The 2022 season is probably the most unpredictable year the Patriots will have yet had since Tom Brady left the team three years ago. Not surprisingly, league executives apparently aren't high on where they'll end up.
Via The Athletic's Mike Sando, five veteran NFL executives came together to rank the Patriots 11th out of the 16 teams in the conference.
Two of the anonymous executives had the Patriots as a potential wildcard team, ranking them fifth and sixth in the AFC, respectively. But the rest put the Patriots at 11 or below relative to the rest of the conference, with the floor being 13th.
For perspective, the division rival Buffalo Bills were voted the best team in the AFC, receiving three first-place votes and ranking no lower than third. The Kansas City Chiefs came next, followed by the Baltimore Ravens.
The Miami Dolphins, who have revamped their team with free-agent additions like Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead, ranked just ahead of the Patriots at No. 10. The New York Jets ranked second-to-last.
The team's success hinges heavily on offensive success, which has been hard to come by during training camp.
"The O-line is average, but if their running game can get off to a hot start and stay hot, they have a chance," one exec said. "If the running game is lukewarm, there could be issues where you put a lot on the quarterback's plate."
A new offensive system and questions marks on the offensive coaching staff have raised questions about what to expect from quarterback Mac Jones and a good-but-not-great supporting cast in 2022.
But in the eyes of the executive who ranked the Patriots fifth, Bill Belichick will ultimately be the reason the squad surpasses expectations.
"I probably believe in Mac Jones a lot more than most — I am probably too high on them," said the voter. "I basically look at them as a team that could sneak into the playoffs, anywhere from 7-10 wins. People are getting all caught up in the offense looking bad this summer. Bill Belichick is a really good coach. I'm less concerned about that."
Regardless of what happens with the Patriots, the hard truth remains that one of the best teams in football -- arguably the best -- is in their division and might well win the AFC East for a third-straight season.
Then, of course, actually finishing as the 11th-best team would be a heavy disappointment even for those who don't expect New England to be a Super Bowl contender in 2022.
But perhaps with a little Belichick magic, the Patriots can outplay their expectations for a second year in a row at the very least.