Is this NFL analyst's prediction about 2021 Patriots too bold? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Remember when the Patriots lost four of their first six games, leading to talk of New England potentially landing a top-10 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft?
Well, the tank is off in Foxboro -- and sentiment around the team has swung wildly in the other direction.
The morning after the Patriots' third consecutive win Sunday -- a 24-6 defeat of the Carolina Panthers that moved New England to 5-4 -- former NFL safety Ryan Clark shared quite the take on ESPN's "Get Up!"
"The Patriots are going to mess around and get in the Super Bowl," Clark said Monday.
Really, Ryan? After wins over the New York Jets, Los Angeles Chargers and Panthers?
Here's Clark's explanation:
"This is everything that we thought they'd be. We thought they'd be really good on defense. We thought they added some pieces in free agency to make the offense flow a little bit better for who at the time we thought was going to be Cam Newton. .. Guess what? The guy who's quarterbacking this team (Mac Jones) is actually more efficient than we've ever seen Cam be.
"... You have a defense that is now playing Bill Belichick-level defense: turning the football over, pressuring the quarterback, being physical. And you have a multitude of runners. At the end of the season, we're going to look up and be like, 'Oh, the AFC goes through Foxboro.'"
The Patriots' defense has been phenomenal of late, forcing eight turnovers over its last three games. And while Jones has put up mostly pedestrian passing numbers, New England's four-headed running attack of Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, Brandon Bolden and J.J. Taylor has topped 140 rushing yards in each of those three games.
Defense and a strong running game carried the Patriots to a Super Bowl title in 2018. Could they make a similar deep playoff run in 2021 even without Tom Brady running the show?
Former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan reluctantly agreed with Clark that New England is a serious threat in the AFC.
"I wanted them to spend all this money and still stink," Ryan said. "Their dang defense is playing great. The young quarterback throws with timing and anticipation. He could have had three turnovers in that game (against Carolina) also, so let's not put him in the Hall of Fame just yet. ... I think Matt Judon was the best free-agent signing in the entire NFL. Hunter Henry is showing up too. It just disgusts me."
It's a bit too early to declare the Patriots Super Bowl contenders just yet. Four of their next five games are against teams with winning records -- the Cleveland Browns, the AFC-leading Tennessee Titans and the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills twice -- so they'll need to prove they're not just beating up on mediocre competition.
But Belichick's club has caught the NFL's attention with its recent play, and if the Patriots emerge from this five-game stretch with a winning record, it will be time to take them very seriously.