What The Reloaded Patriots Mean For The NFL

The Buffalo Bills were going to be the perhaps the most interesting team in the NFL during the 2020-2021 season.  Every single game of their’s would have been absolutely fascinating.  Here was a team that had done everything right in terms of roster construction, whether it be drafting, free agent signings or trades.  They’d built one of the best defenses in the league thanks to a stacked defensive line and one of the game’s best cornerbacks in Tre’Davious White.  They struck gold in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft by selecting tight end Dawson Knox and running back Devin Singletary, two guys who were extremely productive during their rookie seasons in Buffalo and figure to be big pieces moving forward.  They have an indestructible offensive line, and they added the final piece to an intriguing yet lacking receiving core in Stefon Diggs, who commanded a haul from the Vikings this offseason.

Yet, the most important piece of it all was still the question mark.  Third year quarterback Josh Allen just isn’t there yet.  He could have been in line to take that next step this season.  If he did, the Bills were likely to be Super Bowl contenders.  If he didn’t, they were probably still in good shape.  A top defense was ready to make up for what Allen couldn’t.  Buffalo was probably still going to win the division.

Then the Patriots reemerged.

Cam Newton’s signing with New England puts even more pressure on Allen this year.  Buffalo isn’t going to be able to get away with the former Wyoming gunslinger being average like they previously thought they would. They can’t afford Allen to be misplacing balls or making bone-headed decisions.  He can’t keep being a boom or bust player with deep throws.  The Bills being a team that wins eight games or more thanks to their defense alone will not win them the AFC East this year.  

The NFL adding an extra playoff team to each conference will help Buffalo significantly.  It gives them a bit more of a buffer to be able to sneak in if Allen doesn’t take the step forward they hoped this year.  But a first round exit after another average Allen season won’t be very enticing to Bills fans or their front office.  The rest of the roster is too good to be out of the playoffs that early.

If New England hits their ceiling – which would likely involve the re-signing of Newton to a longer-term contract after the season – then it could force the Bills to have an unpleasant conversation about the quarterback position next March.  If Allen plateaus again this year it forces Buffalo into a Chargers-like scenario.  Being in the middle is consistently the worse position in sports, and pulling a 2015-16 Broncos – who rode a stellar defense with practically a corpse at QB to a championship – is extremely tough, especially considering that the Patriots being their best selves this season likely vaults them into being just the third best team in the AFC.

On paper, the Patriots might be the third best team in the conference heading into the season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be even better than that.

Neither the Chiefs or Ravens had to go through the Patriots in last year’s playoffs.  While the Patriots weren’t the same Patriots we and the rest of the NFL has feared for the past 20 years, it still saved each team from having Bill Belichick scheme against them in a playoff game.

Newton’s signing and the youth, energy and modernization he could bring to the Patriots doesn’t hand the league or the conference over to the Chiefs or Ravens just yet.  Patrick Mahomes might be the most talented quarterback of all-time, but he lost in a duel to prime Tom Brady in the 2019 AFC Championship Game and got quite lucky in Week 14 of last season against the Patriots, who were led by what certainly seemed to be a different quarterback.  If this was a negotiation, the Patriots still have the leverage with Kansas City.  They’re still the boss around here, and now they have a new toy to play with in Newton.

Things won’t be as easy this upcoming season for the Ravens either, whose young core got an awakening to playoff football last year in their Divisional Round loss to the Tennessee Titans.  New England could look to replicate a lot of what Baltimore has implemented offensively with Lamar Jackson thanks to Newton’s skill set.  The Ravens heavy usage of two and three tight end sets, unique running game and mobility at the quarterback position won’t be as rare anymore with the Patriots set to run a similar scheme with their newly drafted tight ends and new quarterback.  Newton’s a different runner than Jackson since he doesn’t have nearly the elusiveness or speed of last year’s MVP.  Instead, he’s a bowling ball who trucks his way down defense’s throats.  That gives New England’s run-pass-option sets more creativity, as the Ravens aren’t running Jackson’s thin frame right up the gut.  On top of that, Newton’s strong arm and deep ball ability makes throwing on the run easier than it is for Jackson, who’s deep ball and overall accuracy showed much improvement during the 2019-20 season but isn’t quite elite just yet.  

New England’s offense has the potential to be very similar to Baltimore’s if they so choose.  Having a copycat makes the Ravens schematic advantage over other teams slimmer.  No one might be fast enough to catch Jackson, but no one may be smart enough to stump Belichick as well.