The suspension being upheld doesn't change how I view the AFC for a few reasons. Tom Brady and his wildly paid team of lawyers are going to take this to court. The NFL hasn't done too well in federal court when it comes to upholding these suspensions, and it's quite possible that an injunction will allow Brady to stay on the field while the legal process plays out. That could take the whole season.
Even if Brady does miss the first four games, it's not a death knell. Three of the Patriots' four 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. What surprises me most about the Brady saga is how many people believe the Patriots will keep chugging along without their most important player. Jimmy Garoppolo is a nice prospect and all, but this team will face an uphill climb to go .500 in a stretch that includes home matchups against the Steelers and Jaguars, and road games against the Bills and Cowboys.
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. If possible, I think this makes the Patriots more dangerous than they were before. It's safe to say Bill Belichick is a special kind of angry right now, even more so than when he had to take time out of his preparation for the Super Bowl in order to deliver a sermon on air pressure. Maybe this is a simplistic view on things, but I'm not about to volunteer my team to stand in the way of a maniacal genius who has won four Lombardi Trophies -- and made six total trips to the Super Bowl -- in the past 14 seasons.
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. Anybody who tells you they know how Jimmy Garoppolo will fare as Brady's replacement is full of it. Garoppolo is a complete and utter mystery. That said, the Patriots are used to overcoming sluggish starts. In eight September games over the past two years, Tom Brady has failed to post a passer rating over 80.0 in four of them. He and the Pats were written off after the Chiefs blowout last season, only to right the ship and reel off seven straight wins.
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 Tom Brady missing a month, I'm not knocking the Patriots down in the AFC. First, they still have the best coach of this generation. Bill Belichick has a history of tactically overcoming his team's shortcomings. At least with an entire training camp and preseason, the Pats will be able to design an offense that works to Jimmy Garoppolo's strengths. New England still boasts a healthy Rob Gronkowski, who has proven to be the Pats' true Jenga piece over the past several years.
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. Tom Brady is arguably the finest quarterback in the AFC, but he also plays for the greatest coach of our generation -- on a team that never panics.
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.