Conventional wisdom. Historic implausibility. Too many independent variables to count. These are just a few of the factors working against the New England Patriots going 16-0 in 2012, just five years after becoming the first team to achieve the feat in a 16-game season.
Tom Brady. Bill Belichick. A bolstered offense and a revamped defense. The league's softest schedule. These are just a few of the factors working in favor of the Patriots in pursuit of that historic achievement.
Preseason 16-0's are even more meaningless than regular season 18-1's, but after going a combined 27-5 in the regular season the past two seasons, it's worth looking into.
Bleacher Report Patriots featured columnist Kyle Cormier lists four reasons why they can.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports went as far as to predict it.
But talking about it now may be an exercise in futility; following two blowout wins to start the 2007 season, Bill Belichick brushed off a question about a perfect season as "ridiculous." But with the hype machine churning even before the players have cracked pads for the first time this summer, let's dig into the topic independently.
Why They Can
The last time the Patriots suffered a loss as harrowing as the one in Super Bowl XLVI was...Super Bowl XLII. Before that, though, the last major loss was to the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. That was the loss that sent the team on a tear through the NFL that resulted in a 16-0 season.
They were fueled by more than that loss, however; the team was beset into an "us-against-the-world" mentality by media attacks on their integrity following the videotaping scandal known as SpyGate. There have been no such attacks against the team this offseason, but the media's constant berating of the defense might suffice.
Beyond the motivational tactics, though, the Patriots face the softest strength of schedule based on last year's records. Looking at the schedule itself, the only games that aren't games they should win are games they can win.
They've made improvements across the board and, barring a meteoric drop-off from Tom Brady, improvement is a safe assumption on offense. It's not outlandish to predict that this offense could be even better than the 2007 version. They have more weapons, create more mismatches and are all-around more difficult to defend, with more versatile receivers and interchangeable schemes.
Pat Kirwan relates this in the CBS Sports column:
At any time on the field, the Patriots can go no huddle and the defense can never be right about what personnel group they have on the field. Put the base defense out there and they go shotgun spread and they win the passing game matchups. Put the nickel on the field, and they shift to two tight ends and a run game. There are even times when they put two tight ends and three wide receivers on the field, forcing a dime defense, and they put Hernandez at running back. The linebackers can't cover Gronkowski and Hernandez, so they carry the tight ends to the safeties.
Welker needs to be bracket-covered by two defenders or he'll continue to catch over 100 passes a season, and now Lloyd will work the deep sideline against single coverage. Ochocinco couldn't figure out the offense, but Lloyd will have it down. Brady once again will throw the ball 40 times a game on average and still manage to rush for over 100 yards a game.
The bigger questions are on the defensive side of the ball, where the Patriots ranked 31st in total yards. They knew improvements were needed, and they went to every measure possible to ensure those improvements occur. Additions were made from front to back, and side to side: Cornerbacks, safeties, pass rushers, defensive linemen, inside and outside linebackers were all added to the mix.
As the Patriots proved in the 2007 regular season, you can go undefeated without being perfect. But the defense has the look of a unit that will be much improved.
Why They Won't
Devil's Advocate time.
The Patriots may have the softest schedule in the NFL, but they play some of the best teams in the league, as well. They travel to take on the Baltimore Ravens, and they take on the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers at home.
By all means, those three are all winnable games, but any one of those three teams has the potential to give the Patriots all they can handle. In fact, when the Texans were healthy last year, they—not the Patriots—were favored to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
There's an underrated stretch of games in the middle of the season, as well, where the Patriots travel to take on the Seattle Seahawks, then host the Jets at home, and head across the pond to take on the St. Louis Rams at Wembley Stadium. In the span of two-and-a-half weeks, the Patriots will have traveled nearly halfway across the globe.
That would be an exhausting run for any team, but compound that with what would by that time be building pressure of going undefeated and the energy drains even quicker.
Injuries are impossible to predict, but the Patriots had to deal with very few serious injuries in 2007; even just one injury, one chink in the armor can make a difference as a team chases perfection. The Patriots are stacked at several positions, but could anyone have forseen the glut of injuries last year that led to Julian Edelman at cornerback? Matthew Slater at safety? Niko Koutouvides at linebacker?
Perhaps injuries don't make it impossible as much as they make it impossible to predict, so let's get to that, shall we?
Why It's Impossible to Predict
Many fans remember close calls against the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens during the 2007 season. Those games came down to a play or two (or a penalty or two) that went in New England's favor.
What no one remembers—or cares to recall—is that both teams were below average that year, yet it took the Patriots until the final play to finish it off. Both teams were also on their second quarterback of the season by that point; Donovan McNabb and Steve McNair had both been injured by the time they played the Patriots.
If either of those quarterbacks had started instead of A.J. Feeley and Kyle Boller respectively, would the Patriots still have won? Fair to ask, even if it's impossible to answer. It also begs the question of, which teams will the Patriots play at full health? Which teams will they play when dinged up?
Will the Patriots be able to stay healthy? Many of their key players—Patrick Chung, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez and others—have gone down to injury or have had to miss time in the past two seasons. Rob Gronkowski should be fully healthy by the time the season starts, but what about Logan Mankins? Reports have been hot-and-cold about his preparedness for the beginning of the season.
Sure, the Patriots are more prepared to face those injuries now than they were last year, but when they'll happen and what effect they'll have are factors that we can't possibly foresee.
There were just as many circumstances and bounces that went New England's way in their march to 18-0 as there were that went against them in Super Bowl XLII.
The Packers might have gone 16-0 if their receivers hadn't dropped five passes to go with five penalties against the Chiefs. One game where the team poorly executes or doesn't focus is all it takes for the team to miss perfection.
In terms of the strength of schedule, who knows where those opponents will be when they play the Patriots; it is assumed that the Texans and 49ers could be two of the Patriots toughest opponents, but what if one (or both) is struggling late in the season? Likewise, there are plenty of teams on the Patriots schedule that look like they could be improved: the Tennessee Titans and division rival Buffalo, to name just a couple.
On paper, it's a fair statement to make; based on what we know about the teams they'll play and the build of the Patriots roster, they look like they could go undefeated. But that assumes that a lot of things go their way and that a lot of dominoes fall as we expect them to.
Why It Doesn't Matter
16-0 is meaningless without 19-0.
The Patriots have made improvements on both sides of the ball. There isn't a game on the schedule they can't win.
But there are too many variables at play to predict a 16-0 season. Even if the Patriots win every game they should, they still can't lose any games they shouldn't, which has happened two straight years with losses to the Browns in 2010 and the Bills in 2011.
All it takes is for one team to bring their A-game and for the Patriots to come out flat, or for one team to get the lucky bounces and for the Patriots to get the unlucky ones, to throw a wrench in an undefeated machine.
While it's tough to predict, the possibility is impossible to ignore.