Two weeks. 16 days. 31 individual snapshots of the various NFL franchises. One to go.
You already knew which team it would be after we unveiled No. 2 (hell, you probably knew who it was before we unveiled No. 32). The Patriots. Five-time Super Bowl winners. Two in the last three years. And, most importantly, the only defending champions to ever mash the gas in an effort to get even better.
Yes, the new G.O.A.T. has an improved roster on both sides of the ball as he tries to get his record-extending sixth Super Bowl win for a quarterback, which also would catch the Steelers for the most by any franchise. They’ll be the overwhelming pick to get there, and to win it. Which, of course, will only make it harder to do.
But do it they can. With an obsessive focus on the here and now, the Patriots never get flustered by the big picture or expectations or anything else that has caused many a contender to slip from contention. And while it would be foolish to hand the Lombardi to the Patriots without playing the 267 games that come before it officially happens, it’s hard to recall a preseason favorite who was more of a postseason favorite than the Patriots.
Biggest positive change: In an offseason with plenty of positive changes, perhaps the biggest addition for 2017 and beyond comes from Buffalo, where the Bills weren’t interested in keeping cornerback Stephon Gilmore — but the Pats were willing to pounce. And since the Patriots have seen Gilmore twice per year for five years, they’ve surely seen something they like. And now they have insurance against the eventual departure of Malcolm Butler, who is sticking around for one more year, and probably only one more year. However they use Gilmore, coach Bill Belichick knows everything Gilmore can and can’t do.
Biggest negative change: For a defending Super Bowl winner, there weren’t nearly as many as usual. The biggest name to leave was a guy no one ever expected to stay — tight end Martellus Bennett. Enter former Colts tight end Dwayne Allen, who potentially will help fill the role, if he’s not overwhelmed by the Patriot Way. The addition of other receivers and running backs will help, too, as the Patriots assemble perhaps the best array of offensive weapons they’ve ever had.
Coaching thermometer: 459 below Fahrenheit. Negative 253 Celsius. Absolute zero. Belichick has the job for as long as he wants it. Not even an 0-16 disaster would get him fired, not that an 0-16 disaster would ever happen to him. The real question is whether they go 16-0 for the second time in 10 years. And indeed they could.
We’d like to have a beer with . . . Belichick. Everyone who knows him swears that when he gets away from football he’s not the cold, flat, monotonous, day-to-day bad ventriloquist whose mouth moves just enough to confirm that he’s the one who’s talking and/or breathing. So let’s get him away from football and get him a beer and talk about boats or Bon Jovi or the history of the single wing or whatever tickles his fancy and gets him to act like something other than a cyborg whose only sign of humanity is the fact that he’s gaining wrinkles and losing hair.
How they could prove us wrong: It won’t take much to prove us wrong, because any deviation from wire-to-wire No. 1 seed would prove us wrong. The only potential vulnerability may be man-to-man coverage, which seemed to work (relatively speaking) when deployed by the Houston and Atlanta defenses in the postseason. The Steelers are hoping to use it more in an effort to match up better with the Patriots, who can’t be covered effectively in zone because Tom Brady can spot and dismantle any collection of defenders aimed at covering spots and not players.