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Patriots seen as the fourth most vulnerable division champion heading into the 2020 NFL season

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Related: Bills general manager Brandon Beane thinks the Patriots are still ‘the team to beat’

NFL: Preseason-New York Giants at New England Patriots Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots have won 11 straight AFC East titles, but their streak is facing its biggest challenge to date heading into the 2020 season: with quarterback Tom Brady and other core members of the roster gone, the team will look markedly different this year. As a result, the Patriots have recently been listed as the fourth most vulnerable reigning division champion heading into the new year by long-time NFL executive Gil Brandt.

While this ranking is higher than it would have been in years past, Brandt did shy away from putting New England at the top spot as he explained on NFL.com:

4) New England Patriots (AFC East)

Some people might have the Patriots atop this list, but I — obviously — am not one of them. New England is facing a slew of questions in 2020, including how the team will perform in the post-Tom Brady era and whether the Bills, Dolphins or Jets (who have all improved) will finally mount a serious challenge in the AFC East. But one simply cannot count out a Bill Belichick-coached outfit. The Pats might not dominate or look as flashy offensively as they did in the peak of Brady’s time under center, but they are returning most of 2019’s top-ranked defense, led by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, and they’ll have a legitimate shot at extending their NFL-record streak of division titles to 12 this season.

Brandt’s reasoning for putting the Patriots “only” in the fourth spot is a sound one: the team has lost its most important player and will play a tough schedule in 2020 in part due to the improvement of its AFC East rivals, but it still has the league’s premier coaching staff as well as a seasoned defense that should once more rank among the best in football. Add it all up, and you get why three other teams — the Green Bay Packers, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Houston Texans — are seen as more likely to be dethroned this year than New England.