Here’s where NFL execs rank Patriots among the 16 AFC teams

By Nick Goss

The New England Patriots exceeded expectations in 2021 by winning 10 games and returning to the NFL playoffs despite starting a rookie quarterback.

Repeating that performance in 2022 likely will be a much tougher challenge.

The AFC is absolutely loaded entering the new season. Many of the teams in the conference loaded up in free agency and the trade market, most notably in the AFC West where each club made significant additions except the Kansas City Chiefs (who already were elite).

Even the AFC East — a fairly weak division for most of the last two decades — promises to be much improved in 2022. The Miami Dolphins have built an impressive roster and could challenge the Patriots and Buffalo Bills for the division crown.

After a difficult training camp that saw the Patriots try to install a new offense with lackluster results, plus three underwhelming preseason games, there’s not a ton of optimism for New England around the league.

The Athletic’s Mike Sando had five league executives rank the AFC, and the Patriots came in at No. 11 out of 16 teams. The Patriots are one spot behind the Dolphins and one spot ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Las Vegas Raiders, now coached by former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, were eighth.

At least one exec is a little bullish on the Patriots despite their struggles over the last month.

“I probably believe in Mac Jones a lot more than most — I am probably too high on them,” an exec who ranked the Patriots fifth told Sano. “I basically look at them as a team that could sneak into the playoffs, anywhere from 7-10 wins. People are getting all caught up in the offense looking bad this summer. Bill Belichick is a really good coach. I’m less concerned about that.”

The first four games could make or break the Patriots’ season.

They open the season against the Dolphins in Miami, followed by games at the Steelers, home to the Baltimore Ravens and at the Green Bay Packers. If the Patriots survive that stretch at 2-2, they’ll be set up nicely for a midseason push with very winnable games versus the Jets (twice), Lions, Bears and the Browns through Week 8.

The Patriots cannot afford to be on the outside of the AFC playoff race entering their final seven games, which is easily the most brutal stretch of the team’s schedule.

Here’s where NFL execs rank Patriots among the 16 AFC teams originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston