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1 New England Patriots

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Part of what is so impressive about TOM BRADY is that he's succeeded in a variety of systems. In 2016, over the course of 19 games, the Patriots transitioned from an almost strictly horizontal passing attack to one that was a little more vertical. Wide receiver CHRIS HOGAN, picked up last offseason, played a big role here. Second-year receiver MALCOLM MITCHELL did too, on the perimeter. It looks as if New England will continue going in this direction, with ROB GRONKOWSKI back healthy and speedy receiver BRANDIN COOKS added from the Saints.

• The beauty of the offense is that it doesn't have to be vertical. The receiving skills of pass-game running back JAMES WHITE (and maybe in his place, at some point, former Bengal REX BURKHEAD) help create a potent "spread empty formation" package, with five pass catchers flanked out wide. From this you see the underneath routes that Brady uses to dink and dunk defenses to death. (That's what happened in Super Bowl LI; Brady's longest completion was 28 yards.) Cooks has the quickness to prosper in their underneath passing game.

• Losing JULIAN EDELMAN for the year with an ACL injury hurts. But the Patriots have the depth to replace him, starting with DANNY AMENDOLA, who made three huge catches in Super Bowl LI that were essential to New England's comeback.

• This is a bend-but-don't break defense. The Patriots don't usually blitz until their opponent gets inside field goal range, and many of their coverages have two safeties back. That allows them to disguise and, more important, to double-team No. 1 receivers, which they almost always do.

• Their only real weakness is the pass rush. Maybe that improves this year with the continued development of defensive end TREY FLOWERS, a masterly technician entering his third season. But even then, they're still thin here. New England has no threatening edge benders. It's unusual for a team to play a conservative, coverage-based scheme, get little from its four-man rush and still finish with the No. 1 scoring defense. But that's what the Patriots did last year.

"WITH FIVE PASS CATCHERS SPREAD WIDE, BRADY CAN DINK AND DUNK DEFENSES TO DEATH."

SI'S 2017 PREDICTION

14--2

2016 RECORD 14--2

SEPT. 7

THURSDAY

VS. KC

SEPT. 17

AT NO

SEPT. 24

VS. HOU

OCT. 1

VS. CAR

OCT. 5

THURSDAY

AT TB

OCT. 15

AT NYJ

OCT. 22

VS. ATL

OCT. 29

VS. LAC

BYE

NOV. 12

AT DEN

NOV. 19

IN MEXICO CITY

AT OAK

NOV. 26

VS. MIA

DEC. 3

AT BUF

DEC. 11

MONDAY

AT MIA

DEC. 17

AT PIT

DEC. 24

VS. BUF

DEC. 31

VS. NYJ

Position Rankings

QB

1

Strength

SKILL

2

OL

14

FRONT 7

18

DBs

2

ANDY BENOIT'S 400 MMQB ON.SI.COM/400

1 TOM BRADY QB

7 ROB GRONKOWSKI TE

36 DEVIN MCCOURTY FS

86 DONT'A HIGHTOWER LB

106 MALCOLM BUTLER CB

119 JULIAN EDELMAN WR [OUT FOR SEASON]

120 STEPHON GILMORE CB

138 BRANDIN COOKS WR

148 TREY FLOWERS DE

191 PATRICK CHUNG SS

212 MALCOM BROWN DT

268 NATE SOLDER T

272 ALAN BRANCH DT

273 MARCUS CANNON T

329 REX BURKHEAD RB

331 LAWRENCE GUY DE

335 JAMES WHITE RB

345 SHAQ MASON G

383 DAVID HARRIS LB

OUT FOR SEASON