The NFL can get the New England Patriots on the ropes, but nobody can knock them out.
It wasn’t unfair to point out the Patriots’ shortcomings this season. They had five road losses, three by double digits. Had Nick Foles not led a great comeback against the Houston Texans in Week 16, the Patriots wouldn’t have had a much-needed first-round bye and maybe their postseason goes differently. There were many times when the Patriots didn’t look like the best team in football.
But they’re still the best organization in the NFL, by far, and just like it was fair to point out the Patriots’ struggles, it surprised nobody when they peaked in the playoffs.
“These guys, they’re competitors,” coach Bill Belichick said after Super Bowl LIII. “When things don’t go well, they take it hard, but they have a resolve to come back and try to fix it and get it right and get it better.”
And it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Patriots did it again next season.
There’s clear Patriots fatigue, and the rest of the NFL deserves blame for that. There are moments when a team can win a tight, big game against New England — the Eagles taking the lead with less than three minutes left in a Super Bowl, the 2015 Broncos knocking away a two-point conversion at the end of an AFC championship game, and so forth — but it’s mostly the same thing every year. The Patriots are just better than everyone else, in a league that is set up so nobody is supposed to win for very long, and it’s best to not keep expecting them to fall off. Let’s wait to actually see it first.
“It’s pretty sweet, man,” Tom Brady said after the Super Bowl. “I think we do play for each other. Vince [Wilfork] came and spoke to us last night and it means a lot. There’s been a lot of guys [be] a part of this journey with this team and it’s just been so fun to be a part of it and [you] just do your best every day. Coach makes it a – it’s a challenging football environment, the pressure’s always on, and for moments like this, you have to rise to the occasion.”
There will be challenges in New England. Rob Gronkowski might retire, and we don’t know if Jason or Devin McCourty will step away too. Brady will be 42, and he did decline some this season. Defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ value was obvious in the Super Bowl win over the Rams, and he’s off to the Dolphins. Some free agents like defensive end Trey Flowers could leave for a payday, now that they have another ring.
But the Patriots dealt with many personnel losses in 2018 and it didn’t matter. Nothing seems to matter. The AFC East is still an absolute mess, so we can pencil in the Patriots for a division title right now. Who else in the AFC seems to be building a great team that can knock off the Patriots? The Chiefs could be on the verge, but have defensive issues. The Colts might be able to do some damage this offseason, but there’s still a gap between them and New England. The Chargers are the Chargers. The Steelers are more of a soap opera than a football team at this point. And the Patriots are still going to out-coach and out-execute everyone else in the playoffs.
So as we go into the 2019 season, the easiest prediction is that the Patriots will be Super Bowl contenders again. Until the rest of the NFL can figure out how to get on their level, or we see the bottom finally fall out, it’s useless to doubt them.
It’s a futile exercise to rank the teams a month or so before free agency. But it’s a fun exercise, taking a snapshot of where each team stands after the Super Bowl. Here are the way-too-early power rankings as we start the long offseason; just don’t take it too seriously:
32. Miami Dolphins (7-9)
Last week Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald wrote a column titled, “These are some ways the Miami Dolphins plan to tank in 2019.” It’s not the first time the Dolphins’ tanking plan has been talked about in the Miami media. Assuming they don’t do an about-face and actually try in 2019, we’ll trust they really do plan to tank and give them No. 32.
31. Arizona Cardinals (3-13)
It feels like either Kliff Kingsbury is a great, creative hire (in which case, what’s Texas Tech doing?), or an absolute debacle. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. It’s interesting, at least.
30. Oakland Raiders (4-12)
We’re probably headed to the Raiders playing at the San Francisco Giants stadium for a year, which actually is pretty cool. But it’s still a reminder that in addition to the roster problems the Raiders have, this pending move doesn’t help them win games in the present.
29. Cincinnati Bengals (6-10)
Like the Lions and Matt Patricia last year, the Bengals couldn’t have watched the Rams’ offense struggle in the Super Bowl and felt all too great about coach-in-waiting Zac Taylor. But, it’s one game, there’s a reason Sean McVay’s assistants are getting snapped up, and give the Bengals credit for taking a chance on upside.
28. Buffalo Bills (6-10)
Josh Allen had some good moments, and certainly ran the ball better than anyone figured. He also threw 10 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, had a 67.9 passer rating and a 52.8 completion percentage. It’s also worth noting he had the worst skill-position group in the league to work with. We all knew it would take time with him, but you’d like to see significant progress in Year 2. The first part of that is on the Bills’ front office to upgrade the talent around him.
