It's been 14 years since an NFL team last successfully defended a Super Bowl victory. That team was the New England Patriots, and now they'll try to end that stretch with a seventh title in a 19-season span.
It won't be easy with quarterback Tom Brady trying to defy precedents and Father Time at age 42, especially now that superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski is retired. But the Pats might have an ace in the hole on offense, and that ace's name is Josh Gordon.
The suspended former All-Pro wide receiver remains a member of the Patriots, and Charean Williams of Pro Football Talk reported Saturday that Gordon has applied for reinstatement.
It's almost impossible to predict how the NFL will rule in situations like these, particularly since Gordon's is unique in that he's been hit with multiple drug-related suspensions in his career.
Still, the league has indicated it isn't giving up on the 28-year-old. Commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the subject in March, per ESPN's Mike Reiss:
"The first thing right now is to focus on Josh himself as a young man and what he needs to do to get his life on the right track. That's what our focus is. We have resources supporting that, and that's our hope—to make sure he gets on the right track. Once he gets on the right track, we'll get to that place [of suspension talk]. But I think right now, he has had a complete focus on 'I have to get myself all cleared in the right place before I can get back on the field.'"
We aren't privy to what steps Gordon has taken to "get his life on the right track" since he last played for the Pats in mid-December, but if he can impress Goodell and Co., he could be a difference-maker in the team's quest to win back-to-back Vince Lombardi Trophies.
The Patriots know it. Why else would they have kept him around? And while the organization has remained characteristically tight-lipped regarding Gordon's status, it's worth noting he was spotted working out with Brady in an Instagram video posted by the star quarterback in June.
The AFC appears to be wide-open right now, with New England vulnerable and teams like the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns likely to join the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers as prime contenders. But give Gordon back to Brady and it could put New England over the top as the clear-cut favorite to win the conference for the fifth time in six years.
Gordon was hardly a factor in his final game of 2018, which took place days before he announced he was stepping away to focus on his mental health. (Just hours later, the league confirmed he'd been suspended for violating the terms of his conditional reinstatement under its Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse.)
But in the nine games that preceded his one-catch season finale, Gordon was one of the most productive receivers in the league.
During that stretch from Week 5 to Week 14, Gordon was one of five qualified receivers to average more than 18 yards per catch, and he and Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the only two to do so on 25-plus receptions. Despite the fact that Brady's arm isn't what it used to be—and that the Pats also relied heavily on Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and James White through the air—Gordon ranked 14th among receivers during that stretch, with 669 receiving yards.
Prorate that for 16 games, and he would've fallen just short of 1,200 yards.
Don't forget that Gordon once led the NFL with 1,646 yards while scoring nine touchdowns despite playing just 14 games in 2013. That year, he became just the third qualified player in modern NFL history to average more than 117 receiving yards per game.
And yeah, that was more than half a decade ago, but he hasn't lost much tire tread in the ensuing five seasons. He's sat out two entire seasons since, and he's played in just 22 games.
Even if Gordon never fully recaptures that magic from his sophomore campaign with the Cleveland Browns, he still has the ability to take over games with his sub-4.4 speed at 6'3", 225 pounds.
That could save the Patriots in the early stages of the post-Gronk era, especially now that Edelman is dealing with a broken thumb, veteran deep threat Chris Hogan is gone and 2018 left tackle Trent Brown also got away in free agency.
They recently signed Cameron Meredith, but knee issues continue to plague the former Bear and Saint. The jury remains out on rookie first-rounder N'Keal Harry, fifth-year former Colt Phillip Dorsett has his limitations, and veteran offseason addition Demaryius Thomas—who remains on the physically unable to perform list while recovering from a torn Achilles—is clearly in decline at age 31.
The Pats pulled it off without Gordon down the stretch last year, but they're weaker offensively and will have an even larger target on their backs in 2019.
Without Gordon, the Pats could finally succumb to the much-improved Colts, who made progress with quarterback Andrew Luck's return to health in 2018 and look stacked following a strong offseason.
Without Gordon, they could finally fall to the Chargers or Chiefs, both of whom are loaded offensively and have the defensive talent to chase the Lombardi Trophy.
Without Gordon, they could even have trouble with the Browns, who on paper might be the most talented team in the AFC North following yet another offseason shopping spree.
All of those teams, plus the Houston Texans, have stronger offensive weapons than New England, but Gordon can change that. He can make it that much easier for Brady to conceal his age, he can help keep bloodthirsty opposing defenses honest by presenting a matchup nightmare, and when he's at his best, he can take over games single-handedly.
The key ingredient for the Patriots to become the first team this decade to repeat is already in the team's employ. Now, the Pats and their fans just have to hope he can take the field this fall—and remain on it until the first Sunday in February.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.