ASSESSING THE PATRIOTS WITHOUT BRADY
The uncertainty regarding the New England Patriots' early-season status is over. Tom Brady has dropped his appeal of Roger Goodell's four-game suspension over Deflategate and Brady will serve the four-game ban. Now it's time to assess how this impacts the Patriots from a handicapping perspective. We'll look at the team New England will put on the field the first four games and what that means for two key betting numbers--the Patriots' status as 15-2 favorites to win the Super Bowl, and their 10.5 Over/Under on wins for the 2016 NFL season.
Whenever there's a key player lost, it's important to keep the focus on the quality of the talent that remains, rather than the player that was lost. If we focus exclusively on the admittedly huge impact of Brady being gone, we overlook the fact that some good football players led by a great head coach are still going to be on the field these first four weeks.
New England's defense is going to be in a good shape. They have a pair of excellent linebackers in Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins. They like their edge rushing possibilities with young Jabal Sheard and veteran Rob Ninkovich. Last season cornerback Malcolm Butler went from unlikely Super Bowl hero to reliable lockdown corner on a weekly basis. With Belichick overseeing it all, the Patriots defense is a steady unit.
The Patriots also get two key players on offense back from injury. Offensive tackle Nate Solder returns as does explosive running back Dion Lewis. Solder's loss was the most notable in what was an injury-plagued year for the New England offensive line in 2015. Lewis was emerging as an excellent playmaker out of the backfield before a torn ACL ended his season. If he can make it back, and improving James White continues to grow in his role as the pass-catching back, the Patriots are still going to have some weapons to complement featured back LeGarrette Blount and receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. The fact that both receivers--particularly Edelman--are so good after the catch is something that will make life easier for temporary quarterback Jimmy Garropolo.
We don't mean to be too cavalier in talking about New England's offensive strengths, because the offensive line is still at least a question mark, they still don't have a field-stretcher at wide receiver and Garropolo has never flashed anything in the preseason that suggests he's ready to be an NFL starting quarterback. But it is worth noting that it's not as though the Patriots are helpless with Brady on the sidelines.
Moreover, the schedule is manageable. After a tough Sunday Night opener in Arizona, New England gets consecutive home games against Miami, Houston and Buffalo. All of those teams have quarterback concerns of their own, particularly the Dolphins.
There's no reason to think New England can't win two of those games simply on the strength of their defense, using safe means to get the ball in the hands of their skill players and Belichick's tactical excellence. They're almost certainly going to lose in Arizona, but they might well have lost that one with Brady in the lineup. If Brady were available, the Patriots likely go 3-1 to start the year. As it is now, they probably go 2-2. That keeps the 10.5 number for total wins very much in play. New England would then need to go 9-3 with Brady to cash an Over.
The more interesting number is the Super Bowl betting odds. We can't recommend investing in anyone at favorite's prices when their most valuable player is out for the first four games. But how long will New England be in that role? If the market doesn't move between now and the start of the season, an ugly loss in Arizona could be the best thing to happen to Patriot bettors. If you're willing to cut against the grain of what will be "sky-is-falling" media coverage, that will likely be the best time to invest in New England for the long haul.
Tom Brady's suspension is a big dose of adversity to this great franchise, but it's important not to overreact. He'll be back eventually and a sober look at the team's strengths suggest New England can still be a good bet in 2016.