WELCOME BACK: Quick-strike passing game. Last season, with burner Brandin Cooks aboard and slot receiver extraordinaire JULIAN EDELMAN out with a torn ACL, the Patriots went deep more than they had in years. Though the results were sensational—TOM BRADY's film was even better than his MVP stats suggest—the 41-year-old is at risk when he holds the ball on longer-developing vertical plays. Now Edelman is healthy (though he will be serving a four-game PED suspension) and Cooks is gone, shipped to the Rams for a first-round pick that the team used on Georgia lineman ISAIAH WYNN. (Wynn, who had been on track for a starting job, will miss the season after tearing his Achilles in a preseason game.) Expect the Patriots to return to the quick-strike option routes that have defined their passing game for much of the 2010s.
An underrated aspect of the Pats' attack is its backfield screen game. Coordinator JOSH MCDANIELS dips into it every week. Brady shows great patience in these plays, and running backs JAMES WHITE and REX BURKHEAD, who can catch balls from anywhere in the formation, are very proficient here.
New England has the consummate bend-but-don't-break defense. It ranked 29th in yards allowed last year but fifth in points. (Favorable field position provided by New England's offense and special teams also helped.) That won't change this year, in large part because the Patriots have weak edge rushers. Second-year men DEATRICH WISE and DEREK RIVERS need to emerge; if they don't, the four-man rush is a TREY FLOWERS injury away from utter ineptitude.
Perhaps in response to the pass rush's limitations, New England last year dropped at least eight men in coverage an NFL-high 23.7% of the time, according to Football Outsiders. The Pats play seven defensive backs more than any team. That's why their depth and versatility at safety is invaluable. Starters DEVIN MCCOURTY and PATRICK CHUNG can match up with both backs and tight ends. DURON HARMON almost always locks down centerfield. And though he struggled in Super Bowl LII, fourth-year strong safety JORDAN RICHARDS can contribute against the run and the pass.
2017 RECORD 13W 3L
SI'S 2018 PREDICTION 12W 4L
4th COLTS [Thursday]
29th @BILLS [Monday]
THEIR OUTSIDE receivers are not especially talented, but the Patriots are better than any team at using formations to create favorable matchups for their formidable inside weapons, JULIAN EDELMAN and ROB GRONKOWSKI.