Call this a companion piece to my guy Phil Perry’s well-written AFC Power Rankings. The Senator puts the Patriots at No. 1 -- even with the greatest quarterback of his (or any) generation cooling his heels in Brookline for September -- and you really can’t argue with that.
When the Patriots had their full complement of players in 2015, the gap between them and their weekly opponents was significant. They began the season with 10 straight wins. Of those, only one -- the 27-26 win at the Giants -- had a margin of victory smaller than seven points.
When the injury attrition came and the offense was reduced to a shell of itself, that’s when the losses came . . . and they still finished 12-4 (You still don’t get the Miami game? Honestly, neither do I.).
And even in the AFC Championship Game against Denver -- whose played defense at a disturbingly high level during that tight span near the end of the year and into the postseason, and undressed the Patriots offensive line -- New England still almost willed its way to SB50.
This year, the Patriots' projected Opening Day starters may be even better than they were in 2015 except for, ya know . . .
Martellus Bennett is in for Scott Chandler on offense. Defensively, Jabaal Sheard assumes the top-of-the-depth-chart role of Chandler Jones, Chris Long is now the third edge defender, Dominique Easley is out but his loss is mitigated by the addition of a run-stuffer in Terrance Knighton and the presumed maturation of Malcom Brown, Geneo Grissom and Trey Flowers. The jury’s going to be out on Shea McClellin for a while but he’s better than Dane Fletcher, who was ticketed for the linebacker corps in 2015. Tarell Brown won’t be starting at corner. Bradley Fletcher won’t be chasing butterflies. Logan Ryan’s got another year of experience and the Cyrus Jones addition is intriguing on defense and special teams.
I know those are merely projections and we have no real idea who will be there against the Cardinals (Julian Edelman being my No. 1 concern), but the point is, upgrades were made.
And who else in the AFC can say that they did enough to close the gap? Within the division, the Jets are jacking around with Ryan Fitzpatrick still. Ryan Clady and Matt Forte could be upgrades and the Jets (No. 7 on Phil’s list) still have an imposing front-four, but evidence is needed. The Dolphins (No. 14) lost Olivier Vernon and have a first-year, first-time head coach. The Bills (No. 11)? Rex is already on the griddle and pressure doesn’t become him. The Steelers are No. 2 and that makes sense with the always underappreciated Ben Roethlisberger there, but LeVeon Bell’s down four games, Martavis Bryant’s down for the season and the lack of composure I saw with both Pittsburgh and No. 3 Cincy in the playoffs last year doesn’t make me a buyer on their capabilities. God bless the Raiders (No. 4), but Jack Del Rio and Derek Carr have a lot to prove.
Meanwhile, the Ravens appear in decline and the Colts retained their dysfunctional front office-sideline duo of Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano. It will take a couple of bad Sundays for that to lapse back into bitterness.
So even with the head start Roger Goodell provided the rest of the league when he carried out the wishes of the Patriots rivals and chased Tom Brady down like a common criminal, it’s still not going to be enough.
I don’t think that even that will help the rest of the conference make up the stagger.
What New England’s done since 2001 is -- as a team -- Ruthian. Even the two years in that span in which the Patriots failed to make the playoffs, they finished tied for first in the AFC East in both seasons and were nosed out on tiebreakers. They’ve been to five straight conference championships. And the last time they didn’t get to the AFCCG, they were the No. 1 seed.
Ten AFCCG appearances, six Super Bowl appearances, four Super Bowl wins and still with a strength-of-roster/coaching advantage on the rest of the conference.
If not now, with Brady shut down for September, then when?