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State of the Franchise: Will Patriots be just fine post-Gronk?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank has set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Patriots organization, fans of the team worldwide and those who can't believe it's been, what, five months since a team from the Boston area has won a championship. I mean, how have you survived for so long?

For so many teams I've written about in this series, I have been offering a vision of hope for the future. An ideal of what the franchise can become. But the Patriots are different because they epitomize what every team is striving to be. I have said this before in the past and I will say it again right here: The Patriots are the greatest dynasty in North American sports history. Six Super Bowls. Nine conference titles. They have missed the playoffs twice since 2001. They were without an injured Tom Brady for one of those seasons (and they still managed to win 11 games). The other was a disaster -- they won just nine games. Gasp!

Many football fans are tired of the Patriots. But that's only because their teams lose to them all of the time. Is New England's dominance coming to an end? The short answer is no. But since my editors probably won't let me stop there, let's dive right in.

How the Patriots got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2018 season.

The highs:

-- Becoming just the second team from the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL to win 10 consecutive divisional titles. They joined the Atlanta Braves, who won 14 straight from 1991 to 2005, in that exclusive group. Fun fact: The Atlanta Braves were once known as the Boston Red Stockings.

-- Beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game to advance to their third consecutive Super Bowl. They joined the AFC East-rival Dolphins and Bills as the only teams to ever appear in three consecutive Super Bowls.

-- Beating the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3, in Super Bowl LIII. It was the Patriots' sixth Super Bowl title, tied for the most in league history. They held the high-flying Rams to just a field goal in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl of all time.

The lows:

-- OK, so this is prior to the 2018 season, but it's important enough to include in a look back at 2018: New England lost to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. The whole thing with Malcolm Butler was confusing. Then Nick Foles beat Brady in a Super Bowl and people wondered what was going to happen.

-- Speaking of Butler, the Titans signed him as a free agent along with fellow former Patriot Dion Lewis. And then former Patriots great Mike Vrabel led his team in a rather convincing win over New England.

-- Back-to-back losses to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions early in the season.

-- The Miracle in Miami. I mean, the Patriots always struggle in Miami for reasons that remain as mysterious as Butler's Super Bowl benching. This was a new low, though. We could do a full version of "A Football Life" on why Rob Gronkowski was on the field for that play. And it derailed the whole season. Actually, it didn't, as the Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl. Yes, I know. I'm just trying to make fans of other teams feel a little better.

2019 VIPs

Head coach: Bill Belichick. The greatest coach in NFL history. The greatest coach in North American sports history. The greatest orator in NFL history. All right, he might not be the most gregarious at the podium. But in the grand scheme of things, who cares, right? Bill Burr would probably make the press conferences more amusing, but would it matter if you weren't winning?

In all seriousness, they should probably just go ahead and take Lombardi's name off of the Super Bowl trophy and call it the Belichick Trophy, because what he has done since 2001 has been nothing short of amazing.

The Patriots have won six Super Bowls since 2001. I know I mentioned that earlier. But no other team has won more than two titles in this century -- the Ravens, Steelers and Giants each have won two. The Patriots have a win percentage of .764 since 2001. The Steelers are second at .656. The Patriots have a point differential of 2,645 in that span. The Steelers are second with 1,422. The Patriots have 30 playoff wins since '01. The Steelers are second with 15.

It's not just that Belichick is beating the competition. He's lapped the competition. And he's doing it in the free-agency era. This isn't the 1960s and 1970s, where you got to hold on to your players forever. The Patriots face a glut of free-agent defections every year. Belichick and Brady are like two old dudes playing pickup games at the gym. The other guys in their starting five might change, but they remain constant. As does the winning.

Quarterback: Tom Brady. Maybe you've heard of him. Now, I could sit here and just throw statistics like this one at you: Brady is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season after turning 40 years old. He's done it twice. And since turning 40, his completion percentage (66.0), passing yards per game (279.1), TD-INT ratio (3.2:1) and passer rating (100.2) are higher than those of all other NFL QBs.

And if you're thinking, how is it possible that he's getting even younger? Well, it's even worse when I bring up what I really want to talk about with Brady -- his social media game. His Twitter account, in particular. It's smart. It's funny. He even roasts people.

And here's my thing, Brady: You're the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Nobody should dispute that. Sure, there are some people out there who still try to dispute this point. It's like when my nephew tries to convince me that "Star Wars: Episode I" is the best of the whole series (that's not the original "Star Wars" movie, football nerds). But you're the best. However, do you have to be so great at social media, too? Because that's kind of my thing, and I want to still be good at it. I don't need you moving into my territory. It's like when Jerry Lewis started taking up golf, which irritated Dean. Stay in your lane, brah.

