Bill Belichick, left, and Tom Brady, right (USA Today Sports)

Bill Belichick, left, and Tom Brady, right (USA Today Sports)

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2018 win total (via Bovada): 11

2017 ATS record: 11-5

Optimist view: It’s easy to read tabloid-style headlines about the Patriots’ dysfunction and start to think that the end is quickly approaching. But it’s harder to realize that the Patriots are just a model-busting operation in almost every way. They have a quarterback and head coach who might not be summering on Nantucket together, but their production and value on the field remains unassailable until something changes dramatically.

You can tout your drama concerns all you want — last we looked, Tom Brady was torching a top-five defense in the Super Bowl and the Patriots arguably enter 2018 with a stronger supporting cast on both sides of the ball. They will enter training camp with no glaringly concerning issues in terms of personnel and could have a defense that at least can keep pace with what the offense is capable of.

Bill Belichick can be questioned for his decision to bench Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl, and first-year defensive play caller Brian Flores has a tough chore to get that unit squared away. But in no way, shape or form can we say that this team isn’t impeccably coached more often than not.

With Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman (for most of the season, we think) and the makings of a strong offensive line, the Patriots have to be considered the overwhelming favorites to steamroll their way through the AFC East once again. And if that defense makes even modest improvements? Once more, they’re absolutely Super Bowl contenders. Same as it ever was.

Pessimist view: Belichick has said in the past that when players hit the proverbial wall toward the end of their careers, the falloff tends to be quite precipitous. So even though Brady was lights out last season and in the playoffs, we still have to brace — even if it’s in the farthest corners of our minds — for the possibility of a Brett Favre 2010-ish collapse.

If Brady’s offensive line takes a while to jell, especially in terms of finding a left tackle solution, it could make things a bit thorny early. They also might be spending the first quarter of the season without Julian Edelman, who stands to be suspended four games barring his appeal efforts turning that over. The losses of Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder and Danny Amendola can’t be dismissed, especially as players who were not on the roster last year are expected to help fill their voids.

The team also lost Butler and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and appear a bit cloudy at linebacker. Remember, this was a defense that looked completely feckless in the Super Bowl. Whether the Eagles were running it or throwing it, the Patriots had few answers. The defense also took the first four games last season to stop the bleeding, allowing 43.2 percent of their season’s total of points against, so avoiding that type of start this season — while the offense settles in — will be crucial.

On schedule: They open with two teams that gave them fits last season in the Houston Texans at home and the Jacksonville Jaguars on the road. Both came close to beating the Patriots in Foxboro, and those tough conference games are followed by Patricia’s Lions, who figure to have some strong knowledge of the Patriots’ personnel, for a game in Detroit.

Later there’s a daunting midseason stretch from Weeks 6 to 15 where the Patriots play exactly two home games — vs. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers and Kirk Cousins and the Vikings. And just like last season, the Patriots could be heading to Pittsburgh needing to beat the Steelers in Week 15 for a key conference tiebreaker; frankly, they were lucky to get out alive in that meeting.

But take a step back, and you see that the Patriots’ schedule really doesn’t appear all that daunting. They face only four of the top 10 teams in terms of Las Vegas’ projected win totals, and they also draw a league-high eight teams that appear on that list’s bottom 10. The lowly AFC East surely helps smooth their path a bit.

The Patriots also might luck out a bit by facing three teams in the first five weeks of the season — the Texans, Dolphins and Colts — whose quarterbacks are coming off major injuries last year. They also get Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 6 in what could be his seventh NFL start, a rebuilding offense with the Chicago Bears in Week 7 and potentially four games against the Bills (Weeks 8 and 16) and Jets (Weeks 12 and 17) who both could be breaking in rookie quarterbacks.

Prediction: Over

Look, they keep defying the odds and hitting the over every year, even when things are not ideal. That’s the hallmark of Brady and Belichick: the best annual consistency for a team we’ve seen in generations, perhaps ever when you consider the constraints of dominance in the modern game.

Are you going under 11 games? No way we are. The Patriots currently are favored in 15 of the first 16 games, with the Steelers sitting at minus-1 in that game nearly six months from now. Amazingly, the Patriots are favored by six points or more in eight of those contests, and they tend to get better as the season goes on, which bodes well for a schedule that’s backloaded with so many games on the road after Week 6.

Consider a few smart veteran additions (Adrian Clayborn, Jason McCourty, Cordarrelle Patterson, Danny Shelton, Jeremy Hill), players coming back from injury (Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Derek Rivers) and a potentially solid draft haul (Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Duke Dawson and whatever late-round/undrafted surprise who annually turns into a Year 1 contributor), and the Patriots figure to win 12 or more games for the ninth straight season.

Perhaps we should have just started with that statistic and rested our case on that alone.

Previous projected win total breakdowns

Arizona Cardinals

Atlanta Falcons

Baltimore Ravens

Buffalo Bills

Carolina Panthers

Chicago Bears

Cincinnati Bengals

Dallas Cowboys

Denver Broncos

Detroit Lions

Green Bay Packers

Houston Texans

Indianapolis Colts

Jacksonville Jaguars

Los Angeles Chargers

Kansas City Chiefs

Los Angeles Rams

Miami Dolphins

Minnesota Vikings

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This article originally ran on profootballweekly.com.

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