Expectations are sky-high for the New England Patriots in 2016. And the optimism surrounding their potential for success this season extends well beyond the team’s training facility in Foxborough, Mass. According to the sportsbooks in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Patriots are currently the odds-on favorites to win Super Bowl 51 in Houston, Texas, despite the fact that their starting quarterback, and arguably the greatest player in NFL history, Tom Brady, will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season. And let’s be honest, if the past has taught us anything about the Patriots, it’s that as long as they have Brady under center and Bill Belichick as their head coach, they have to be considered serious Super Bowl contenders.
While all signs are currently pointing toward an excellent season for the Patriots in 2016, winning their franchise’s fifth Super Bowl title and continuing to dominate the rest of the league will be no easy feat. Here is a look at five things the Patriots need to worry about this season.
1. Homefield advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs
During the Brady-Belichick era in New England, the Patriots have been extremely difficult to beat when they are playing on their home turf at Gillette Stadium – especially in the postseason. In fact, had the Patriots not lost to the Miami Dolphins in Week 17 of the 2015 season, they would have had homefield advantage in the AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos, and our guess is that New England would have come away victorious.
The Pats will undoubtedly be out to lock up homefield advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs in 2016, but it won’t be easy seeing as how they have one of the toughest schedules in the league this year.
2. Keeping Rob Gronkowski healthy
When it comes down to it, the Patriots are a very beatable team without Gronkowski in the lineup. The four-time All-Pro is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses in the passing game, and also happens to be one of the best blocking tight ends in the game. In fact, if he keeps up his current pace, Gronkowski could very well go down as the greatest tight end in NFL history. With that being said, he has had issues staying healthy throughout his six-year professional career. For the Patriots to have the season they are hoping for in 2016, they will need to keep Gronkowski healthy and in their lineup, something that wasn’t the case during their Week One game against Arizona.
3. Offensive line depth
When they are completely healthy, the Patriots have one of the better offensive lines in the National Football League. However, as we learned in 2015, when they lose one or more of their starters for an extended stretch of time, the Pats’ o-line quickly becomes a below average unit. And given that the team’s success hinges on Brady staying upright and on the field, the Patriots need their starting offensive line to stay on the field for the entire season.
4. Getting a consistent pass rush
The Patriots traded away their top pass rusher from a year ago, Chandler Jones, earlier this offseason. And as a direct result, there are major question marks about how well the seven-time defending AFC East champions will be able to pressure the quarterback in 2016. They will be counting on veterans such as Rob Ninkovich (pictured above), Chris Long, and Jamie Collins to pick up where Jones left off. If it doesn’t work out, the Patriots will have a difficult time getting through the AFC Playoffs.
5. Keeping Brady’s targets healthy
We’ve already mentioned that the Patriots need Gronkowski to stay healthy if they are going to win their fifth world championship, but there are a couple of others guys that they need on the field as well. They will also need wide receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan, and tight end Martellus Bennett healthy and on the field in 2016, and if that proves to be the case, it will be extremely tough for opposing defenses to slow down the Patriots in 2016.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.