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Patriots Replay Thu Sep 19 | 12:00 AM - 11:55 AM

Are we there yet? Taking a mid-offseason temperature reading on the Patriots stranglehold of the AFC East

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It has become a near annual rite of spring in New England, almost as much as the endless string of cold, wet dreary days that descend this time of year. Questioning whether the end of the Patriots’ dynasty is finally at hand has become a wildly popular NFL parlor game, and it’s usually at this point of the offseason when the chatter grows louder and the doubters start to multiply. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’’ come the incessant line of questioning, as if from a gaggle of kids in the backseat of the car on vacation.

This year’s laundry list of concerns among the Foxboro faithful have been well-chronicled: The draft didn’t yield a suitable replacement at tight end for the retired Rob Gronkowski. There’s no proven commodity to man left offensive tackle and protect Tom Brady’s blindside. The play-making weapons in the passing game are significantly shy of elite level, and the pass rush has to find a way to replace the departed Trey Flowers, who took his yearly team-leading output of about seven sacks to Detroit. Oh, and don’t forget the coaching staff suffered its share of subtractions as well, and there is the somewhat worrisome reality that Brady is again skipping the team’s offseason program.

There are some legitimate anxiety-producing issues to be sure, but that said, we’re not falling for the banana in the tailpipe this time. Not in mid-May. Not when Bill Belichick and his coaching and personnel staffs have proven resourceful enough time and time again in the past, when faced with similar roster challenges and periods of change. As we all know, there’s a long way to go until Week 1 of the regular season, and longer still until the perpetually self-scouting Patriots habitually figure themselves out after the first month or so of the schedule. So even if the vast majority of personnel moves around the league are finished at this point, we’ll always consider New England a work in progress that deserves the benefit of the doubt as the summer looms.

I know. That’s probably not quite reassuring enough to ease the fears and settle the jittery nerves of Patriots Nation, at least the portion of it that definitely sees the glass as half empty about now. But don’t just take my word for it when it comes to the keep calm and carry on mantra.

In making a few calls last week trying to assess the potential of young AFC East quarterbacks Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Josh Rosen taking a second-year leap in 2019, I was struck by how forcefully network analysts — and former NFL quarterbacks — Boomer Esiason, Phil Simms and Dan Orlovsky saw little or no reason to waver on New England, current vulnerabilities aside. If anything, they predict the Patriots being their dominating, division-title-cruising selves again in 2019, with no caveats offered.

And just for fun, and even more fodder, I reached out to ESPN analyst and ex-NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck this week for his take on whether the Patriots have lost ground in the division this offseason? Here are some highlights of our Q&A, if only to offer a somewhat different and national perspective of New England’s offseason, and where the Patriots stand in terms of division supremacy as it faces defending a league record-tying sixth Super Bowl title:

Q: If the premise is the Jets, Bills and Dolphins have all found a franchise quarterback to build around in Darnold, Allen and Rosen, is there reason for legitimate optimism that the gap at last has been significantly narrowed in the AFC East?

A: CBS analyst Boomer Esiason: “No, no, no, no, no. Because there’s also the coaching situation that has to go along with this. (Miami’s) Brian Flores is a first-year head coach. (The Jets’) Adam Gase is in a rebound coaching situation. (Buffalo’s) Sean McDermott is great, but none of them are Bill Belichick.

“Bill Belichick is so supremely higher than every other coach in the NFL, and now from what I’m reading from (the Rams’) Sean McVay about his preparation for the Super Bowl and how he probably felt out-classed in that Super Bowl, just from a coaching perspective, I think it tells us all we need to know about the vast separation of where Belichick is and where these three coaches are in the division.

“So you can have a franchise quarterback — and Bill still has Tom, of course — but Bill won a Super Bowl with the defense this past season after having a defense obliterated the year before by Philadelphia. It just goes to show you the range of coaching and ability. To put up 33 points in one Super Bowl and then only give up three points in another, it’s amazing.

“I think that’s always going to be the difference in that division. I don’t know who’s going to be their next quarterback up in New England, but as long as Brady and Belichick are together, the valley between them and the rest of the coaches, especially in the AFC East, is significant. It’s about as significant a gap as there is in the NFL.’’

Q: What are the chances the Jets, Bills or Dolphins have to slay the Beast of the AFC East this season?

A: ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky: “Zero. And honestly I do believe those teams are better, there’s no question. And if they found their franchise quarterback, they will be better. But I don’t know if any team got better this offseason than New England.’’

Q: That’s a mouthful. You’re going to get pushback on that take, and not just from worried Patriots fans. You think New England is the most improved team in the league this offseason?

A: Orlovsky: They’re one of them, and they certainly had a top-three to top-five draft. They’ve got so many different pieces. And I’m telling you this: (First-round pick) N’Keal Harry is an outstanding, outstanding receiver.

“It’s fascinating. It’s like this with New England. The Patriots have built their home in a high tornado or hurricane area, and they’re the ‘Three Little Pigs’ story, because they built their house out of brick and it’s got an incredible foundation.

“So they can make any addition they want, because they’ve got the brick. Where those other teams, even if they have found their franchise quarterbacks, they’re still building with just wood. They’re in a better place and they can withstand some stuff that they haven’t been able to in the past, but they’re still not made of brick. They’re still not ready to deal with the storm, like New England is.’’