27. Washington Redskins (7-9)
While everyone hopes Alex Smith makes it back, there’s a football side to the story. And it’s not the most comfortable one for Washington. The salary-cap ramifications are rough, and you can read about them on OverTheCap.com. Of course the best outcome for everyone is that Smith has a great recovery and looks like his usual self from Week 1 of 2019. Given the uncertainty, I don’t know how the Redskins go about addressing the quarterback position this offseason. If Smith is back, or the Redskins come up with a good answer, their ranking will be higher than this.
26. New York Jets (4-12)
The combination of Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains might have the most pressure to produce quickly among the new hires. Gase was supposed to be in Miami what Sean McVay is in Los Angeles, but that didn’t happen. Loggains has been a coordinator four times and his offenses have ranked 22nd, 15th, 30th and 31st in yards gained. If it doesn’t work out fast, it’ll look like the Jets made uncreative retread hires.
25. New York Giants (5-11)
The Giants have the sixth pick, and none of the five teams ahead of them need a quarterback (maybe the Raiders at No. 4). While a team could always trade up, it seems the Giants could have their pick of a thin quarterback class. But if general manager Dave Gettleman wasn’t impressed with Sam Darnold in last year’s class, he’s not going to find his perfect prospect in this one either.
24. Detroit Lions (6-10)
Hiring Darrell Bevell as an offensive coordinator seems to signal that Matt Patricia wants a more run-oriented offense. Maybe taking the pressure off Matthew Stafford makes him more efficient. But after a bad season, turning Stafford back around has to be the Lions’ top priority. We’ll see if Bevell is the answer to that.
23. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)
Bruce Arians isn’t going to be the long-term answer at coach. But even if he coaches a couple years, and in those couple of years he turns Jameis Winston into a consistent quarterback, then the hire will be masterful for Tampa Bay. And if Arians can’t do it, it’s a lost cause.
22. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Nick Foles to the Jaguars seems too easy. But the Jaguars are going to have to make some tough salary-cap decisions to fit Foles (or any new quarterback) in. There should also be plenty of questions about the coaching staff after it did such a poor job in 2018. The Jaguars’ breakout 2017 season wasn’t long ago and a rebound could happen. Their offseason will be crucial because there are some challenges ahead.
21. Denver Broncos (6-10)
Can the Broncos get someone like Joe Flacco, then move on from Case Keenum? Does that also come with a first-round pick at quarterback like Drew Lock? Eventually one of John Elway’s quarterback moves is going to work out. Maybe.
20. San Francisco 49ers (4-12)
It’s reasonable to shrug, blame the ACL injury to Jimmy Garoppolo and move on. Still, you’d probably like to see a few more young players breaking out. If Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch don’t make progress in Year 3, assuming Garoppolo is back, then what?
19. Carolina Panthers (7-9)
It doesn’t seem like we’re in for an Andrew Luck-esque situation with Cam Newton’s shoulder surgery. Newton’s surgery seemed minor, compared to what Luck went through. You still want to see Newton back and healthy over the offseason, but let’s assume that will be the case. It’ll be a different team without Ryan Kalil, Julius Peppers and Thomas Davis, but there’s enough here to compete – if Newton is 100 percent again.
18. Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Based on everything we know now, would you give Marcus Mariota an extension that could reach nine figures? It’s not an easy question to answer, and the Titans have to be nervous about what to do.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6-1)
Do we rank the Steelers as having Antonio Brown, or assume they take a $21 million cap hit to trade him? Where Brown lands might be the biggest story of the offseason. It’s always interesting in Pittsburgh.
16. Minnesota Vikings (8-7-1)
The Vikings won’t have much cap space to add talent and free agents like Sheldon Richardson and Anthony Barr will be hard to re-sign. The 2018 season was a huge disappointment and the only way 2019 season gets better is if Kirk Cousins (and everyone else, really) plays better against the best teams on the schedule.
15. Green Bay Packers (6-9-1)
It’s a hard team to rank. While you can understand why the Packers wanted Matt LaFleur, he has run one offense and that Titans unit last season finished in the bottom eight in points and yards. He gets Aaron Rodgers, but Rodgers was strangely off last season. Maybe that was due to the knee injury suffered in Week 1. There’s talent on the roster, though that group didn’t produce much last season. The range of outcomes for the 2019 Packers is wide.
