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Can Patriots start, finish as winners sans Tom Brady?

Just what will become of the Patriots -- who have become the most consistently stellar franchise perhaps in NFL history over these last two decades -- without Tom Brady?

These are storylines of speculation that have been going strong since Brady departed and will continue to do so likely until 2020 playoff spots have been clinched. Alas, all that truly is at hand is prognostication and theorizing.

There is a bit of history to further stoke the fires of prediction, though.

This won't be the first time the Patriots have started a season without Brady in the last 20 years. The last two times Brady didn't start a season opener for the Patriots, New England won a Super Bowl, per NFL Research.

In Week 1 of 2001, Drew Bledsoe was the starter for the Patriots. Of course, his injury opened the door for the storied career of Brady -- with New England advancing to Super Bowl XXXVI and defeating the St. Louis Rams. More than a decade later, it was Jimmy Garoppolo who was QB1 in Week 1. As Brady served a suspension ahead of returning in Week 5, the Patriots had started their path to Super Bowl LI, where they downed the Falcons in one of the greatest comebacks of all-time.

Thus, while the Patriots started two seasons since 2001 without Brady and advanced to the Super Bowl each time, it was Brady who indeed finished the campaigns.

Complicating matters further for the Patriots is that they have the toughest strength of schedule entering 2020 based on their 2019 opponents' record (137-118-1; .537 winning percentage), per NFL Research.

It's the first time Bill Belichick won't have Brady since 2000 and the third time he hasn't had Brady as his Week 1 starter (the aforementioned two times plus Brady's rookie year when he was on the bench behind Bledsoe and the Pats went 5-11). The upcoming season will also be the first in which Belichick will have the toughest strength of schedule as Patriots coach.

At stake are an impressive list of streaks that are evidence of just how stellar New England's last two decades have been. New England has won 11 straight division titles, tallied 10 or more victories in 17 consecutive campaigns and made the postseason dance 11 straight times, according to NFL Research. All of those are NFL records.

Perhaps Stidham, Brian Hoyer or undrafted free agents J'Mar Smith and Brian Lewerke will be the replacement for Brady the Patriots need to carry on the tradition of winning.

Only 2020 will tell, as Belichick and the Patriots start the season without Brady once again, but will most certainly be ending it without him as this new era in New England is upon us.

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