It’s hard to throw any shade at the members of the Patriots Nation who wish their beloved New England Patriots could somehow just skip the 2017 regular season and go straight to the playoffs, if not the Super Bowl.
The general consensus is that the Patriots have only gotten better since they won Super Bowl LI, so some actually see it as a forgone conclusion that they’ll represent the AFC in Super Bowl LII.
The truth of the matter, though, is that as good as they appear to be on paper, a lot of things still have to go just right for the Patriots to go back to the Super Bowl.
For starters, they have to stay healthy, and not just at quarterback, where it’s a stretch to think the offense will continue to hum along if Tom Brady isn’t at the wheel.
In particular, the situation at tight end is a little more tenuous than it was a year ago, now that Dwayne Allen has replaced Martellus Bennett as the top alternative to the oft-injured Rob Gronkowski.
Sure, the Patriots proved a year ago they can win it all without Gronkowski — something that was heretofore thought virtually impossible – but Allen has never had a season like the one Bennett had a year ago.
Now that he’s the leader of the defense, the Patriots probably can’t afford to lose linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
The loss of any starter in the secondary could also prove quite troublesome. The Patriots were among the best in the league at preventing big plays a year ago. If Malcolm Butler, Patrick Chung or especially Devin McCourty go down, they could suddenly become quite vulnerable to game-altering plays.
One place where the Patriots probably can afford to lose a body is at running back. The Patriots look a lot deeper there after changing out LeGarrette Blount for Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee, but the change has to work.
Blount had a career year in 2016, running for 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns, and the Patriots benefited greatly from that, ranking third in the league in rushing attempts and seventh in the league in rushing yards.
As their ranking in attempts suggests, Blount gave the Patriots’ attack more balance. A look back at not only the Patriots’ history but Super Bowl history suggests that balance is an integral part of any champion’s success.
For example, without Blount to anchor the run game at the end of the 2015 season, the Patriots gained just 308 yards on 106 rushing attempts (2.9 per carry) over their last five games, including the playoffs, and went just 2-3 in those games.
New England Patriots running back Mike Gillislee takes a break during an NFL football organized team activities practice Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)
(AP Photo/Bill Sikes)
What the Patriots need is for Burkhead and Gillislee to provide that same balance, because no team has ever won a Super Bowl throwing the ball more than 600 times in a season, which is what the Patriots tried but failed to do when they threw the ball 629 times in 2015.
Of course, in order for the run game to be strong again, the offensive line will have to be strong again. That unit can’t regress the way it did in the playoffs last year, when some flaws in pass protection were exposed.
The Patriots allowed only 24 sacks during the regular season last year, but the Texans (two), Steelers (two) and Falcons (five) figured out where the weaknesses were and exploited them for nine sacks in the playoffs.
As far as sacks go, if the Patriots hope to repeat as AFC and Super Bowl champions, it would help if they racked up a few more sacks themselves. They had only 34 last year, 16th in the league.
They got by with that, of course, and they may have to again, because the Patriots still don’t have a true edge rusher. The closest thing they have to one is probably incoming end Kony Ealy, but Ealy never had more than five sacks in a season with the Panthers, so it’s hard to expect him to fill the void.
That means the Patriots will probably have to cobble together a pass rush once again, and they could, but they’ll probably need Trey Flowers (9.5 sacks through the playoffs last year) to continue to progress to do it.
It’s likely that the defense will need big years out of both Hightower and Flowers, and now that Jamie Collins is gone, they’ll probably need to get more out of linebacker Kyle Van Noy as well, because it doesn’t look like Rob Ninkovich has much left.
That will likely force Shea McClellin and 2016 sixth-round draft pick Elandon Roberts to play more. While both seem quite capable of getting the job done as run stoppers, they’ll have to take a step forward in pass coverage.
Finally, the Patriots would be well-served if they could get a better year out of kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who has been rock solid through most of the 11 years he’s been in the league but slipped a bit a year ago.
Gostkowski missed five field goal tries as well as five extra points last year, including one in the AFC title game and one in the Super Bowl. While the Patriots managed to overcome those misses, they may not be as fortunate this time around.
The Patriots were indeed fortunate to win the Super Bowl last year. A lot of things went just right for them, both in the regular season and the playoffs and especially in the Super Bowl.
As good as they are, in order to get back there, they’ll probably need a least some of that same good fortune this year.