You know a team has had an incredible run of success when said club wins 12 games, takes its division (yet again), and reaches the conference championship game. However, ask Bill Belichick and Brady if they were happy with 2013, and of course the answer is no, because the Patriots didn't win another ring. That's nine straight seasons without a Super Bowl title when it looked like the Patriots might become the NFL's top dynasty in the Super Bowl era.
It's fair to wonder what New England might have done with Rob Gronkowski healthy, although it's also fair to now wonder if he can stay on the field a full season. The Pro Bowl tight end played in just seven games, and New England went 5-2 in those. It should be noted that the Patriots beat Denver, the team that knocked off New England in the AFC title game, when Gronk was playing. He was a big reason why, catching 10 passes for 90 yards and a score in that regular-season matchup.
Brady finished the season with his worst rating (87.3) since 2003, and his worst completion percentage since that same season. That he threw for 4,343 yards and 25 touchdowns is impressive considering his less-than-impressive receiving corps when Gronk wasn't out there. New England was actually a higher-ranked rushing team (ninth) than passing team (No. 10) in 2013.
Key Offseason Moves
Priority No. 1 is getting Gronk healthy, but there are no guarantees he will be ready for Week 1 after surgery to replace a torn MCL and ACL. The Patriots made one of the big moves in free agency by signing Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis after he was cut by Tampa Bay, as well as adding Seattle's Brandon Browner (suspended first four games). They needed to address the defensive backfield after losing top cornerback Aqib Talib to the rival Broncos. To boost the receivers, New England signed Carolina's Brandon LaFell (49 catches, 627 yards, five TDs). Now it might not be a bad group with Julian Edelman re-signed, with Danny Amendola healthy. Running back LeGarrette Blount was a late-season star for New England but left for Pittsburgh. Linebacker Brandon Spikes, formerly the heart and soul of the defense, is now a Buffalo Bill.
2014 Schedule (all times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Miami, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Oakland, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Monday, Sept. 29, at Kansas City, 8:30 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Cincinnati, 8:30 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Thursday, Oct. 16, NY Jets, 8:25 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Denver, 4:25 p.m.
Week 10: BYE
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, at Indianapolis, 8:30 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Green Bay, 4:25 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at San Diego, 8:30 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Miami, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, Buffalo, 1 p.m.
New England has a schedule that ranks as the 10th toughest in the NFL with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .516. It has six games against playoff teams.
The Patriots are 3-point road favorites at sportsbooks for Week 1 at Miami. The total is 47 on NFL odds. New England had won seven straight against the Dolphins until losing 24-20 in Week 15 last season in south Florida. Brady threw for 364 yards -- on 55 attempts -- and two touchdowns but his fourth-down pass into the end zone with two seconds remaining was intercepted. It was one of many times Pats fans had to wonder what might have been different if Gronkowski was on the field. The Patriots haven’t lost consecutive games to the Dolphins since 2000-01.
The Week 2 Vikings game is interesting only because their starting quarterback likely will be Matt Cassel, and he's the only player to start at QB for New England since Brady took over 13 years ago. This game will be outdoors with the Vikings playing the 2014 season at the University of Minnesota. The only playoff team in the first four games is the Chiefs, who struggled at the end of last season.
The only playoff foe in the next four games is Cincinnati, and the Patriots will be looking for payback there. New England had its worst offensive game of the season in Cincinnati last year, falling 13-6. Brady's streak of 52 straight games with a touchdown pass ended in that one. A rare three-game homestand begins against the Jets, whom New England split two close games against in 2013.
Clearly the game circled on the schedule is against Denver in Week 9. It's matchup No. 16 between Brady and Peyton Manning, with Brady leading 10-5. That game could again be for the top seed in the AFC or possibly their last-ever meeting.
The most challenging four-game stretch then comes after the bye with three of the four on the road, and all three at playoff clubs. The Colts will be eager for payback from the divisional round. Brady and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers have never started a game against one another, but should in Week 13. It might be the only time they ever face off.
The division could be decided in the final three games. Patriots have to be thrilled that they are facing Buffalo in Week 17 if the AFC East title and/or playoff seeding is on the line. New England is 12-0 all-time at Gillette Stadium against the Bills.
NFL free picks: Bet 'Over' 10.5 wins on NFL odds. As usual, the Patriots should be nearly unbeatable at home (8-0 last year) and dominate in the division with no other lock playoff teams in the AFC East. Theoretically, just in winning all home games and division games the Pats could be at 11 wins. There are only three games where you can probably say they are potentially going to be underdogs overall: vs. Denver, at Indianapolis and at Green Bay.