Here are nine reasons why the Pats will win the AFC East and, once again, be in contention for the Lombardi Trophy:
1) They employ the best coach in NFL history
"The Hoodie" is a living legend. Belichick's X's and O's are superior. His in-game feel is impeccable. And his game-to-game -- or season-to-season -- adaptability is unparalleled. This guy plays to his roster's strengths -- whatever that specific roster's strengths may be. Nobody maximizes talent better than Belichick. The salary cap is supposed to create competitive balance and parity -- the intention is for every team to have a shot. Yet, Belichick's Patriots dominate year in and year out. Over the last 14 seasons, the Pats have won 12 division titles and gone to six Super Bowls, winning four. That's ridiculous.
2) Tom Brady is still going to play football this year
I believe Tom Brady -- like every NFL quarterback -- knows everything about his equipment, particularly when it comes to his most important tool: the pigskin. Thus, I find it hard to buy what Brady's agent, Don Yee, is selling. (That his client is just the poor, innocent victim of a vicious sting operation.) That said, I fundamentally disagree with the penalty. I just don't think the punishment fits the crime. Last November, during a frigid game between the Panthers and Vikings in Minnesota, cameras showed sideline attendants using heaters to warm frozen footballs. The punishment for this illegal treatment? A stern warning.
OK, OK, so the Pats have a past history of skirting league rules, and according to the Wells Report, they weren't fully cooperative throughout the investigation. That stuff played into the discipline -- I get it. But I still think the punishment was excessive. And I believe there is a realistic chance that Brady's four-game ban gets reduced or eradicated after appeal.
Even if that doesn't happen, though, Brady is set to play in at least 12 regular-season games. And that means the Patriots will have an all-time great at quarterback for three quarters of the season. Oh, and you think he'll be motivated? Uh ...
3) Yes, Brady is primed to embark on the greatest revenge tour ever
Remember the Patriots' reaction to all the Spygate criticism? They put together one of the most dominant and awe-inspiring regular seasons ever (before, of course, losing a classic Super Bowl to the New York Giants). In the midst of that 16-0 regular season, Brady laid bare New England's intentions:
"We're not trying to win 42-28, we're trying to kill people," Brady said on Boston's WEEI radio. "We're trying to blow them out if we can."
No squad plays the "us vs. the world" card better than New England. When Brady returns to action, watch out: We're going to witness a man on a mission. And before that, we're going to witness something new, something different, something ... promising? Yes, I'm on board, because ...
4) Jimmy Garoppolo can play
New England selected the Eastern Illinois product in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft for a reason: The guy has game. As my colleague Bucky Brooks laid out in his scouting report on Wednesday, Garoppolo's a sound decision-maker with a compact release and an accurate arm. The second-year pro is no slouch. He flashed plenty of potential in the preseason (racking up a 99.0 passer rating) and made the most of limited regular-season action (101.2 rating, throwing passes in three games).
A lot of people are scrolling through the Pats' schedule and tallying up numerous losses in that opening stretch of Brady-less games (vs. Pittsburgh, at Buffalo, vs. Jacksonville, at Dallas). Be careful. Remember what New England did when Brady last missed time? After the quarterback went down with a torn ACL in the first quarter of the 2008 season opener, the Patriots went on to win 11 games -- with first-time starter Matt Cassel under center. Garoppolo has more talent than Cassel.
Speaking of Cassel ...
5) The Buffalo Bills aren't ready for prime time
Rex Ryan does his best work talking in the offseason. He struggles as an in-game coach. That's a major issue.
Sure, Rex is a defensive guru. And he has the players on that side of the ball to terrorize the opposition. After all, Buffalo led the NFL in sacks last season, and the entire D-line returns in 2015. On offense, the Bills boast a series of playmakers. LeSean McCoy is great. As is Percy Harvin -- when he can stay on the field. And Sammy Watkins could truly emerge, provided he has the right signal-caller to get him the ball. Of course, therein lies the problem.
Cassel is the best of a bad bunch at quarterback. That hurts. You still have to outscore teams in today's NFL, which puts defenses -- even great ones -- at a serious disadvantage. Without a viable triggerman, Buffalo will have issues putting points on the board.
6) The Miami Dolphins are postseason-ready -- but not as division champs
In last week's Schein Nine, I spotlighted teams that are ready to make a jump after the draft -- and led with the Dolphins. I think Miami's had a fabulous offseason, bringing in Ndamukong Suh (via free agency) and DeVante Parker (draft) while getting rid of malcontent Mike Wallace (trade). This is a talented team with legit playoff aspirations.
But I'm not the biggest believer in Joe Philbin, and thus, I think the Dolphins max out at 10 wins. Meanwhile, the Pats, with Belichick and Brady (for at least 12 games), will eclipse that mark, with 11 or 12 wins.
7) The New York Jets are vastly improved, but ...
8) Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman are stars
Brady is a megastar, but he's not a one-man band.
Rob Gronkowski is the single best tight end in the league -- an unstoppable force who just logged the fourth double-digit-touchdown campaign of his five-year NFL career. Gronk's a weapon that opposing defenses have no answer for. What could be more helpful to a first-time starter like Garoppolo? Meanwhile, Edelman has established himself as a legit difference-maker in the past two seasons, racking up 197 catches. Edelman's no gimmick player -- he can play. Just ask the vaunted "Legion of Boom." Edelman put up nine catches for 109 yards and the game-winning score in Super Bowl XLIX.
9) New England's defense is underrated
Elsewhere, the Pats get the healthy returns of their top pass rusher (Chandler Jones) and the leader of the defense (Jerod Mayo). Longtime stalwart Vince Wilfork is gone, but first-round pick Malcom Brown provides young talent at the nose. And lastly, free-agent acquisition Jabaal Sheard is the kind of versatile pass rusher who takes off in New England.
Belichick is one of the best defensive minds in NFL history. This unit will be just fine. And, in the bigger picture, so will the Patriots.
Another year, another AFC East title.