Uncertainty over the status of quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the regular season lingers over the New England Patriots, just as it did in 2015.
Call me an optimist, but even if the club has to turn to backup Jimmy Garoppolo, a 3-1 record remains the projection. The prime-time opener at the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 11 looks like a tough draw even if Brady was playing, but then three straight home games -- against the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills -- follow on the schedule.
In early June, Garoppolo said that things are moving in the "right direction" as he enters his third NFL season. He quickly has discovered that playing quarterback in the NFL is "never-ending mentally [and] physically."
How do my AFC East colleagues see things playing out? Let's check in with Mike Rodak (Bills reporter), James Walker (Dolphins reporter) and Rich Cimini (Jets reporter).
Rodak: I think a 2-2 record is the most likely, although a 3-1 record is possible. Why? The Patriots catch a break in that Garoppolo would be making three of his starts within the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium, where you can bet there will be countless signs and chants showing support for Roger Goodell (sarcasm, obviously). The opener on the road at Arizona will be tough against a Cardinals defense that snagged 19 interceptions last season, fourth-most in the NFL, and held opponents to a sub-60 percent completion percentage. The part of the Brady-to-Garoppolo switch that intrigues me, however, is how teams prepare to defend Garoppolo's mobility. Last season, the Bills ranked 23rd in opposing QB third-down rushing percentage (57.1 percent), the Cardinals ranked 28th (63.6 percent) and the Dolphins were tied for 29th (66.7 percent). All three teams showed some vulnerability against quarterbacks who can tuck and run.
Walker: A .500 record in the first four games is my expectation for Garoppolo. The Patriots traditionally are slow starters anyway and will do just fine with that result. I covered enough Dolphins-Patriots games to know that Miami usually plays awful football in Foxborough. The Dolphins are 0-7 at Gillette Stadium since 2009. So I’m counting Week 2 as Garoppolo’s first career win as a starter. Fortunately for the Patriots they have three straight home games during that stretch, and I think Garoppolo sneaks out another win against the Bills in Week 4 before handing the reins back to Brady.
Cimini: The Patriots will be 2-2 at best, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they’re 1-3. Well, OK, I’d be a little shocked if they drop three of their first four, but you can’t underestimate these four opponents. The Cardinals, Texans and Bills were among the top 12 teams last season in opposing Total QBR. They’re tough defensive teams, and two of them -- the Texans and Bills -- have coaches who know the Patriots’ personnel very well. The Texans have former Patriots assistants Bill O’Brien and Romeo Crennel, and the Bills have the Ryan brothers. I see the Patriots losing to the Cards and Bills, possibly the Texans. Young Mr. Garoppolo may look sharp on the practice field, but it’s a long way from Eastern Illinois to the NFL.