Foxboro, MA. Heading into the 2012 NFL season, wanna know which NFL team has the easiest schedule on paper? Believe it or not, it is the 2011 AFC representative in the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots. How can this be, you ask? No, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick didn’t petition the league and get their way. It is a simple formula, and a rotation of sorts where teams play against different divisions from opposite conferences each year. So this year, based on last year’s end of the season records, the Patriots have the easiest schedule. Now we all know, it’s not an exact science figuring out who really will have the easiest and toughest schedules as the year plays out, but is a guide and interesting to look at. As New England prepares for its regular season opener this Sunday at Tennessee, they are the prohibitive AFC favorite to once again get back to the big game, which will be near Bourbon Street on February 3rd. It almost seems too easy for the Patriots, with the cake-walk schedule, the fairly easy division, and one of the greatest QB’s of all-time still in his prime. They also added some really nice, new toys in the form of Brandon Lloyd, Dont’a Hightower, and Chandler Jones. To be fair, there will be a few other teams that emerge at some point late in the year and in the playoffs who will challenge New England for supremacy in this conference. Who they will be is anyone’s guess right now, but it seems hard to think that the Patriots will not be the odds on favorite to appear in New Orleans in early February. As great as their run has been, and may continue to be over the next few years, the window is beginning to close on this franchise bringing home Super Bowl trophies.
The New England Patriots are without a doubt, the best NFL franchise during the past decade or so. Their run under Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady will land all three in the Hall of Fame one day. The consistency and excellence that they have displayed has been something which all other franchises have aspired to be like. The last time this team won less than 10 games in a season was 2002, when they won 9. Since Tom Brady took over early in the 2001 season, they have made five trips to the Super Bowl, while winning three of them. The scary part is, they don’t seem to be done yet, either. This 2012 team seems to be quite a bit better than last years squad. The fact that they even appeared in the Super Bowl last year is amazing considering they had the 31st ranked pass defense and almost no running game to speak of. Everything about this team and this franchise goes back to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. This QB-coach combo will go down as the best of all-time, and something tells me when Brady decides to call it a career years from now, Belichick will too. So how much longer will “Tom Terrific” play anyway? He has said many times in the last year or two that he wants to play into his early forties. That would mean another five or six years maybe? 2011 proved that the guy just is not slowing down. He threw for the second most passing yards in a season in the history of the NFL, and it just happened to be in the same year that Drew Brees set the all-time record. His weapons to throw too, amazingly enough, should be even better this year. After a breakout year by Rob Gronkowski, it’s hard to think he won’t get better. Aaron Hernandez is a tough cover as well, and is supremely athletic. Wes Welker is back, and should reel in another 100+ balls. The somewhat under the radar signing of Brandon Lloyd could be a huge one, and provide the deep threat that the New England Patriots have been lacking. If they can get any sort of running game from Stevan Ridley or Shane Vereen, this offense could truly be unstoppable. It seems as if only injuries, or an underperforming offensive line, could stall this locomotive as another AFC East title should be a forgone conclusion.
Facts are facts, and Tom Brady is now closer to 40 years of age than he is to 30. What the Patriots did during this offseason spoke to that, as they had to realize that the years of having him under center are dwindling. Is he still great and one of the best in the NFL today? Absolutely. Will there come a point in the next few seasons where he begins to show his age and not be the Tom Brady that we are used to? Definitely. It would be naive to think that this won’t happen in the next two or three years. When New England made it a point to load up on defense as much as possible in the draft, and bring in Brandon Lloyd, they were giving strong signals that the time to capitalize while Tom is still in his prime is now. The additions they made were brilliant, and are primarily what makes New England the front-runners heading into this opening weekend of games. Although teams like Baltimore, Houston, Pittsburgh, Denver, and potentially others may put up a challenge in January, it’s Super Bowl or bust for the Patriots in 2012. It will be this way until Tom Brady calls it a career. New England may very well win another Lombardi Trophy or two in the next five years, as that should not surprise anyone. The urgency to win big now should be their focus, because when he is gone, the domination at the top of the AFC East will most likely go with him.
Patriots supporters will undoubtedly point out that they currently have on the roster a QB who will fill the void when Brady decides to retire. Ryan Mallett was drafted in 2011 to be the heir apparent to #12 once he hangs em up. It was a classic Bill Belichick draft pick, and a smart one at that. Give the kid a chance to sit and learn behind one of the best of all-time, and in a few years, he can hit the ground running. In his brief time on the field during preseason games though, he has looked erratic with his decision-making. He has made some nice throws and shown off his rocket arm, but has also made mistakes which has to give some pause to any Patriots fan. The bottom line is, nobody really knows what Mallett is yet. Could he be very good and a great successor to Tom Brady down the road? Maybe. Could he be inconsistent and make as many poor plays as great ones? Maybe. We just don’t know.
Regardless of what happens to the New England Patriots years from now is hard to say. 2012 though, is looking like a season where anything less than 13 wins would be surprising. If everything comes together as I see that it will, this team should once again be the #1 seed in the AFC come playoff time. Too much would have to happen for the Patriots not to be successful this year. But success for New England is a little different than most other places. Tom Brady does have three rings, but one or two more should end any argument of who the best QB of all-time really is.
Denver Sports by J Simp