Victorious in at least one playoff game for 11 straight seasons, the New England Patriots have missed the postseason twice in the past three seasons and have not won a game outside of the regular season since winning Super Bowl LIII over the Rams. That means the Patriots have gone four years without winning a playoff game. To put that drought in perspective, the Patriots had previously never gone more than four seasons in a row without making it to the Super Bowl since Robert Kraft took over as the owner of the team in 1994.
Kraft, who has seen his team go .500 in the regular season since Tom Brady left New England and the Patriots lose their lone playoff game, badly, has grown accustomed to seeing his team win football games and has possibly developed unrealistic expectations about the franchise’s ability to do that without their 45-year-old former quarterback. Sure, Bill Belichick is still coaching the team, but the farther we get from Brady’s departure from New England the clearer it becomes that the quarterback, not the coach, was the key cog in the Patriot machine that went to work on the rest of the NFL for two decades.
Playing in a division that now features four-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers, Madden cover boy Josh Allen and a healthy (for now) Tua Tagovailoa as the other three starting quarterbacks aside from New England’s Mac Jones, the Patriots have the longest odds of finishing in first place at +800 behind the Bills (+120), Jets (+270) and Dolphins (+300) per DraftKings.
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While there’s no guarantee Rodgers will be able to hack it under the bright lights of New York and Tagovailoa staying healthy is far from a guarantee, Allen’s ability to lead Buffalo to success seems fairly cemented and the Bills have won their last four meetings with the Patriots by a combined 139-71 margin.
Despite the evidence to the contrary, Kraft seems optimistic his team can contend in the AFC East and avoid finishing in the basement for the first time since 2000 when there were five teams per division. “I liked our draft this year, and I hope that translates on the field,” Kraft said on Thursday. “I know the guys are working very hard. I think we have the most difficult division in the NFL, the best balance of teams. All the other three teams are good. So we’ll have our challenges. But I’m really hopeful about this team.”
While the AFC East is certainly improved with the addition of Rodgers and the return of a healthy Tua, the AFC West has three quarterbacks who have made the Super Bowl (Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Jimmy Garoppolo) as well as a young gunslinger (Justin Herbert), and the NFC East had three playoff teams last season (Giants, Cowboys, Eagles), including the NFC’s Super Bowl representative. Also, the argument could be made that the AFC East is certainly not the most difficult division in the NFL because the Patriots are in it.
If the Patriots can add free-agent receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the roster, their chances of vying for the division title would increase, but Kraft’s expectations for his team and their ability to compete seem way off as things stand now.