In the egalitarian skyscraper that is the NFL, one man's ceiling is another man's floor. Under Bill Belichick's tutelage, the New England Patriots have only inhabited the floors near the penthouse. The Patriots have missed the playoffs only twice—a 9-7 season in 2002 and an 11-5 campaign in 2008—in the last 13 years.
Let's see what floor numbers the Patriots might be pushing in the elevator known as the 2014 NFL season.
Super Bowl champions. That is the goal every year in New England, and nobody is happy if that goal isn't achieved. If Bill Belichick's boat is still named "V Rings" at this time next year, he will not have met his goal.
They have the pieces in place to make that happen. A team that came up short in the AFC Championship Game last season returns Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer and Rob Gronkowski—probably—from injured reserve and added Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner to shore up the defensive backfield.
What is the Patriots' ceiling?
Jamie Collins has emerged as a star in waiting, and Dont'a Hightower now has the capability to play in his natural spot with Brandon Spikes gone.
If Dominique Easley can exhibit the explosiveness that he showed in college, the Patriots defense could be special to watch.
With Tom Brady under center and a variety of receiving threats, the Patriots are going to score some points. Gronkowski, however, is what makes this offense sing. You can run behind him if teams bring in an extra defensive back, and he will beat linebackers all day if they stay in base.
If Gronkowski stays healthy for all 19 games, Belichick might want to make an appointment with a marine-painting specialist.
Eight wins. Barring biblical plagues, the Patriots won't fall below .500.
Injuries at key positions can throw any team's season into peril. Even if disaster—a season-ending injury to Tom Brady—were to strike, however, the Patriots have shown that they are built to persevere.
Their first aid is their schedule. Six games against the AFC East—even if they are improving—and six more against the AFC West and NFC North can help bolster even a mediocre team's record.
What is the Patriots' floor?
Experienced backups at key positions—offensive line, quarterback, running back, cornerback—also provide insurance against injury, suspension and poor play. Belichick is as concerned with the 53rd spot on the roster as he is with the first. Depth is incredibly important.
Injuries aren't the only thing that can happen. A stagnant offense has happened at times during Brady's career. His mechanics can get out of whack—he had three games under a 50 percent completion rate in 2014—and if he can't rectify the situation quickly, the tight windows that he throws into turn into interceptions and incompletions.
Even an ineffective Tom Brady—paired with the same strong running game—could score enough points to win opposite the loaded—on paper anyway—Patriots defense.