The NFL preseason is the time of year when expectations run amok. People make outlandish claims, baseless projections and generally let their optimism become the driving force of their beliefs. Super Bowl teams are anointed, end-of-season awards are handed out and countless hours are spent arguing who will beat whom and by how much.
The two teams getting the most speculation, the New England Patriots and New York Jets, are garnering attention for different reasons.
Some, such as USA Today’s Nate Davis, think the Patriots will go undefeated during the regular season, as they did in 2007. The oddsmakers in Vegas have high expectations for New England, too — the lines released by sports book operator CG Technology in May had the Patriots favored in every game. The Jets, on the other hand, have been cited by one unnamed NFL executive as having “the worst roster I’ve seen in a decade.”
Either of these extremes is a rare occurrence in the NFL. The 2007 Patriots are the only team in league history to finish the regular season 16-0, joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins (14-0) as the only other NFL team to go undefeated since the NFL-AFL merger of 1970. Only four teams have gone winless in the NFL for an entire season since 1944: the 1960 Dallas Cowboys (0-11-1), the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14), the 1982 Baltimore Colts (0-8-1), and the 2008 Detroit Lions (0-16). All required luck to get there. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s “expected wins,” which calculates what a team’s record should have been based on how many points it scored and allowed, the 2007 Patriots had a point differential more in line with a 14-2 team and the 2008 Lions should have finished the season 3-13.
The optimism for the 2017 Patriots is easy to defend. They went 14-2 last season en route to a Super Bowl victory and added running back Mike Gillislee, wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and defensive end Kony Ealy this offseason.
Football Outsiders’ early season projections had New England facing the easiest schedule in the NFL this year per their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric. Warren Sharp ranks the Patriots’ strength of schedule as the fifth-easiest in 2017, a schedule he calls “highly unfair” because New England will play six bottom-10 games after Week 7, the most of any team. However, it’s still unlikely we see the Patriots turn in another perfect season.
Based on 10,000 simulated seasons using Football Outsiders’ early season projected win totals, the Week 15 matchup on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers is the most likely loss for the Patriots (48.2 percent chance). The road game against the Broncos in Week 10 is the next-toughest for New England; Denver has a 44 percent chance of winning that contest. After that, the odds tilt heavily in the Patriots’ favor.
The Jets, on the other hand, may find it difficult to win games.
A season-ending neck injury to wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and a broken foot for Lucky Whitehead leaves the team with second-year pros Charone Peake (caught 19 of 35 targets for 186 yards in 2016) and Robby Anderson (caught 42 of 78 targets for 587 yards and two touchdowns last season) at the top of the depth chart. The team’s best quarterback, Josh McCown, produced a below-average passer rating in 2016 (72.3). The offensive line ranks 20th by the game charters at Pro Football Focus after left tackle Ryan Clady retired and center Nick Mangold was released. And the franchise did little to address the league’s second-worst pass defense per DVOA.
Yet going winless is still a stretch, with good chances to beat the Cleveland Browns on the road in Week 5 (60.3 percent) and the Jacksonville Jaguars at home in Week 4 (52.4 percent). It takes just one win to keep the Jets from making ignominious history.
Overall, the Patriots have a 1.1 percent chance (90-to-1 odds) of going 16-0, with the Jets being more than half as likely to go 0-16 (0.4 percent, or 260-to-1 odds). In other words, don’t expect to happen in 2017.