Since their first world championship season in 2001, the New England Patriots have become the gold-standard franchise of the National Football League, winning double-digit games in 11 of 12 campaigns since their triumph in Super Bowl XXXVI, to go along with three overall titles and five appearances in the big game.
This year, they shouldn't be considered as a threat to win the Super Bowl. Could they get there in a weak AFC? Yes, they could. But, they won't be winning it this upcoming February.
This doesn't mean that the Patriots aren't headed to the postseason. In fact, you can go ahead and print the 2013 AFC East champion shirts and stitch the hats right now. New England will absolutely qualify for the postseason.
But, they won't win a championship.
In fact, it's more likely that the Patriots will receive a Super Bowl ring from Russian president Vladimir Putin than win the title in 2013.
Let's examine why:
Issues in the passing game
For the first time in ages, question marks abound on the offensive side of the ball.
It is looking increasingly likely that the Patriots will begin the 2013 season without any of their top five pass-catchers from 2012 on the active roster. For a team that's been as pass-happy as New England in recent years (Brady has had over 600 passing attempts the past two seasons), that's a major problem.
Receiver Brandon Lloyd (74 catches in 2012) was unsigned by the Patriots, and remains a free agent.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski (55 catches in 2012) recently underwent back surgery, and his status for Week 1 is very much up in the air.
While Brady is still a maestro of his craft, he isn't getting any younger (he'll be 36 before the start of the season), and losing all that continuity on offense is not a favorable turn of events for the New England offense.
Can the Patriots trust wideout Danny Amendola, signed earlier this offseason? As of now, he is their de factor No. 1 receiver, but he has shown throughout his career a striking inability to stay healthy. He played in only 12 of a possible 32 games the past two seasons.
Some of the other names being counted on to replace last season's production won't exactly cause sleepless nights for defensive coordinators around the AFC: Michael Jenkins is a journeyman receiver; wideout Aaron Dobson, selected in the second round of this past draft, has the skills to be a good player, but is unproven; and tight end Jake Ballard is being spoken of as the savior of the offense, but if he's the answer, what the heck is the question?
Not the favorites in the AFC
At this point, there is no way that the Patriots can be considered the favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLVIII. That honor belongs to the Denver Broncos.
Denver has an all-world quarterback of its own in Peyton Manning, to go along with a devastating aerial assault and defensive pass rush. It's easy to think that Manning will be even better in his second year in the Mile High City, and the Broncos also poached the aforementioned Welker away from Foxborough, adding him to an already star-studded receiving corps that includes Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker.
Plus, fans should be reticent to write off the Baltimore Ravens. Face facts: The defending Super Bowl champions knocked the favored Patriots out of the playoffs last year, and should have defeated them in the 2011 AFC title game as well. Yes, the Ravens lost some key players (linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and pass-rusher Paul Kruger among others), but the team still employs quarterback Joe Flacco and head coach John Harbaugh, and that fact alone should strike fear into the hearts of even the most ardent Patriot supporters.
While the Texans aren't at New England's level, both the Broncos and Ravens could easily knock New England out of the postseason.
The best teams are in the NFC
Now, let's say that the Patriots manage to qualify for the Super Bowl, something that is definitely within the realm of possibility.
As of right now, those are the four best teams in the NFL. And they all reside in the NFC.
While the Patriots could feasibly beat one of those teams, they wouldn't be favored against any of them. All four are currently better, top-to-bottom.
Plus, there's the New York Giants, kryptonite to the Brady/Belichick Superman, who have beaten the Patriots in two recent Super Bowls (XLII and XLVI). Big Blue quarterback Eli Manning and head coach Tom Coughlin are the last people that New England wants to see in the big game.
So, even if the Patriots manage to get to the Super Bowl, could you honestly say that they'd have a better than 50 percent chance of beating one of the NFC's top teams?
New England will win double-digit games again in 2013. They will win the AFC East. They could even conjure up a trip to the Super Bowl.
But, for the first time in many years, they cannot be considered a favorite to win it.