best teams in crunch time, then Edelman surely made them pay afterward, by adding to his legacy with more late-game heroics in the biggest of moments.

This wasn’t an underdog team, but this was a surprising champion. At various times throughout the year, conversation on shows such as ESPN’s First Take (and other shows) revolved around the impending end of Brady and the Patriots’ current reign.

During the AFC title game, Edelman was caught by NFL Films, yelling “you’re too old!” at Brady, in an effort to hype up the man who sees him as the little brother he never had.

In the Super Bowl, Brady looked his way 12 times, which is five more than the player (Gronk) with the second-most targets (7) in the game.

—————

Much more regular season success, and perhaps more postseason moments, are needed for Edelman to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he is indeed a candidate. The conversation is not laughable, as many on Twitter have opined, hoping to come up with some type of negative storyline about the Patriots. In fact, his case is formidable.

Edelman is now the second-best postseason receiver in NFL history, with stats, and a bag of moments to prove it.

The double-pass to Amendola in a 2014 AFC Divisional Playoff. A 3rd-and-14 conversion, and game-winning touchdown to beat the Seahawks (the best passing defense of all-time) in Super Bowl XLIX. One of the greatest catches ever in Super Bowl LI. Multiple third down conversions in the clutch at cold-weather Kansas City two weeks ago.

And now, this.

Edelman and Brady -- Super Bowl LIII
Edelman and Brady celebrate their third Super Bowl win together. (Screenshot: NFLPA/Disney)

Edelman is the most clutch receiver in football over the last decade.

And if the greatest (and most clutch) player in NFL history trusts him with a Super Bowl hanging in the balance, then Edelman’s greatness should be defined by that.

Super Bowl LIII Preview

Super Bowl LIII Preview: Brady’s second shot at ring No. 6 comes versus ‘all-in’ Rams

By now the storylines have reached a point of exhaustion. The hate for the Patriots’ self-contrived ‘underdog’ status has been well-documented. The Rams’ aggressive team-building approach and wunderkind head coach, well-profiled.

But this should come as a sigh of relief — here is a FOOTBALL preview of Super Bowl LIII. That’s right — matchups, x-factors and what each team needs to do to be victorious. Enjoy.

Patriots offense vs Rams defense

Despite being anchored by the greatest quarterback that ever lived, the Patriots have transitioned to more of an old-school ground-and-pound offense for a significant portion of the team’s last four victories.

Behind perhaps the league’s best offensive line since December, and the best lead-blocking fullback in pro football in James Develin, rookie workhorse back Sony Michel has rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns in New England’s two postseason wins.

Still, the offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is famous for adopting a chameleon-type approach to attacking defenses. Depending on the opponent, the Patriots may opt for Brady to line up in shotgun and sling the football 50-60 times, or they may opt to bulk up and run over opponents with ’21’ or 12′ personnel.

The Rams were ranked 31st in rush yards per attempt allowed in the regular season (Chiefs were 32nd), but they’ve hunkered down in the postseason. First, they bottled up Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, then stymied the two-back attack of Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, allowing those three to just 93 yards on 37 carries in their two postseason wins.

But what the Rams did fall susceptible to (early on) in their thrilling overtime win over the Saints, is the halfback running out into the flats.

Targeted 13 times, Kamara reeled in 11 passes for 96 yards, often in the flats with Rams linebacker Corey Littleton trailing in coverage.

This bodes well for James White, who is the Patriots’ X-factor on offense this Sunday. 

Expect White to haul in anywhere from 10 to 15 passes running shallow flat, angle and option routes matched up against Rams linebackers.

With an excellent cornerback duo of Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, Brady will have trouble throwing outside the numbers to the likes of Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett.

But with just Hogan, Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski on the field most of the time for New England, expect Talib to get his share of duties against Gronk in man coverage, even lined up as a traditional tight end.

Brady will shy away from Talib and Peters mostly, looking for White, Rex Burkhead and you guessed it….Julian Edelman lined up against Rams slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman.

Robey-Coleman walked back his ‘taken-out-of-context’ comments referring to Brady’s old age, which is good, because TB12 has had his fair share of success targeting him from his days as a member of the Buffalo Bills. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady has a 130.6 passer rating when targeting Robey-Coleman, which is good for his third highest against any defender in the he has targeted at least 20 times.

So it’s understandable that Brady and Edelman, perhaps the best QB-to-slot receiver tandems of all-time, would have their way with the Rams’ CB3.

But in a season-defining game such as this, look for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to have various plans in slowing down the Patriots’ passing game. With age catching up to Gronkowski, it’s possible Phillips places Talib on Edelman, but Talib will turn 33 years old 10 days after Sunday’s game, meaning he’s not quite the player he once was. Still a solid man-coverage cornerback, Talib would be up for the challenge, with the press coverage skills to slow down Edelman at times, but Edelman is not your average 32-year-old receiver. His affinity for clutch play and relentless grit, combined with his quickness and rapport with Brady, actually make him one of the league’s hardest receivers to cover, certainly at this time of the year.

