A potential Super Bowl preview is the Sunday night game in Week 1 of the 2016 NFL season as New England visits Arizona. But it has lost some luster with Patriots QB Tom Brady out suspended. What can you expect on Patriots odds while he's out?
Sportsbooks Still Bullish On Patriots
Of course Brady is suspended four games for his role in those deflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game following the 2014 season against the Indianapolis Colts. Hopefully once Brady's suspension is over, we won't ever have to hear the term "Deflategate" any longer. Brady can't be with the team at all during his suspension. He will return from suspension and can take part in all team activities on Monday, Oct. 3, and his first game is Week 5 at Cleveland.
The real question when betting NFL futures on the Patriots is what their record will be when Brady gets back. New England remains the +650 Super Bowl favorite at sportsbooks and the Patriots' win total is set at 11, which is tied for the highest in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers, who are the +750 second-favorites to win Super Bowl LI in Houston. Thanks largely to Brady, the Patriots are the only team in league history to win 12 division titles in 13 seasons. They also have won at least 12 games in six straight years, joining the Indianapolis Colts (2003-09) as the only teams to do that.
The last time Brady didn't play in Week 1 was in 2001 when he was a mostly unknown sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan from the year before. Drew Bledsoe was still a good NFL quarterback then and was New England's starter that year. But in Week 2 against the New York Jets, Bledsoe was seriously injured. The Pats would lose that game to fall to 0-2, but Brady would lead them to an 11-5 record and the franchise's first Super Bowl title. The rest, as they say, is history.
Glass Half-Full/Half-Empty For Patriots
If there's one reason to be optimistic about the Patriots' NFL futures this season, look at 2008. That was the last time Brady didn't play all 16 regular-season games. He suffered torn knee ligaments in Week 1 against Kansas City. New England's backup quarterback then was a total unknown named Matt Cassel. He didn't even start in college at USC and was a 2005 seventh-round pick. But Cassel had an excellent season and led New England to an 11-5 record. True, the Patriots missed the playoffs, but it's historically rare for an 11-win team to miss the postseason. Guaranteed, 11 wins would be enough for New England to win the AFC East again this year.
The Patriots seem to have a much more capable backup now in Jimmy Garoppolo, a 2014 second-round pick. He was a superstar in college at Eastern Illinois. Before you talk about the lack of competition at the FCS level, also consider that Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo played there; Garoppolo broke all his records. Garoppolo also has looked good this preseason and in the 2015 exhibition schedule.
Also a positive is that while the Patriots are 6-point underdogs at a very good Arizona team in Week 1, they should be favorites in their next three games, all at home: Week 2 vs. Miami, Week 3 vs. Houston and Week 4 vs. Buffalo. Only the Texans finished with a winning record last year, but that 's a Thursday night game and those quick turnarounds favor the home team.
There are some negatives to consider. First, Rob Gronkowski, on pace to be the greatest receiving tight end in NFL history, isn't healthy. The injury-prone Gronk was bothered by a hamstring injury all preseason and is called "week-to-week." He is no sure thing against the Cardinals. Last year, Gronkowski had 72 catches for 1,176 yards and 11 touchdowns to become the only tight end ever to post double-digit TDs five times.
Another concern is that the team's best running back, Dion Lewis, is going to miss the first half of the season following knee surgery in August. Lewis was one of the NFL's breakout stars last season, as he amassed 49 carries for 234 yards and 36 catches for 388 yards and four TDs.
Finally, the defense could take a step back as the Patriots traded top pass-rushing end Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in the offseason, and fellow end Rob Ninkovich is suspended the first four games. Jones led the team with 12.5 sacks in 2015 and Ninkovich was third with 6.5.
Patriots go 2-2 without Brady, losing to Arizona and Houston. They go 9-3 with Brady to finish at 11-5, which will be enough to win the AFC East again but not for the top seed in the AFC. And that will prove costly with a trip to Pittsburgh in the conference championship game.