Last season was a rude awakening for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
They discovered the unpleasant realities of the first year of the post-Tom Brady era. As the Patriots stumbled to a 7-9 finish and had the rare experience of watching the playoffs, Brady, in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was on his way to winning a seventh Super Bowl and a fifth Super Bowl MVP award.
The performance of the Patriots' new quarterback, Cam Newton, only made Brady's absence more pronounced. Though the Pats intend to stick with Newton as the starter and have reason to believe he'll play better with the help of a stronger supporting cast, they have what they hope is their long-term QB in first-round draft pick Mac Jones.
The plan is to have Jones watch and learn. Does that mean the Patriots must have more patience in waiting for when they can return to anything approaching the glory of the Brady-led dynasty? Perhaps.
But there's a reasonable chance Newton will benefit from what he didn't have in 2020: an offseason of in-person workouts, a second training camp and full season in the Patriots' offensive system.
Newton told ESPN Radio's Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin show that this is a "put up or shut up" season for him.
"I don't want to get so caught up in promises and things like that, but I can guarantee you that there's been a shift in comfort of knowing more," Newton said. "And I think that's added value in itself."
He'll also have an upgraded corps of receivers at his disposal after the free-agent acquisitions of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry and wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.
Key additions: Free agency, TE Jonnu Smith (Tennessee), TE Hunter Henry (Chargers), WR Nelson Agholor (Las Vegas), WR Kendrick Bourne (San Francisco), LB Kyle Van Noy (Miami), LB Matt Judon (Baltimore), DL Davon Godchaux (Miami), DL Henry Anderson (Jets), DL Montravius Adams (Green Bay). Draft, QB Mac Jones (first round, Alabama), DL Christian Barmore (second round, Alabama), DL Ronnie Perkins (third round, Oklahoma).
Key subtractions: WR Julian Edelman (retired), CB Jason McCourty (Dolphins), G Joe Thuney (Chiefs).
Games against Bills: Dec. 6 at Highmark Stadium; Dec. 26 at Gillette Stadium.
Schedule overview: The biggest early challenge is when the Patriots face New Orleans and Tampa Bay in consecutive games in October. The biggest late challenge is facing the Bills twice in a three-game span, sandwiching a game at Indianapolis.
What to expect on offense: Newton should prosper from having a more thorough understanding of the Patriots' offensive scheme and greater chemistry with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and the rest of the coaches.
Smith and Henry should present a formidable challenge for opponents as the Patriots look to get back to attacking the middle of the field the way they did when they had Rob Gronkowski at tight end. If it works as planned, Newton should be able to use his powerful arm to take advantage of Agholor, Bourne and other outside targets.
Replacing Edelman is still a priority, and the Patriots have solid candidates in Jakobi Meyers, who did some slot work in 2020. Gunner Olszewski should be able to handle more responsibility in the role, and the Pats could have an additional candidate in rookie Tre Nixon.
The Patriots have the makings of a strong running game. If Sony Michel can rebound from two seasons in which he was slowed by injuries, he should be a good complement to speedy Damien Harris. James White also has the talent to make his presence felt as a runner, but his receiving skills rank among the best of any back in the NFL.
New England's offensive line is another strength. One of the team's best offseason moves was retaining center David Andrews, who has both considerable physical talent and the intelligence and savvy to make the right calls in pass protection.
What to expect on defense: The Patriots made significant changes on offense. They essentially remade their defense.
The Pats acquired two new starting defensive linemen in free agency, Godchaux and Anderson. They join Lawrence Guy, who the Patriots re-signed.
They added a pair of linebackers in free agency: Judon and Van Noy, who returned to New England after spending last season in Miami.
There's a major question mark at one cornerback spot with Stephon Gilmore, who is seeking a substantial pay raise.
The Patriots still have one of the NFL's top safeties in Devin McCourty. They're expecting big things from highly physical Kyle Dugger in his second season.
What it all means: The Patriots might not have what it takes to dethrone the Bills as AFC East champions. However, presuming Newton steps up his play from a year ago, they've seemingly made enough improvements on both sides of the ball to win a couple of more games.