March 17, 2020. Amidst the beginning of a global pandemic, New England Patriots’ fans had their worlds turned upside down. It was reported that legendary quarterback Tom Brady was leaving the franchise behind and experimenting with free agency for the first time in his illustrious career. The empire had officially fallen, and critics already doubted the Patriots’ chances of a 2020 reload. It was widely assumed that the team would be forced into a nasty rebuild. In addition to the loss of Brady, the offense was expected to suffer from a skeletal receiving corps with no real vertical threat. To make matters worse, several of the Patriots’ key defensive pieces, such as linebacker Dont’a Hightower, opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. In July, however, head coach Bill Belichick made a move that compelled even the staunchest naysayers to take another look. On July 8, former MVP quarterback Cam Newton signed an incentive-laden deal with the Patriots. Newton struggled to stay on the field with the Carolina Panthers during the past few seasons, but one could not help but recall his stellar 2015 campaign during which he flung 35 TDs and led the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance. The signing of Cam Newton has helped make the Patriots one of this season’s most intriguing storylines. After an opening week win against the Miami Dolphins and a close loss against the Seattle Seahawks, one thing is certain about this year’s Patriots: they are still a playoff contender. This year’s team will be guided by a revamped offense and a defense that will only improve as the season progresses.
In their week one game against the Dolphins, Patriots fans saw something they had never seen during the past twenty years: a quarterback who could run. Newton carried the ball 15 times for 75 yards and was able to punch in two touchdowns. Next week, against a formidable Seahawks defense, Newton was able to score two rushing touchdowns. He also threw the ball expertly. He finished with 397 passing yards, a 68% completion percentage and a touchdown. The offense has evolved into an RPO nightmare. They now boast a quarterback who can rush or pass for big yards working alongside running backs like James White, who are shifty and effective route runners. While they still lack a deep threat, receivers such as Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry are skilled enough to give even the most seasoned secondary fits. By defeating Miami and hanging tough with Seattle, the new offense has proven two things: They can dismantle weak teams with a heavy rush attack, and they can compete with strong teams in the air.
The Patriots have been a defensive juggernaut for as long as Belichick has been their head coach. They have consistently ranked among the league’s top defenses. Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, almost always rises to the occasion. Belichick has made defensive excellence part of “the Patriot way.” Each year he can take a modestly talented group of players and transform them into a disciplined defensive machine that can stifle the league’s most elite offenses by the end of the season. Even after a lackluster performance against Seattle, there is no reason to believe that Belichick will not retool and improve the defense.
New England may not be on the same level as the Baltimore Ravens or Kansas City Chiefs. However, they are still a force to be reckoned with. Given their revamped “gadget” offense and a defense that will assuredly improve as the season progresses, the Patriots have the ability to make things very interesting this January. The season may be young, but the empire has struck back. Only time will tell if they are able to capture their seventh Lombardi trophy.