It is a run of sustained excellence that has defied the parity era of the National Football League in part created by the hard salary cap. Led by a mastermind coach and an age-defying quarterback who are both certain first-ballot Hall of Famers, the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots enter the 2019 season with a chance to become the first team to lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy seven times.
To put New England’s success in greater perspective, recall that the other team with six Super Bowl wins to its credit – the Pittsburgh Steelers – had already won four when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady claimed their first in 2001 after upsetting St. Louis and the “Greatest Show on Turf” in Super Bowl XXXVI.
The Patriots are seeking their fourth straight Super Bowl appearance, which would tie the standard set by the Buffalo Bills from 1990-93. There are contenders to the throne, but their path to Miami appears to be far easier than the one in the NFC, which has three clear contenders and the potential for a sleeper team or two to crash the party.
FanDuel’s sportsbook rates the Patriots odds as a +700 pick to win the Super Bowl, but there are some holes to fill. None are bigger than the one at tight end, where Belichick must find the next Rob Gronkowski given the long-time matchup nightmare for opposing defenses surprisingly retired in the offseason.
The 42-year-old Brady still has plenty of weapons as he bids for his record 10th Super Bowl appearance, most notably wide receiver Julian Edelman, but this may be a throwback offense in relying more on running backs Sony Michel and James White. Michel handles most of the leg work and White is a trustworthy receiver out of the backfield. The development of first-round pick and wide receiver N’Keal Harry will be vital to stretching defenses to avoid seeing seven and eight-man fronts.
And don’t forget the defense, which is still Belichick’s domain and mastery and held the high-octane Los Angeles Rams to three points in Super Bowl LIII. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower anchors the front seven, and the Patriots have one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the league in Stephon Gilmore.
There are two AFC West teams who could emerge as challengers to the Patriots dominance – the Kansas City Chiefs (odd +800) and Los Angeles Chargers (odds +1600). The Chiefs appeared to be ready to challenge them last year until they cut running back Kareem Hunt after video of him kicking a woman emerged in November and were thrown off enough offensively they never recovered.
Kansas City still has a spectacular quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns in his first full season. Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce are again his top targets, while Darien Williams is expected to lead a stable of running backs to compensate for Hill’s dual-threat capabilities.
The Chargers reached the AFC title game last season but were overrun by the Patriots on both sides of the ball. Los Angeles, though, is facing a protracted holdout by running back Melvin Gordon after he totaled 885 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games. That could limit the effectiveness of Philip Rivers, who still showed he has plenty left to give at 37 after throwing for 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns.
Everyone has tipped the Cleveland Browns (odds +1400) to be the chic sleeper team in the AFC, and the buzz around the once-moribund franchise has dominated the NFL storyline this summer. But whether 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield can maintain the level of his promising rookie campaign is yet to be determined.
General manager John Dorsey, though, has gone all out in giving Mayfield a bolstered attack, acquiring star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants via trade and signing Hunt – whom he drafted while running the Chiefs. Hunt will not be eligible until the second half of the season as he serves an eight-game suspension for violating the league’s conduct policy for his actions, but a potential backfield of him and Nick Chubb – who finished four yards shy of 1,000 as a rookie – makes the Browns a definite threat to win the AFC North and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
In the NFC, the Saints have been rated as slight favorites at +900, just ahead of the defending conference champion Rams (odds +1,100). The urgency for New Orleans to win a second Super Bowl title with 40-year-old quarterback Drew Brees is palpable as the future Hall of Famer will overtake Peyton Manning for the most all-time TD passes if he stays healthy. Brees set the all-time yards mark last year, when he also bettered his single-season NFL record for accuracy by completing a jaw-dropping 74.4 percent.
The Rams are hoping the knee issues that slowed Todd Gurley late last season are gone as third-year coach Sean McVay directs a potent offense led by Jared Goff. Goff’s development in his pre-snap reads and progressions could loom large in determining if Los Angeles remains an elite offensive team after scoring 527 points last year. Two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year and lineman Aaron Donald anchors the defense after setting a career high with 20.5 sacks.
At the next level are both the Philadelphia Eagles (odds +1400) and Chicago Bears (odds +1900). The Super Bowl LII champion Eagles no longer have Nick Foles as a safety net at quarterback if Carson Wentz gets hurt, but Wentz has a potent offense paced by tight end Zach Ertz, who set an NFL record at the position with 116 receptions last season.
The Bears, who lost to the Eagles in the wild-card round last year in a successful first season that included an NFC North title, got everything expected out of top-end linebacker Khalil Mack and a steady improvement from Mitch Trubisky in his second season. Chicago will have a tough time repeating as division champions as Aaron Rodgers returns under center in Green Bay and Minnesota is formidable, but the Bears are one of the few teams with the potential to be better in 2019 while having a worse record than 2018.