2016 NFL Preview: How much longer can this Patriots era last?

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

No. 4: NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

The New England Patriots’ 15-year run is probably the best in NFL history, and it might never be matched again.

In an era of free agency and a salary cap, the Patriots have been fantastic just about every season this century. They have won 10 games 14 of the past 15 seasons. A 9-7 finish in 2002 was the outlier. They’ve won at least 12 games 10 of the past 13 seasons, which is staggering. They’ve won the division 13 times this century, including 12 of the past 13 years. They’ve been to the Super Bowl six times and won four. That type of run isn’t supposed to happen in the NFL anymore.

Like it or not, the Patriots are the surest thing in the NFL. But for how long? This season we’ll get a quick peek into what happens once Tom Brady is finished.

In case you missed it, Brady will be suspended four games for whatever he did in deflate-gate (the NFL and Ted Wells still haven’t provided an answer to that). Jimmy Garoppolo will take his place and we’ll see if the Patriots keep crushing the NFL as always.

Jimmy Garoppolo (10) will replace Tom Brady for the first four games this season (AP)
Jimmy Garoppolo (10) will replace Tom Brady for the first four games this season (AP)

People like to point to the 2008 season, when Matt Cassel played most of the year for an injured Brady. The Patriots went 11-5, which was good. But you know what’s never mentioned? That was five wins worse than 2007. The 2007 Patriots went 16-0 and were one of the greatest teams ever. A 11-5 record isn’t bad for any team but 2008 is not proof the Patriots will win forever without Brady (click here for more on Garoppolo’s opportunity).

We won’t know for sure what will happen to the Patriots in a post-Brady world after four games this season either, but it will be an interesting experiment.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

And then Brady will come back, probably very angry and motivated, and the Patriots can resume being one of the NFL’s top Super Bowl contenders.

The Patriots were very close last season. Rob Gronkowski made two unbelievable fourth-down plays late in the AFC championship game at the Denver Broncos, a 40-yard catch to put the Patriots in the red zone and then a touchdown at the back of the end zone with 12 seconds left. It was a heck of a show by the greatest tight end ever. But the Patriots couldn’t get the two-point conversion to send the game to overtime. NFL teams converted on about 48 percent of their two-point attempts last season. With a great quarterback like Brady and a great target like Gronkowski, going against a great Broncos defense, that play was a coin flip. The Patriots lost it. The Broncos went on to win the Super Bowl. The Patriots had to watch the Carolina Panthers struggle that day and believe that if the 50-50 two-point try went their way, they’d have a fifth ring.

They’ll try again this season, maybe get Malcolm Butler lucky and not David Tyree unlucky. There’s no reason to doubt them. Trading top pass rusher Chandler Jones before he hit free agency after this season was an odd move for a team with Super Bowl hopes, but that’s how the Patriots do business. The Patriots should be the same team we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s basically the same core that started 10-0 last year and was very close to making another Super Bowl.

The Patriots will be good again. Their consistency is boring and predictable. At least the first four weeks will add a new degree of difficulty.

Chandler Jones is a big loss. He had 12.5 sacks last year, and no other Patriot had more than eight. I didn’t like that move for the Patriots. They added some interesting pieces, taking shots on recognizable names who are looking for some Patriots magic to revive their careers: tight end Martellus Bennett, end Chris Long, linebacker Shea McClellin, guard Jonathan Cooper, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and running back Donald Brown. Not all of them will hit, but some should. Bennett is especially interesting as a second tight end to pair with Rob Gronkowski. That duo will create a ton of matchup problems. The Patriots raised some eyebrows by giving receiver Chris Hogan (959 yards in four Buffalo Bills seasons) a three-year, $12 million contract, but they must see something in him. Their grade can’t be too high because Jones was a big loss. Grade: C+

The Patriots don’t have many flaws, but their running game isn’t great. They were just 28th in the NFL in yards per carry. Dion Lewis isn’t a high-volume runner, but he is the Patriots’ best option in the backfield even if most of his damage comes in the passing game. He played just seven games last year but had 622 yards from scrimmage. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy in his NFL career, but if he can hold up all season — and if Donald Brown or LeGarrette Blount still have something left to offer — the Patriots become a stronger offense.

When you play only 16 games, every result matters. Look at last season. The Patriots blew a 21-7 fourth-quarter lead at the Broncos and lost in overtime. They had a weird upset loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, allowing three return touchdowns. They strangely chose to kick off in overtime at the New York Jets, and the Jets won on their first overtime drive. Then in Week 17 the Patriots had a weird game plan, playing conservatively in the first half even though they could have clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win. They lost at the Miami Dolphins. A win in any of those four games, and the Patriots would have hosted the AFC championship. That doesn’t guarantee they’d have won it, but it would have given them a better chance.

So yeah, the first four games of this season matter. Nobody knows if Jimmy Garoppolo is ready. He has been fine in preseason and his rare regular-season appearances, but that doesn’t mean much. He has also been mostly conservative and playing against backups. And he’ll be taking over for perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, so even if Garoppolo is good there will be a big dropoff. If the Patriots lose a game or two (or three?) in the first quarter of the season, it could determine if they make a Super Bowl or not. Look what happened last season.

Tom Brady turned 39 on Wednesday. He takes great care of himself and knows how to play quarterback as well as anyone, so the end doesn’t seem to be near. But it could be. It’s tough to predict. That’s what made the Patriots’ third-round pick of N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett interesting.