In that case, the Rams might opt for more zone coverage, but knowing Brady decimates teams that play soft zone coverage as their primary defense (see: Brady vs. Steelers), Phillips will have to disguise his looks to full Brady, ultimately mixing in well-designed blitzes at the proper times to fool the GOAT.

But that can prove risky, with quick outlets such as White and Burkhead (who also can be utilized in running draws) available as quick-passing targets for Brady.

Which means the Rams’ blueprint success doesn’t necessarily rely on perfect coverage, but instead being the old adage of pressuring the quarterback, which works on any passer, not just Brady.

Yet, it’s a very specific type of pressure that will slow down this Patriots offense, and the Rams have the perfect players to do so.

Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. are capable on the edge, but Trent Brown and Marcus Cannon should be able to slow them down. And even if they don’t at times, Brady’s all-time pocket presence is perhaps his best tangible attribute, meaning stepping up and around edge pressure is something he can and will do.

Instead, it’s the interior where the Rams will need to excel.

Luckily for Los Angeles, they sport the greatest interior rushing threat — and eventually, maybe greatest defensive tackle ever— in Aaron Donald.

With a league-high 20.5 sacks and 41 knockdowns, Donald is primed for to win his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award on Saturday.

The behemoth has the ability to wreck any team’s game plan, but the interior of the Patriots’ offensive line has been stout. From left guard to right, Joe Thuney, David Andrews (center) and Shaq Mason have brutalized defenses in the run game, and along with tackles Brown and Cannon, they have kept Brady upright the entire postseason thus far. Zero sacks allowed by this group. The only other time a Super Bowl-winning quarterback went unscathed for no sacks in a postseason run was Brady in the 2003 Patriots’ path to glory.

With the ability to double-team Donald, the Patriots will limit him SOME, but expect Donald to have at least three or more clean pressures on Brady from the interior, due to his sheer dominance.

But if New England can limit Donald with a double team, the Rams’ success, and possibly chances of winning, may lie with their X-factor on defense, Ndamukong Suh.

Once a dominant interior player on his own with the Lions, Suh is not quite the same player, but is still formidable enough to take over a game if need be. Although not indicative of the effectiveness of an interior rusher, Suh has just 4.5 sacks this season, meaning he could do better as a rusher, which is part of the reason the Rams snagged Fowler from the Jaguars midseason, to generate more pressure.

But matched up solo against Thuney or Mason, Suh may be a game-wrecker for the Patriots in both the pass and the run game, if he steps up for the challenge.

But this is a tough matchup for the Rams. The Patriots will likely employ a mix of everything, which includes things like Burkhead running routes from the slot, and Cordarrelle Patterson acting as an ‘athlete’ by lining up in the backfield, and taking his fair share of end-arounds.

But ultimately, the Patriots want to control the tempo, and the clock, by pounding Michel behind their stout offensive line, lead-blocking extraordinaire Develin and monster-blocking by Gronk and Dwayne Allen. If they can break the Rams that way, then the play-action will come, and the Rams will likely falter, no matter what they do on offense. But if Donald and Suh can generate consistent interior pressure, against both the run and the pass, a la the 2007 and 2011 Giants, then the Rams may have their recipe for success.

Rams defense vs Patriots offense

The Rams have fond success under wunderkind, offensive-minded Sean McVay, a 33-year-old head coach that has used futuristic concepts to riddle opposing defenses.

Running McVay’s offense is 24-year-old Jared Goff, a third-year quarterback (and former No. 1 overall pick) who has vastly improved since his NFL debut.

The Rams heavily employ ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and often use these pieces in a bunch formation, with three receivers playing tightly within each other, and close to their offensive line. There, McVay relies upon Todd Gurley, one of the league’s best backs, on outside zones, while also utilizing Gurley as a receiver, and as a decoy, in play-action passes where the team’s bunch formations makes it hard to decipher routes, and where their receivers are going.

But because many of the Rams’ passing plays are long-developing, with routes such as deep-comebacks to Brandin Cooks, Goff holds onto the ball longer, giving a much-improved Patriots pass rush, led by Trey Flowers, a chance pressure Goff, as they did Patrick Mahomes in the AFC championship game.

The Patriots front seven in general had a rough go for much of the regular season, but they’ve allowed just 60 yards on 22 carries in their postseason wins over the Chargers and Chiefs. And while December-acquisition, and postseason hero C.J. Anderson had a successful outing versus the Cowboys, he was held to 2.8 yards per carry versus the Saints, meaning Gurley HAS to get it going in some form, for the Rams to have a chance.

The 2017 NFL Offensive Player of the Year garnered a putrid 13 yards on five touches, which included a drop-turned interception early on, which helped put the Rams in a 13-0 hole. That can’t happen versus the Patriots.

Gurley looked discouraged and flustered, but he’s been given another opportunity, and should have a better go-round than his NFC championship game performance.

