Standing on the podium after his team had just won Super Bowl 53, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was asked to describe what the 13-3 victory against the Los Angeles Rams and winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy felt like. “It’s sweet,” Belichick answered before pointing out one of the biggest themes of his team’s season. “Everybody counted us out from the beginning of the season to midseason, but we’re still here.”
Being counted out served as a catalyst for Belichick’s team en route to the NFL title. For good reason: the Patriots were done after their 1-2 start and early-season struggles, they were done after dropping games in Miami and Pittsburgh, and they were done after finishing the regular season with their worst record since 2009 — at least that’s how the team felt it was portrayed in the media; not entirely unwarranted at times.
New England continued playing the underdog card throughout the playoffs and all the way to the Super Bowl. But despite winning the championship and silencing the doubters once and for all, it looks as if they will be able to keep portraying themselves that way heading into 2019 — at least if a recent panel of ESPN ‘experts’ can be taken as a benchmark by which to measure the Patriots’ portrayal entering the next season.
How come? The self-proclaimed ‘world-wide leader in sports’ recently asked nine of its analysts about to predict the NFL’s offseason and what impact it will ultimately have on the 2019 campaign. And it looks as if trust in the defending world champions is not something that is running high in Bristol, Connecticut. That none of the writers picked a Patriots rookie to make the biggest year-two jump is not the main issue here.
The two questions that do jump out, on the other hand, regard the race for league MVP and even more so Super Bowl 54. The first questions saw the nine analysts give five different answers — all quarterbacks, none among them the greatest of all time. Tom Brady not getting any love in the earliest of MVP predictions is not all that surprising, though. After all, the soon-to-be 42-year old did not win the title last year either.
Furthermore, he oftentimes appears to be at a disadvantage compared to other players due to the team he plays on: the Patriots are expected to be good year-in and year-out, so Brady would have to stand out in a special way in order to win MVP. ESPN’s panel consequently picked Kansas City Chiefs passer Patrick Mahomes (four votes) to win the trophy for the second straight year, followed by the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (two votes).
The New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck and the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson (one vote each) were also mentioned as candidates to win the trophy. Speaking of winning trophies, the most important one — the one named after the aforementioned Vince Lombardi — went to New England at the conclusion of the 2018 season, for the sixth time in the Brady/Belichick era.
The Patriots should naturally be seen as favorites to win it all again next year, right? Or at least make it back to the big dance? Not according to most of ESPN’s experts: only two of them see New England make it back to the Super Bowl again next season — and both have them winning once more. The majority of their companions, on the other hand, project the AFC to be represented by the Chiefs (five votes) while the Los Angeles Chargers and Houston Texans (one vote each) are also mentioned.
Knowing how the Patriots jumped on seemingly every opportunity to present themselves as the underdogs in 2018, it will be interesting to see how or if they do the same thing next season. Judging by ESPN’s preview story, it looks as if they are off to a good start when it comes to that.