‘CHEATERS LOOK UP’ read the banner that flew across the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium on the opening day of New England Patriots training camp.
The stunt, a poke at the ‘Deflategate’ saga that has rocked the New England Patriots’ offseason, was organised by a group of New York Jets fans who finally have a reason to mock the Patriots.
It was a shot at the fans, at Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and most importantly at Tom Brady; another reminder that the three-time Super Bowl MVP will miss the opening four games of the regular season after league commissioner Roger Goodell upheld his suspension appeal.
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The matter will be settled by a federal judge, with Brady seeking clarification on his playing status before the Patriots face the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 10. Until then, head coach Bill Belichick is facing a quarter of the regular season without his acclaimed quarterback.
Many believe Goodell’s ruling brings with it the long-awaited end to the Patriots' stranglehold over the AFC East. Jets reporter Manish Mehta argues Brady’s suspension “will provide (Jets head coach) Todd Bowles with a legitimate chance to topple the prevaricating Patriots."
They are a wounded animal, and the Jets, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are ready to pounce.
The Patriots without Brady is equal to FC Barcelona without Lionel Messi or the Golden State Warriors without Steph Curry, so it’s easy to see why many are predicting Brady’s suspension will be the catalyst for the Patriots downfall.
This supposed downfall will be assisted by the loss of several key figures from last year’s successful campaign.
Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington - the Patriots starting cornerbacks in Super Bowl XLIX - all signed with new teams in the offseason, leaving the Patriots in a state of uncertainty at cornerback.
Defensive tackle Malcom Brown was drafted in the first round to replace the sizeable hole left by Vince Wilfork’s departure for Houston.
Their rivals strengthened, too. Revis will reunite with fellow cornerback Antonio Cromartie in the Jets’ secondary while Brandon Marshall will bolster an offense that recorded the league’s worst passing yards per game in 2014.
Ndamukong Suh’s presence in the trenches will help Dolphins’ defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon.
The Bills made significant, and much-needed, improvements on offense with the acquisitions of Percy Harvin and LeSean McCoy but their greatest addition was that of head coach Rex Ryan, who will add his defensive expertise to an already stellar defense.
For entertainment’s sake, the Patriots need to be knocked off their perch. Since 2001, the AFC East has been a foregone conclusion, the winners known before a ball is even snapped.
Belichick’s side have won the division 12 times this century and an uncompetitive division is a boring one, so it’s not wrong to suggest the media and the NFL may view the Patriots’ expected demise with a hint of exultation.
After all, four teams vying for one spot certainly lures more viewers than one team competing for one spot.
But alas, the NFL won’t get their wish. Not this season anyway, where, despite the personnel changes and the absence of Brady, the Patriots are still the best team in their division.
Jimmy Garoppolo, the heir to Brady’s throne, will replace the suspended quarterback for the opening four contests. Although he hasn’t played a meaningful snap in the NFL, the lack of knowledge other team’s currently have on Garoppolo will work to the Patriots advantage.
When Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree was asked for his thoughts on the second-year quarterback he replied: “I’m not really familiar with Jimmy Garoppolo."
When reminded that Garoppolo is the quarterback Dupree will face in week one: “Oh, OK, the quarterback. So we just have to prepare for a different kind of person and watch the little bit of film we do have on him.”
It’s impossible to get a detailed read on a quarterback who has attempted just 27 passes in the NFL but Garoppolo will benefit from the personnel he’s surrounded by.
There isn’t a better quarterback to learn from than Brady and in Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman he’s certainly not without weapons.
Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was named the league’s best by NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks in June and this isn’t the first time McDaniels has been forced to work with an inexperienced quarterback owing to Brady’s absence.
In 2008, Matt Cassel was thrust into the spotlight after Brady suffered a season-ending injury in week one. Season over? Nope. McDaniels helped Cassel steer the Patriots to the playoffs with an 11-5 record.
Brady misses a tough stretch in the Patriots season, skipping their home opener against the Steelers, a divisional clash in Buffalo, a home encounter with the Jacksonville Jaguars and a trip to Dallas to face the Cowboys.
However, solace can be found in star running-back Le’Veon Bell’s absence from the Steelers’ offense owing to a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
The Bills’ starting quarterback is still unknown and neither contender - EJ Manuel, Tyrod Taylor and Cassel - will give Patriots’ defensive coordinator Matt Patricia nightmares. The Patriots will beat the Jaguars if Garoppolo throws left-handed.
In three of their four Super Bowl winning seasons, the Patriots started with a 2-2 record and Belichick will be delighted if his team have two wins on the board heading into their week five bye.
Then Brady, fresh from his extended break, will return with an even bigger chip on his shoulder than the one he’s carried with him since being drafted with the 199th pick of the 2000 draft.
The 2015 edition of the AFC East will be a tighter contest than last year’s. Despite the fallout from ‘Deflategate' and the roster changes, don’t expect the Patriots to have an earlier draft pick than their AFC East foes. The favourites for the title remain the Patriots, Brady or no Brady.