The New England Patriots were supposed to struggle early in the 2016 season without quarterback Tom Brady. They were supposed to falter down the stretch after losing tight end Rob Gronkowski. Their defense should have suffered without Pro Bowl defenders Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins after New England traded both players in their primes.
None of it seemed to faze Bill Belichick & Co. whatsoever on their way to a 14-2 record and top seeding in the AFC playoffs. That explains why the Patriots were a near-unanimous No. 1 choice when six NFL insiders ranked all 12 playoff teams following Week 17.
One general manager, one player personnel director, two pro personnel directors, one analytics director and a veteran coach participated in the survey. They tweaked their choices into the night Sunday, producing a composite ranking heading into the postseason.
1. New England Patriots
14-2 record | No. 1 seed in AFC
These Patriots have overcome obstacles better than could have been expected. They went 3-1 without Brady. They led the NFL in fewest points allowed despite trading Jones before the season and Collins during it.
"I think New England is beatable because they are not a suffocating team," one of the insiders said. "But they are highly, highly competent, so you have to be on your 'A' game. I could see a Dallas or an Atlanta giving them trouble in a neutral site. The Patriots play really good defense, but it is not a suffocating defense. You could see a team that can score beating them."
One of the six evaluators had the Patriots only third on his ballot, below Dallas and Pittsburgh.
"I just feel like some of the moves New England has made will come back to bite them," this contrarian insider said. "Someone will get hurt and they will be a guy short at some point, and had they kept one of their guys, it would have helped them."