Taking Brissett with the 91st overall pick, especially considering the Patriots had no first-round pick, was a telling investment. The Patriots saw what happened with Brock Osweiler, who left for big money in free agency after starting a chunk of last season for the Broncos. Garoppolo is signed through 2017 but the Brissett pick might indicate the Patriots want to trade Garoppolo after his four-game cameo. The Patriots’ post-Brady plan will be fascinating to watch unfold.

Jabaal Sheard is on the spot. He played 51 percent of New England’s defensive snaps last year compared to 79 percent for Chandler Jones, according to pro-football-reference.com. Sheard should be closer to 79 percent this year, with Jones playing for the Arizona Cardinals. Sheard had eight sacks last year and has shown he can be an effective pass rusher. But he’ll be asked to help replace one of the NFL’s best pass rushers. That’s not easy.

Cosell: “I think it starts with a basic philosophy that is different than a lot of other coaches. Each week is a totally different game tactically. I remember talking to [former Patriots receiver] Troy Brown … and he told me Bill Belichick would come in every Monday, rip up the game plan they just used the day before and literally start from scratch. I’m not sure how many coaches do that. We talk about teams having a foundation approach that they work off of every week, which seems like a good thing to do because then it’s repetition and you’re working off the same things. I think what Belichick does is totally different than that. I think he has a totally different approach every week, depending on who they’re playing.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Patriots and the rest of the AFC East.]

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Is the fantasy glass three-quarters full or one-quarter empty for Tom Brady? He loves throwing inside the numbers, so the presence of Rob Gronkowski and newly acquired Martellus Bennett should be a blast, especially around the goal line. Mix in Julian Edelman and Dion Lewis, and Brady surely won’t lack for passing options. That said, Edelman has just one full season in his last seven, Lewis is coming off a major knee injury (and has a notable medical file as well), and there’s the matter of Brady’s four-game suspension. And at age 39, Brady is the oldest starting quarterback in the league.

“The upside-chasers have pushed Brady’s Yahoo average-draft position inside the top 70, and they’ll look like geniuses if Brady is smoking in the final month of the year. I’ll focus on a Philip Rivers type (ADP: 111), and not play a roster spot down in the first month, when the waiver wire is especially critical. There’s more than one way to get that fantasy glory — what will you do at the Brady fork in the road?”

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Tom Brady had a 102.2 rating last season. Among all quarterbacks at least 39 years old, only one (minimum 50 passes) has posted a 95 rating: Brett Favre’s 107.2 in 2009. Only four quarterbacks who are 39 or older have posted a rating of at least 90 (Sonny Jurgensen in 1974, Warren Moon in 1995, Vinny Testaverde in 2003 and Len Dawson in 1975). Brady looked great last season. But he’s up against a lot of history. We all saw Peyton Manning fall apart last season at age 39. It can happen in the blink of an eye. It’s going to happen at some time to Brady too.

HOW MUCH LONGER WILL BILL BELICHICK COACH?

In June, Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman quoted an anonymous AFC East scout saying once Tom Brady retires, Belichick will give up his coaching post too.

“I think Brady will retire in two or three years and then Bill will follow,” the scout told Freeman. “[Belichick] won’t leave football. He’ll go to a front office-only role.”

Freeman wrote “will never happen,” but who knows? It’s a reminder that nobody can accurately predict what Belichick will do. And the last thing we can count on is Belichick telling us his plans ahead of time.

With Tom Coughlin out of a job, Belichick is the second-oldest coach in the NFL, at age 64. Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks is a few months older (I don’t believe Carroll is 64 and won’t until I see his birth certificate). Coaches usually don’t last into their late 60s. Don Shula’s last season came when he was 65. Tom Landry was 64 his last season. But Marv Levy and George Halas lasted until they were 72 so maybe Belichick can coach until then too.

But it makes sense that Belichick would exit with Brady. No coach-quarterback combination has had more success. But we don’t know how many years Brady has left either. It might not be an immediate concern, but yet another reminder that this Patriots dynasty has an expiration date.

If Jimmy Garoppolo can lead the Patriots to a 4-0 record, or even 3-1, look out. The Patriots could then cruise to a No. 1 seed in the AFC. Failing to get home-field advantage last season might have cost the Patriots another Super Bowl title. The Patriots know anything can happen in a single-game elimination tournament, but I’d like New England’s chances if they don’t have to leave Foxborough in the AFC playoffs.

If Jimmy Garoppolo is incapable of replacing Tom Brady and the Patriots can’t pick up the slack for him, New England could be digging out of a hole in the AFC all season. There’s only one goal for the Patriots, and it’s a Super Bowl title. Another playoff heartbreak would be the nightmare. Nobody knows how many years the Patriots have left with Brady playing at a Hall-of-Fame level.

I like the Patriots to make another Super Bowl. At very least, they’re the safest bet of any team to make it to Houston, just because of the track record. They’ll be in the mix by the time the playoffs come around, as always. Everyone knows that in February we could all be talking about how Tom Brady returned from suspension, a motivated Patriots team tore up the NFL and Roger Goodell had the super uncomfortable moment of sharing a podium after the Super Bowl with Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Brady.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders
14. New York Jets
13. New York Giants
12. Houston Texans
11. Dallas Cowboys
10. Minnesota Vikings
9. Kansas City Chiefs
8. Denver Broncos
7. Cincinnati Bengals
6. Green Bay Packers
5. Pittsburgh Steelers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!