Even if Brady does miss the first four games, it's not a death knell. Three of the
Super Bowl titles came in seasons where they started 2-2 or worse. As long as Brady is ready to go for January, New England is one of the favorites in the conference. Bill Belichick can figure out how to survive September.
Too many people look at 2008 (when the
Patriots went 11-5 without an injured Brady) and go,
"See! No problem at all!" It's reductive thinking. This is a lesser team and the competition around New England is better. I won't scratch my head in disbelief if the
Patriots roll to another 11 or 12 wins, but let's not downplay how much Brady's absence hurts the defending champs.
This also doesn't change the fact that
Jimmy Garoppolo might be the second-best quarterback in the division if
Tom Brady is taken out of the equation.
New England hasn't lost more than four games in any regular season since 2009. As long as Brady and Bill Belichick are running the show, they are the prohibitive favorites in the AFC East and clear contenders for the conference crown.
Even with all the upgrades across the AFC East, none of the contenders will be able to hold back a New England team with a huge chip on its shoulder. Even if the Pats stumble early in the season -- as they have in the past, even with Brady -- Belichick and Co. will find a way down the stretch to be on top.
New England has opened 2-2 in two of the past three seasons, recovering in 2012 to go 12-4 and reach the AFC title game. The .500 start last season wound up with Belichick and friends hoisting the Lombardi.
Nobody expects Jimmy Garoppolo to duplicate Brady's mental heights at the line of scrimmage, but no team does a better job preparing its young players. The Patriots have been working with Garoppolo all offseason and will flesh out their "Erhardt-Perkins"-inspired scheme to support him in a way that Belichick's early offenses supported Brady.
Any suspension to start the season draws more media attention, but the Patriots -- year after year -- seem to round into shape around October. Nothing is a guarantee with a soon-to-be 38-year-old quarterback, but with Brady back in the saddle for the final 12 tilts of the year, New England has more than enough time to vie for -- and win -- the AFC.