14. Atlanta Falcons (7-9)
The Falcons had a disappointing season, but it’s easy to see a big rebound. Atlanta lost a lot of close games, and that shouldn’t repeat. Hiring Dirk Koetter as offensive coordinator was a best-case scenario. The roster is still very good. Assuming some better health for the defense, the Falcons might put 2018 behind them fast.
13. Philadelphia Eagles (9-7)
If the Eagles franchise tag Nick Foles to trade him, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter said that’s what they plan to do, it’s a gamble. There should be a market for Foles, but it could also tie up a lot of salary-cap space if a trade doesn’t happen right away as free agency starts. It’ll probably work out but it’s not without risk.
12. Dallas Cowboys (10-6)
DeMarcus Lawrence might be the No. 1 free agent of the offseason … if he becomes a free agent. For the Cowboys to continue their momentum from the second half of last season, they need to figure out a way to retain Lawrence.
11. Cleveland Browns (7-8-1)
It’s scary to think Freddie Kitchens got a head-coaching job after a good half-season as offensive coordinator, though it made sense why the Browns did it. It’s hard to not go overboard about the Browns heading into this offseason. It’s strange to think the Browns will come into the season with high expectations.
10. Baltimore Ravens (10-6)
There might not be a more fascinating player for 2019 than Lamar Jackson. The Ravens are committed to him, but what style offense will they run? It’s hard to imagine Jackson can hold up running the same offense Baltimore used in the second half of the 2018 season. Jackson’s progress over the offseason, and how the Ravens adjust their offense to it, is a major story this year.
9. Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
Earl Thomas and K.J. Wright are free agents, as the Seahawks continue to lose pieces of their great Super Bowl team. But they had a strong 2018 and are in good position with the cap, so there’s no reason to believe the Seahawks take a step back. I still don’t love the idea of turning Russell Wilson into mostly a game manager, but it worked.
8. Los Angeles Chargers (12-4)
In terms of talent, the Chargers don’t take a backseat to anyone. But the horrendous performance in the playoff loss to the Patriots brings up the same old questions about the Chargers not being able to get over the hump.
7. Houston Texans (11-5)
The Texans have a lot of cap space headed into the offseason, and if they don’t use it to fix their offensive line then something is seriously wrong. Deshaun Watson showed a ton of toughness behind a bad line this past season, but he can’t be asked to do that every season.
6. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
This is the most interesting team of the offseason. They have more than $107 million in projected cap space according to Spotrac, and no other team has more than $88 million. They have about $38 million more in cap space than the Raiders, who have the fifth-most. The Colts could sign four or five elite free agents if they wanted. And it’s a team that won 10 of 11 games at one point last season. There’s a lot to like about the Colts.
5. Chicago Bears (12-4)
Matt Nagy won coach of the year (I’d have voted for Andy Reid, who hasn’t gotten nearly enough credit for Patrick Mahomes’ development), but we’ll see how much of the Bears’ success was him and how much was Vic Fangio. Fangio is gone to Denver, and he was a great defensive coordinator for Chicago. He isn’t going to be easy to replace.
4. New Orleans Saints (13-3)
At least the Saints know how to bounce back from crushing playoff losses. The problem here is that Drew Brees is 40 and just because Tom Brady doesn’t seem to care about turning 40, it’s still amazingly rare for 40-year-old quarterbacks to be even average. And over Brees’ last six games he had seven touchdowns, five interceptions and three games of 203 yards or less. It doesn’t mean Brees is near the end, but it’s something that can’t be ignored.
3. Los Angeles Rams (13-3)
The Rams have some key free agents, like Ndamukong Suh and LaMarcus Joyner. Jared Goff is eligible for an extension, so it’s likely the Rams’ window to spend their excess cap space on big free agents is closing soon. It’s not to say the Rams can’t come right back and win another NFC title, but we also can’t act like it’s a guarantee.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)
You’d like to think that the Chiefs got to the brink of a Super Bowl, then take the next step with their MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes. And maybe that happens. But we’ve seen a million times in the NFL that growth isn’t always linear. A lot has to go right to even get to a conference championship game. A little bit of regression can make a big difference.
1. New England Patriots (11-5)
They’re still here.
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