This Thursday, the New England Patriots play their second game of the regular season against the New York Jets, coming off the heels of a 23-21 nail biter against the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo. This is already the second division game of the year for the Patriots, and while it may seem the AFC East is one of the weakest divisions in football, the value and importance of these games, have never been higher for the Patriots. Let me explain why none of these games can be looked past, and why none of them will come easily.
For the past decade and a bit, the New England Patriots have dominated the AFC East in what can only been known as “The Belichick-Brady Era”, winning 10 of a possible 12 division crowns in the time. And while the division has never seemed weaker, with the likes of rookies EJ Manuel and Geno Smith leading the way for the Jets and Bills, I don’t think division wins will ever be as tough to come by, and this is when division wins will be at their absolute most valuable for the Patriots.
The Patriots are not the same football team as they were a few years ago, they’re a young team once again, and being this young will involve some growing pains. This was very evident among the young receiving corps that the Patriots trotted out on Sunday against the Bills. Kenbrell Thompkins had one of the worst debuts a Patriots receiver has ever had, Josh Boyce had almost no impact, Zach Sudfeld had one target, which bounced off his hands for an interception, and second round pick Aaron Dobson did not even play due to an injury. This isn’t a good sign, it makes the Patriots seem even more vulnerable than they already were after the departures of Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, and the loss of a majority of their receiving production this offseason. Just imagine what the Patriots might look like to a young and inexperienced team like the Bills, Jets or Dolphins? You have a young team, but the core, Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and Bill Belichick, is creeping up their in age.
Then you look at the rest of the NFL and the many teams that are on the rise into prominence and into the elite group that can contend for a Super Bowl. You have teams that headline their conferences like the 49ers, Broncos and Seahawks, and the up and comers like the Texans, Bengals and Bears, and the old guard of teams who are more than capable of making Super Bowl runs like the Saints, Ravens, Packers and Falcons. This is about as deep a league of contenders as I’ve seen in years. With so many teams that can go in and win against any team any week, it makes those division games even more important. The Patriots have a total six games against these “playoff contenders” that I see, so I see these games as going either way. If the Patriots continue to have troubles meshing their offense, then they could conceivably go 3-3. As you can see, there are no “gimme” games on the Patriots schedule this year.
So taking all of that into account, you begin to see why these six games against the Bills, Jets and Dolphins are so important. All six are easily winnable games, but they won’t come as easily as you would think. With the Patriots as a whole looking as weak as we’ve seen them in the Belichick-Brady era, don’t think the other teams have looked on the schedule and thought, “We could potentially win this division if we take a game from the Patriots.” The Patriots are going to need every single game to make it to the playoffs, knowing that everyone is going to come the hard way. What matters in the end isn’t really division titles, awards or having the best record in the conference, but just making the playoffs. Sure, it’s great having that week off and getting some rest waiting in the divisional round, but making it to the playoffs should be the sole focus right now, because as we all know, any team can make a run, and win a Super Bowl any year. These games have to won by any means necessary, so lets hope the Patriots are focused one game at a time if they want to hoist a fourth Super Bowl trophy in this decade of decadence.