Each fall, the NFL is born anew. On Labor Day, all teams are equal—the same record, the same shot at postseason glory. At least, that’s the NFL’s preferred narrative, the feel-good fantasy that the Raiders might be competent one of these years. The reality is that not all teams are equal and not all organizations face the same odds, regardless of a league-mandated salary cap that theoretically delivers parity. And the chief architect of the NFL talent imbalance is one B. Belichick: sartorial outlaw, mastermind coach and owner of a world-class RBF (Resting Belichick Face).

Photo Credit: New England Patriots / David Silverman

His New England Patriots, perennial contenders and Lombardi Trophy hoarders, are proof that the NFL is not a fairy tale of fairness, that success can be cultivated and institutionalized, carried forth from year to year despite the league’s measures to prevent exactly that. Other professional sports leagues celebrate their dynasties—the NBA with the Jordan-era Bulls, MLB with the turn-of-the-millennium Yankees—but the NFL abhors them, at least where the Patriots are concerned. And each year, each postseason when it’s those damn Patriots again, the roots of dominance go down a little bit deeper and the NFL gets a little more rankled. How can you tell Jets fans that their team has an equal shot when the evidence to the contrary is so painfully obvious?

So here we are, on the eve of what should be a celebratory season opener that’s instead soured by arguments, accusations and depositions over who knew what and when about air pressure in footballs. The only thing everyone agrees on is that football inflation, or lack thereof, had no effect whatsoever on the Patriots’ decimation of the Indianapolis Colts in last season’s AFC title game. Nonetheless, the NFL has tirelessly investigated, reinvestigated and aired grandiose accusations against the Patriots, Tom Brady, the equipment managers and possibly the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, which may or may not have furnished the Patriots with illegal proprietary information about barometric pressure. We made that last part up—but at this point would you be surprised?

You’ve got to look at it this way: The campaign against Brady was nonsense, a blatant smear job designed to draw attention away from the NFL’s real problems—concussions, bankrupt ex-players, domestic violence and major oopsies with fireworks (yes, Brady might jump off a cliff now and then, but at least he still had all his fingers on July 5). If Brady sits, then one of those games might’ve been the one where Bernard Pollard came in with a hit to the knee. As Roger Goodell says, “We create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.” Actually, Karl Rove said that. But the point holds: The alternate reality set in motion by Goodell’s petty tyranny might actually benefit the Patriots, bestowing advantage by omission. And on top of that—four fewer games of wear and tear for No. 12—the entire organization, which might otherwise succumb to a little bit of self-satisfaction, is now on fire to prove itself all over again. Capt. Goodell, tipsy on power, just ran aground at Gillette with a supertanker full of outrage fuel.At the time of this writing, there is still no resolution in Brady vs. Commissioner Dumdum, but the good news is that the outcome makes no difference to the Patriots’ chances. If Brady’s suspension gets thrown out, then the playoffs are a lock. If Brady ends up serving his unjust sentence, then he comes back Week 6, rested and indignant, facing none other than the Indianapolis Colts. He might pump the balls up to 20 pounds per square inch and throw for eight touchdowns just to make a point. And if Jimmy Garoppolo steers the good ship Patriot to a 2-2 record in the first four games—let’s assume wins against the Bills and Jaguars—then no harm done.

OK, enough negativity. They won the Super Bowl! Malcolm Butler, chumps. Number four. And, if we may remind you, that outcome was predicted right here last summer in our 2014 Pats Preview. We trust you put money on it. We won’t be so bold this time around—not because the team has any glaring deficiencies but because we’re worried that Roger Goodell might suspend Brady for suspected involvement in the Gardner Museum art heist or the North End Brink’s robbery. Where was Tom Brady during the Great Molasses Flood?

Now, let’s take a look at how our dastardly villainous heels will fare this season. There are other stories besides Deflategate, you know. Such as…

Scott Chandler: The new Aaron Hernandez, or the new Zach Sudfeld?

Photo Credit: New England Patriots / David Silverman

And by “new Aaron Hernandez,” we mean in terms of “talented tight end threat who complements Gronk,” and not “inked-up psychopath serving a life sentence for murder.” Ever since Hernandez signed his long-term contract with the MCI-Shirley Souza-Baranowski Correctional Facility, Pats fans have wondered if the team could find another tight end to take the heat off Rob Gronkowski and give Brady another target in the end zone. Two years ago, we thought Zach Sudfeld might be that guy, but his August dominance didn’t carry over to the regular season, and the Pats released him by October. Given that history, we want to moderate our expectations for Chandler, but look at the guy: He is 6 feet 7 inches tall, 260 pounds and has hands so soft he must’ve soaked them in Palmolive. As long as Gronk doesn’t make him party-rock too hard, we have high hopes. Chandler’s always had decent numbers, but he’s never had a Gronk to distract defenders. If Chandler sticks, an 800-yard season is definitely on the table. Do we hear 1,000?