Q: Were you saying the same thing last year at this time about the Patriots?

A: Orlovsky: Last year, probably at this time of year, when we were talking about New England, I was the guy who said, ‘Listen, dude, they lost (Danny) Amendola, they lost Dion Lewis, they lost Brandin Cooks, they’ve dealt the whole offseason with the Seth Wickersham (ESPN) story. This team, which is notorious for dealing with the elephant in the room, had never had an offseason like this, and that’s why it’s finally going to be too much for them to overcome. They’ve lost so much production.’ But we know what happened.

Q: So lesson learned when it comes to reports of the Patriots’ demise being greatly exaggerated?

A: Orlovsky: “Yes, and here’s the thing: This team, this organization, for the longest time everyone has thought to be a chameleon, where they can just change their colors. But that’s not who they are. They’re a shape-shifter. They change who they are. They can literally change their identity. Watching that team go from what they were at the beginning of the year to what they were at the end of the year, and take football back in time 20 years, it hasn’t gotten the appreciation that it should have.

“And they’ve only added to that identity. Their offensive line is going be freakin’ ridiculous. Their secondary? We talk about Baltimore’s secondary, and it’s very good. We talk about Kansas City’s secondary. (But) New England has the best secondary in football. I don’t see anyone chasing them, not in that division.

“It’s remarkable to see this team work. I’ve said this for about four years now: New England really doesn’t have position players, outside of players like Gronk and Randy Moss. Their running backs are receivers. You mean to tell me that Rex Burkhead couldn’t play slot receiver? They don’t really have running backs and they don’t really have receivers. They have football players and they move them all over the place.

“So they’re going to get into what they’re going to get into to, and they’re going to force you to get into what you don’t want to get into. And they will strategically gut you, because that’s what they are. They don’t play by positions, they just play with 11 players.’’

Q: If their young quarterbacks progress, can the Jets, Bills and Dolphins dream of making the AFC East competitive?

A: ESPN Matt Hasselbeck: “The Pats won’t be caught in the AFC East this year,’’ Hasselbeck wrote via text. “I don’t even know where to start. How about one of those teams has a winning record before we start talking about them challenging the defending Super Bowl champs for the division title?

“The Jets and Bills have young, talented quarterbacks who may end up being franchise quarterbacks, but one of the best abilities any QB can have is AVAILABILITY. They’ll need to prove they can do that (by staying healthy).

“If I had to pick a team to surprise this year, it would be the Miami Dolphins. Brian Flores seems to have an intangible ‘IT’ factor that might set him above some other Bill Belichick coaching disciples. But I still think all of these teams’ best shot at the playoffs is as a Wild Card.’’

Hasselbeck wasn’t the only NFL analyst to single out Flores for the potential jolt he could provide to the Dolphins and the notoriously weak balance of power in the division. Simms lauded him, too, when asked about Miami’s chances.

A: Simms: “I’m just really interested to see what Brian Flores does down in Miami. Look, I don’t know him. But I know people who know him and went to college with him, and it’s nothing but absolutely, positive that it’ll get done and that he’s going to change things down there. And that will be something if he can do it, because if you can win down there, you’re doing something.’’

Q: How do you assess the state of the AFC East? Status quo in favor of another Patriots runaway, or a tighter race?

A: Simms: “It’s good to see that we’ve got these young quarterbacks in the division, and I think the gap is definitely going to close. I have no doubt about that.

I think the Jets and the Bills have both closed the gap from last year for real. Now, would I say that gives them a chance to unseat New England as AFC champion? I would say, no, I’m not going to say that. I don’t believe it, and it’s the old saying, if it’s rained 20 days in a row, are you going to bet that it’s not going to rain on the 21st? Well I’m not.

“That’s a big obstacle, because the Patriots can grind out the year. The Jets and Bills are going to have spurts, but can they go out there and consistently win? I don’t know that yet. But I know this: The Jets have a new coaching staff, but the Bills, with Sean McDermott, I’m sure Bill Belichick is going, ‘This guy’s going to be a problem, so we’ve got to stay on our toes.’

“That said, I don’t know Belichick’s career might be ending, because I don’t see any sign in his life that says I might retire in a year or two. I just don’t get that feeling watching him. They’re winning, of course, but when I see him he’s relaxed. And he’s not a stresser. Bill’s not a stresser. That’s why he can continue to do the job, and continue to be such a great coach in the league. He can just keep marching and marching.’’

Q: But you like the Bills as the team that can give the most trouble this season?

A: Simms: “I think they’ve doing a tremendous job, and what I like is, they’re giving more weapons to (quarterback) Josh Allen and trying to fix their offensive line. And of course their defense is to me the best-coached defense in the NFL. Now, I think the Patriots when they need to can come up with these unique game plans that win the game. But week in and week out the Bills are so well-coached, they really are.

“And their culture has changed so much and it’s so good that it gives them a chance against New England. The Bills are a little bit like the Patriots these days. You don’t hear things coming out of there. There are no troublemakers. It’s a smooth operation. They’ve created a really good culture up there and made some great changes.’’

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