I also know I've angered some Patriots fans by spending a lot of time talking about his Twitter account and not as much on the stats. But seriously, what more needs to be said about him or Belichick? They are the best to ever do it. Fin.

Projected 2019 MVP: Brady. Here's the thing. The Patriots have played well in some spots when Brady has been out. Jimmy Garoppolo got paid because of it. Former Patriot Jacoby Brissett is one of the most highly regarded (and sought after) backup quarterbacks in the league due to how he performed when filling in for Brady. But the ugly secret that most Patriots haters don't want to admit is that Brady is the guy who makes this work. Brady is the one who pushes them over the top. Sure, this team would still win games in his absence because of Belichick. But the sustained level of dominance comes from Brady. The team has made the playoffs in 15 of the last 16 seasons. They year they didn't go to the postseason? Brady missed all but one game with a knee injury.

2019 breakout star: J.C. Jackson, cornerback. Jackson began his college career at the University of Florida, but he was dismissed from the program after being charged with four felony counts for an alleged armed robbery of a home. Jackson was later found not guilty of the charges. He moved on to play at Riverside Community College in California and then ended up at Maryland for his final two seasons. Anyway, he went undrafted in 2018, but the Patriots signed him and then he became one of those hidden gems New England seems to have no shortage of. Pro Football Focus has pegged Jackson and Stephon Gilmore as one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL. And with teams likely to avoid testing Gilmore much -- he had PFF's second-highest coverage grade at 90.9 -- Jackson should see plenty of action this year. One reason for my optimism about the second-year corner: Jackson led the NFL with a 34.9 passer rating allowed on throws of 10 or more air yards, according to PFF.

New face to know: Michael Bennett, defensive end. Wait. How is this even possible? The Patriots traded for the 33-year-old Bennett and lost the 25-year-old Trey Flowers to the Lions in free agency. And you think to yourself, "Oh no, they lost a young guy for an older dude who is on the downside of his career." And then I have to be the jerk who points out that while Flowers did have more tackles than Bennett last year, the elder statesman had more sacks (9 to 7.5), quarterback hits (30 to 20) and tackles for loss (15 to nine) last season. I know those numbers don't tell the whole story, but still. Why do you guys keep letting this happen?

But wait. Who is gone? That's right, the Patriots are always a team in flux. The Patriots lost Butler, Lewis, Danny Amendola and Nate Solder a year ago. They still won the Super Bowl. This season, the Patriots will have to replace Rob Gronkowski (retired), Trent Brown (Raiders), Chris Hogan (Panthers), Cordarrelle Patterson (Bears) and Flowers (Lions), among others. Also, last year's defensive play-caller, Brian Flores, is now the head coach in Miami, and he took longtime Pats wide receivers coach Chad O'Shea with him. With all of these losses, I don't know how they are going to survive.

Yes, I'm kidding.

2019 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: SUPREME HIGHEST LEVEL THAT IT COULD BE. We're talking about the Patriots here. It's shocking when they don't make it to the Super Bowl. If they don't advance to the AFC Championship Game, it would be a surprise on the level of Brock Lesnar beating the Undertaker at WrestleMania XXX. I don't even want to talk about what it would be like if they don't make the playoffs.

Will the Patriots be able to ...

Overcome the loss of Rob Gronkowsk? I mean, they did win a Super Bowl without him a few years ago, so maybe you don't need to be all that concerned about his retirement. But Gronk was pretty great. A definite Hall of Famer. He holds the NFL record for touchdowns by a tight end in a single season with 17. He had five seasons with at least 10 touchdowns, the most by a tight end in NFL history. And he retired with a franchise-record 79 receiving touchdowns. So I don't want to make it seem like it was no big deal.

Plus, if you look at Brady's numbers with and without Gronk, they're clearly better with him. Brady's passer rating with Gronk is 104.3. It drops all the way down to 88.1 without Gronk. That's just 0.5 points north of the league average (87.6) since 2010, when Gronk entered the league.

The Patriots have done a better job of managing when Gronkowski has been off the field over the last three seasons, though. I mean, they still were better with Gronk, which is kind of a "duh" statement right there. Kind of like saying that open-bar beers are better than cash-bar beers. It's just science. But the dropoff hasn't been as severe since 2016. With Gronk, Brady completed 67.1 percent of his passes, averaged 8.1 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 105.5. With Gronk off the field, he completed 64.6 percent of his passes, averaged 7.4 yards per attempt and had a passer rating of 98.3. So, it wasn't a complete disaster, but it was a small decline that the Patriots must manage now.

But how, you ask? Let's get to that ...