Shaq Attack: Rookie Shaq Mason.

Photo Credit: New England Patriots / David Silverman

Georgia Tech ran the ball about 80 percent of the time, so it figures that rookie guard Shaq Mason might need a little work on his pass protection. But as an athletic, beastly run blocker, the consensus is that Mason will start in the NFL sooner or later. And the way things are going this preseason, it might be much sooner. If he can round out his skillset, Shaq is a guy who will make New England’s running backs look very, very good.

LeGarrette Blount: What’s in a Name?

Photo Credit: New England Patriots / Jim Mahoney

The Pats’ presumed starting running back is suspended for the first game. Last summer, Blount was in a car with then-teammate Le’Veon Bell when a traffic stop turned up three-quarters of an ounce of kind dank kush. It wasn’t Blount’s—Hey, maybe it wasn’t Bell’s! It was a setup!—but the Patriots running back is nonetheless suspended for the first game of the season. Then again, so is Bell, so when the Pats meet the Steelers on Sept. 10 to kick off the season, both teams will have their cheeba-toting RBs on the bench. Missing the game, by the way, will cost Blount $54,935 in pay. That’s an expensive bag of weed.

The Fluke: Maybe Not a Fluke?

Blount’s absence in Week 1 might open the door for Jonas Gray. Remember him? Gray was the obligatory Out of Nowhere Rookie RB who started last season on the practice squad. In October he made it onto the regular roster, and on one memorable day in November he rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns in a game against the Colts, earning AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. The dude was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Everyone with a fantasy team rushed to grab him off waivers. And what happened next? Surely he became the Patriots’ featured running back, accruing yards and glory en route to the Super Bowl. Well, no. He overslept, showed up late to a practice and never again figured prominently in Belichick’s offensive playbook.

But, remember, the backup backup running back can drop 200 yards on you. If he gets a chance to play. We’ll see.

Revis Revisits Regional Rival: Rental Returned

On the face of it, losing cornerback Darrelle Revis to free agency is a tough blow. Revis, after all, is famous! He has a nickname! And now, thanks to the Jets, Revis Island can serve as both his Twitter handle and the name of the actual island that he could buy with his new money.

But fear not, Patriots fans. Last year Revis and fellow cornerback Logan Ryan had pretty similar stats—Revis combined for 47 total tackles to Ryan’s 42, and they each recorded two interceptions. Ryan, the Pats’ third-round pick in the 2013 draft, will make just about $600,000 this year. Revis will cost the Jets a little bit more: $16 million. And this, friends, is why the Jets stink. According to a new stat we just made up, CPTOR (cost per tackle over replacement), each of Revis’ extra tackles will cost the Jets about $3 million. And that’s assuming that his numbers hold up, which is a big assumption for a 30-year-old NFL player.

Meanwhile, the Patriots still have Malcolm Butler. Does that name ring a bell? Young guy, good under pressure, won the Super Bowl. He’ll make $510,000 this year.

A Wilfork In the Road for the Defense

The Patriots declined to pick up the option on Vince Wilfork’s contract—ensuing declarations of love from both sides underscored that there were no hard feelings—and the legendary nose tackle is now a Texan. We wish we could say the organization has an equally dominant replacement lined up, but there really isn’t one. With the big man gone, the rest of the D will just have to step up its game as there will no longer be Wilfork-shaped holes blasted through opposing offensive lines.

The 54th Player: The Schedule

You don’t want to get complacent and start marking off wins before a ball is even snapped, but the Patriots’ 2015 schedule looks pretty tasty. Aside from the Steelers, Broncos and Colts, there are a lot of half-melted M&M’s in the ol’ trail mix. The combined 2014 win percentage for every team on the Pats schedule is .477. Which, you’ll notice, is less than .500. Bring on the losers! No, Roger Goodell, not you—just the Jets, Jaguars and the rest of the regular-season cannon fodder.

The More Things Stay the Same

Around this time each year, the focus is always on what’s different. Where are the holes, and who are the new guys who might address the potential problems? But the Patriots really have a lot of continuity from the team that won the Super Bowl. Brady is still throwing to Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and Gronkowski. Blount and Brandon Bolden are still running the ball. Aside from Wilfork, both lines return a lot of familiar (and talented) players: Bryan Stork, Sebastian Vollmer, Rob Ninkovich, Nate Solder. There haven’t been any blockbuster, Randy Moss-style acquisitions in the offseason, and why would there be? This isn’t exactly the same team that took down the Seahawks, but it’s mighty close. And you know that somewhere on the roster there lurks a Butler-like sleeper, someone whose name we don’t yet know, but who’ll emerge next January—or maybe February—to save the day and affirm Belichick’s ability to find talent where others see chaff for the waiver wire.

When the Patriots hoist the newest championship banner, savor the moment. Think about how close we were to watching Marshawn Lynch march into the end zone. And then sit back and enjoy the next four months as the league’s only undisputed dynasty gets to work on the drive for number five.

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