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Submitted by Richie Baccellieri on Thursday, December 15, 2016 at 1:29 PM

The New England Patriots are in a familiar December spot, a solid 13-5 betting favorite to win the Super Bowl in February. When a price is that short and public respect for a team as high as it is for the Patriots, it becomes necessary for NFL bettors to cast a more jaundiced eye. Before jumping on the bandwagon, a critical look at a favorite’s failings become necessary.

It’s become easy in recent years to dismiss any New England shortcomings by saying the three magical words of the pro football language—Brady and Belichick. That’s understandable and it’s respect that’s been 100 percent earned by quarterback and coach. But it also misunderstands the nature of where we’re at in the season.

This is the 15th season Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have worked together (excluding the 2008 season when Brady was injured for the year in Week 1). In the previous fourteen years, someone other than the Patriots has hoisted the Super Bowl trophy ten times. Is 4-10 a record you want to lay a short price on? Someone else has won the AFC title in eight of those years. New England is an even-money bet to win the AFC title—is 6-8 a record you’re confident betting straight-up?

The greatness of the head coach and the quarterback ensures that New England will always be in contention. The only year they failed to win the AFC East together was 2001. They’ve been among the last eight teams in the playoffs 12 different times. That’s what Brady and Belichick assure you. How far the Patriots get after that depends a lot on the quality of the supporting cast.

And there are legitimate reasons to be concerned as we come down the stretch. The injury to Rob Gronkowski has drastically limited the weapons Brady has to work with. His top three targets right now are Julian Edelman, James White and Martellus Bennett. All three are good players, especially Edelman, but none are deep threats. What’s more, the ability for any of them to get yards after the catch is more limited when defenses don’t have to respect the deep ball or Gronk.

New England’s defense has been excellent this year and ranks second in the NFL in points allowed. It is fair to wonder if they have the kind of individual game-breaking player that makes opposing offensive coordinators quiver. Dont’a Hightower, Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler are all solid, disciplined football players. But they do qualify as the kind of game-changers who often end up deciding playoff games?

Admittedly, the concerns are somewhat nitpicky—especially if wide receiver Chris Hogan can build on his 5 catch/129-yard performance on Monday Night against Baltimore and become the kind of downfield threat this offense needs. But when a team is a 13-5 favorite, nitpicky concerns are a big deal. Watch the Patriots closely these next few weeks as you make your big handicapping decisions. Just remember that we’ve reached the point in the year when Brady and Belichick alone won’t be enough.


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