But Bill Belichick specializes in taking away his opponents’ best offensive weapon. And although Gurley may seem like that guy on paper, the real weapon in this offense is McVay, through Goff. It’s the perfectly-ingrained system. With possession receiver, turned-bonafide-stud WR1 Robert Woods, speedy, deep threat Brandin Cooks and the young, sure-handed Josh Reynolds, the Rams have a nice trio of receivers, even with the loss of slot receiver Cooper Kupp earlier in the season.

Mentioned earlier, the Rams’ Aqib Talib was perhaps the league’s best man coverage cornerback a few seasons ago (think: 2015). That title now belongs to Patriots CB1 Stephon Gilmore. Not only is Gilmore the best man coverage corner, he’s the best cornerback in the league overall right now, period.

Although the Patriots may mix in some zone concepts, they just love to play man coverage, meaning that’s primarily what they’ll start with.

Cooks is a dangerous threat, but his route tree is limited to deep comebacks, drags, slants and flies. He isn’t a uber-precise route-runner, or a receiver who hangs onto balls consistently in traffic.

Woods isn’t as much of a home-run threat as Cooks is, but he’s the better overall receiver, meaning he’ll likely draw Gilmore for most of the game.

The Patriots will likely use a combination of Jason McCourty or undrafted rookie J.C. Jackson on Cooks, with safety Duron Harmon moving over from his usual ‘center fielder’ type role to shad overtop Cooks. The guess is the veteran McCourty draws Cooks (with help), while Jackson gets a shot at Reynolds. Because of his likely opportunity in one-on-one coverage, Reynolds is one of two X-factor(s) on the Rams’ offense. 

If Reynolds can beat his man consistently, Goff will be able to find his second and third read, while the Patriots key on more-known targets like Woods, Cooks and Gurley.

But with a much-improved pass rush, the Patriots have been able to get pressure with fronts containing Flowers, Adrian Clayborn, and interior sub-rusher Adam Butler. New England has also sent Kyle Van Noy from the edge with much success in recent weeks, specifically in the first half against Kansas City.

If the Patriots are able to play press man coverage tightly to delay (and knock off) the routes of Rams receivers, New England may make things difficult for Goff. That’s where McVay will have to lean on the ’12’ personel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2WR) groupings he used in the team’s comeback win over the Saints (16 snaps.)

In that case, the Rams would replace Reynolds with another tight end to pair with Tyler Higbee. That would be the team’s second X-factor on offense, Gerald Everett. 

Everett is a move tight end capable of giving the Patriots fits. He’s nimble and athletic, and can block just well enough to not be a liability in the run game. If the Rams can find some success running Gurley or Anderson here, that will set up Everett matched up agains the likes of Van Noy, Dont’a Hightower and possibly Devin McCourty or Patrick Chung. The latter of those four would likely be the best matchup for the Patriots, meaning Chung is the Patriots’ X-factor on defense, providing Belichick with a good piece in man coverage against tight ends from the slot. 

In the run game, Chung can be used in the box and up front as a pseudo-linebacker capable of stopping Gurley and Anderson, while also not surrendering speed and coverage ability to the team’s personnel. This may also include the occasional man coverage assignment on Gurley lined up as a receiver, when motioning out of the backfield.

The Rams have the pieces to make things awfully difficult on the Patriots here, but New England’s experience and recent mojo suggest they’ll have their moments, too.

Prediction

On paper, the Rams are not only vastly more talented, but they seemingly have the pieces and the aggressive approach to take down the Patriots, much like the Eagles did last year.

But New England has their swagger back this postseason. Missing in Super Bowl LII were the likes of Julian Edelman and Dont’a Hightower, both of whom provide championship pedigree to a team that feeds off mental toughness and momentum. This Patriots team feeds off doubters, more so than any of the teams they’ve harnessed in the past decade.

The stage won’t be ‘too big’ for the Rams, but I believe they’ll get caught napping early, as the Patriots get out to a lead behind a fiery Tom Brady, who will look for James White early and often (I mean it…10-15 catches from him, and two touchdowns — one rushing, one receiving).

The Rams will figure things out both offensively and defensively in the second half, and like all past Brady-Belichick Super Bowls, this will be close, but nowhere near like the  nail-biters in their past few bouts.

New England will switch up their offensive approach from drive to drive, as they won’t be able to run 45 times against this improved Rams defense, but they’ll have enough success running to set up a few downfield throws by Brady on play-action.

And when the Patriots aren’t running behind Develin and the offensive line, they’ll spread things out and Brady will look to the short and intermediate areas in between the numbers.

The Rams will have some success with Gurley before he’s taken out of the game, leaving Goff alone, looking for his secondary weapons.

Give me Brady, Belichick and these hungry Patriots to complete the full circle of their dynasty that spans over 18 years. They’ll beat the Rams again, for what might be their last Super Bowl together.

Patriots 31, Rams 26

Super Bowl MVP: James White