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Armando Salguero: Patriots Have One Hope To Keep From Falling Hopelessly Behind Bills And Dolphins

The Buffalo Bills don’t fear the New England Patriots. And why should they? The last two times the teams played, the Bills scored a combined 80 points, didn’t punt, watched their quarterback throw eight touchdown passes without an interception and easily dispatched the team that once dominated the AFC East.

The Miami Dolphins don’t fear the New England Patriots. They’ve won four of the last five against New England, including a sweep last season. And they just traded former No. 1 receiver DeVante Parker to the Patriots and even threw in a fifth-round draft pick this year so that New England would be more likely to take Parker’s salary.

All this so they could get back a third-round pick in 2023.

So what the Dolphins were basically saying in this trade was, “Take our player and a pick this year, and we still think we’re better off than you. We can wait a full year to get a return on this trade.”

And there’s a chance both the Bills and Dolphins have miscalculated. (Yeah, not likely both have.)

But this offseason suggests both have indeed stayed ahead of or moved past the Patriots and are more of a threat to each other than the Pats are to either of them.

This offseason when the charge for every team has been to get better because their neighbor is trying, the Bills added dynamic pass rusher Von Miller and have addressed their interior defensive line.

The Dolphins have restructured their offensive line and added weapons at running back and receiver, including trading for Tyreek Hill.

The Patriots? They’ve lost starting offensive lineman Ted Karras to Cincinnati; lost J.C. Jackson, one of the NFL’s most productive cornerbacks the past three years, to the Los Angeles Chargers; lost offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who left to become head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders; and generally have done nothing to improve their team speed, which was obviously lacking the final quarter of the 2021 season.

Yes, it’s been a curious offseason for the Patriots.

And if you ask club owner Robert Kraft, the past three years haven’t exactly been stellar either — at least not in his mind.

“After my family, there’s nothing more important to me than the New England Patriots and winning football games,” Kraft said last week at the NFL annual meeting. “I’m a Patriot fan — big time — first, and more than anything, it bothers me that we haven’t been able to win a playoff game in the last three years. We had a period of two decades that were unbelievable. We have to find a way to sustain it, keep it going.”

Was there a zinger aimed at Bill Belichick in there?

Kraft, however, is not suggesting the future is lost.

“I’m happy that we had a great, I think we had a great draft last year,” Kraft said. “And it made up for what happened the previous four years or so. I look forward to hopefully having a great draft this year. That’s the only way you can build your team long term and consistently so that you have chance of winning is having a good draft.”

Yes, there was definitely a zinger directed at his coach and general manager in there.

Everything Kraft is saying is true, by the way. Multiple drafts before last season were problematic, and obviously Belichick is responsible for those.

And the Patriots, which missed the playoffs in 2020, were indeed bounced quickly in ’19 and ’21 without a win.

So what’s New England’s answer for all this?

“Looking ahead to this year,” Belichick said. “Trying to put the best team on the field we can in 2022.”

Belichick doesn’t seem too concerned about the Bills pulling further ahead and the Dolphins pulling even or perhaps ahead.

“We’ll find out next year,” he said. “I think some of the players we have on the roster hopefully will take a step up. But we’ll see. We’ll have new players, there will be new players here. We’ll see what happens with them.”

Let’s be honest:

The only way the Patriots improve on last year’s 10-7 record is if quarterback Mac Jones is indeed as special as that organization believes.

If Jones makes the gargantuan leap many quarterbacks make from their rookie year to the second year, then the Patriots have a chance to keep pace with the improvements being made in Buffalo and Miami.

And the Patriots are fully sold Jones might be able to do just that.

“I come in there sometimes on the weekend or early,” Kraft said. “He’s there working out or watching film, just doing things I wouldn’t believe someone of his background would have that kind of commitment, given his past.

“And the guys in the locker room really like him. All the guys. I actually believe he has a little more edge than we’ve seen, but he’s been respectful of coming in as a rookie. So I’m very high on him. I think we really, the staff did a great job of drafting him, and we’re lucky to have him for our future.”

Jones, by the way, cannot just improve from being a good rookie to a very good veteran. Josh Allen of the Bills is elite. So are a handful of other quarterbacks in the conference.

So Jones has to be that good, or the Patriots will struggle to break that three-year playoff victory drought. Kraft, however, remains optimistic.

“What’s gone on in the AFC,” he said, “it looks like there’s a higher number of top quarterbacks, but we really have to worry about our situation. Take care of our business. We have a chance.

“Without a good coach and a good quarterback, no matter how good the other players are, I don’t think you can win consistently. I believe we have both – an outstanding coach and a good, young prospect at quarterback … This will be a good year.”

Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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