Count on N'Keal Harry to be that guy? The Patriots got some of Randy Moss' best years. Flirted with having a similar big-time target like that when they acquired Josh Gordon (who is currently suspended indefinitely). And the need for a big target probably is the reason why they drafted Harry out of Arizona State in the first round this year. It's the first time in the Belichick era that the Patriots have used a first-round pick on a receiver. Harry led the Pac-12 in receptions (213) and receiving yards (2,889) from 2016 to '18. So if you're looking for someone to make up for the production lost when Gronkowski retired, I would look at Harry. Sure, he isn't listed as a tight end. But Gronk wasn't your typical tight end, anyway (though he was never given credit for being a devastating blocker). Now, only one Patriots rookie receiver has caught more than 40 passes in the Belichick era. That was Deion Branch in 2002. And I'm not even going to say Harry will have 40 receptions. But his biggest asset is knowing how to use his body to create separation from defenders. So I predict he will lead the Patriots in receiving touchdowns, as he will be a beast in the red zone.

Help Sony Michel develop into a bell-cow back? All right, this one is for the fantasy enthusiasts in the house. The Patriots are soooooo good, but you can never truly trust a Bill Belichick running back in fantasy football. Although, it's not quite as bad as many of you make it out to be. Like, you're fine. It's not some unsolvable riddle. Maybe watch "NFL Fantasy Live" once in a while or something.

Michel became the fifth running back in NFL history with 300-plus rushing yards and 6 or more rushing TDs in one postseason, joining Terrell Davis, John Riggins, Franco Harris and Larry Csonka. All of them are in the Hall of Fame. Wait, is that right? (Checks notes.) Yep. I wasn't sure about Harris, but he's in there. Just kidding, he's a Steelers running back, so of course he's automatically in. (Not many Patriots from this dynasty have made the Hall yet, outside of Ty Law this year.) But here is what is interesting to note. In the previous two instances of a running back scoring at least six touchdowns in a single postseason, those running backs each scored 21 rushing touchdowns in the ensuing regular season.

Which, of course, means ... congratulations to rookie running back Damien Harris, who will end up going for 21 touchdowns this year because ... Patriots! I mean, are you not paying attention? This is just what they do.

Three key dates

-- Week 2 at the Dolphins. Seriously, guys. It's cute to have this running storyline of the Dolphins beating the Patriots in Miami. It was like when I used to dominate the neighborhood in "Tecmo Super Bowl" as a kid. But I could never quite beat my friend Mark, who was terrible at the game. But the Dolphins need to stop this. And Belichick should stop the annoying habit of losing to his former pupils. Although it's nice to see Belichick putting them over. John Cena could take some notes on that.

-- Week 8 vs. the Browns. Do these Browns games still count as BELICHICK REVENGE GAMES? Or has enough time passed since he was there? Anyway, a jacked-up Baker Mayfield going into Foxborough? The hype on this is going to be next-level.

-- Week 11 at the Eagles. REVENGE GAME. Both teams will be coming off their bye week, too.

One storyline people are overlooking:Just how overlooked this defense is. The Patriots basically shut out the Rams in the Super Bowl. But it seemed like all people talked about was the "failure" of Sean McVay and Jared Goff. Maybe it's just that the Patriots are good on defense. In fact, the Patriots are the only team to rank in the top 10 in points per game and points allowed in each of the last seven seasons. While they did score their most points per game since 2012 with 29.2, the defense allowed its second-fewest in that span with 19.4.

Another storyline people are overlooking:Dude, that offensive line is great. They lost Nate Solder last year, but no quarterback was pressured less often in 2018 than Tom Brady, according to Next Gen Stats. I know the haters will somehow try to make this a negative for Brady. But you can stop that nonsense right now.

One storyline people are overthinking:Julian Edelman has only two 1,000-yard seasons. The caveat should be that he's had just two 1,000-yard regular seasons. Because that number doubles when you take into account postseason production. In fact, Edelman ranks second only to Jerry Rice in career playoff receiving yards. So you all can calm down. Edelman, you might remember, was MVP of the Super Bowl. Receivers in the season after being named Super Bowl MVP have averaged 70 receptions for 1,044 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns.

Oh, and our fantasy editor, Graham Barfield, dug up this great note about Edelman's production without Gronkowski. While being sans Gronk has hurt Brady, Edelman has fared much better, averaging 11.4 targets and 7.3 receptions per game without the tight end.

And for the record, Edelman is a Hall of Famer.

For 2019 to be a successful season, the Patriots MUST ...

-- Win the Super Bowl.

There is no other expectation in New England. It's just the way it is.

In closing

You're the envy of all sports franchises in North America. I know the Yankees will chirp about all of their titles. Most of which seemingly came in the 1920s. You've won a single World Series since 2001. Settle down. The Patriots are the best to ever do it.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.

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