The Patriots no longer have Tom Brady, but they do still have Bill Belichick, and that should be enough prevent the team from becoming a noncontender. AP

These are strange days for the New England Patriots.

For the first time in two decades, they’re not considered the clear-cut favorite in the AFC East. With Tom Brady and suddenly unretired Rob Gronkowski now in Tampa Bay – the greatest quarterback and tight end you will ever see – many people think the Patriots’ dynasty is finally over. At least that’s what 57 percent of the respondents in a national poll said back in January. And that was before Brady and other New England free agents left in the offseason.

Eleven consecutive AFC East titles? Nine Super Bowl appearances in the last 20 years, six Super Bowl championships? Doesn’t matter anymore.

Nope, in 2020, the Patriots are just another team. Forget about chasing the Kansas City Chiefs for AFC supremacy, they’ll be chasing the Buffalo Bills, maybe even the Miami Dolphins, in their own division.

To this, I say, hold on.

These are, remember, the New England Patriots, led by Bill Belichick, the greatest coach in NFL history.

Certainly there is more angst among Patriots fans this offseason than ever before. Heck, you don’t let the GOAT walk and not have fans wondering what the heck is going on.

New England also lost several key players from a defense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL last year, with Miami and Detroit reaping the benefits. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy (Miami), Jamie Collins (Detroit) and Elandon Roberts (Miami) left as free agents, as did defensive tackle Danny Shelton (Detroit). Safety Duron Harmon was traded to Detroit. Special teams ace Nate Ebner left as well, for the New York Giants. Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was released.

Their own free-agent signings were not exactly inspiring. But this is how the Patriots do their business. Every year they lose popular free agents to other teams, then rebuild. Last year, it was defensive lineman Trey Flowers and left tackle Trent Brown; the year before, wide receiver Danny Amendola, tackle Nate Solder, running back Dion Lewis and cornerback Malcolm Butler. Sentiment? That’s not a valued commodity at Gillette Stadium.

No single player, not even Brady, is above the team-building process. The Patriots have always won because the 51st, 52nd and 53rd players on their rosters have been better than the 51st, 52nd and 53rd on their opponent’s roster.

They’ve always won because they’ve been better prepared than their opponents, going over every possible scenario in practice leading up to a game. They practice in the rain, in the snow, in the wind, in the broiling sun, because weather is always a factor in an NFL game played outside. They prepare for the unexpected, and study the minute details of their opponents.

They never panic. Yes, Brady led many of the great comebacks and last-second wins throughout the years. But he wasn’t the only one making plays. A fumble would be forced, maybe by Dont’a Hightower. Some previously unknown kid would step onto the national scene – hello Malcolm Butler – and save a championship. A kick would be made – hello Adam Vinatieri – or a pass would be caught – hello Julian Edelman – that defied logic.

Yes, there are many questions to be answered between now and the opening of the NFL season, whenever that may be. And yes, 2020 will be a referendum on Bill Belichick. Is he really that good? Or did he pile up wins simply because he had a certain somebody at quarterback?

Alabama linebacker Anfernee Jennings, selected in the third round of the NFL draft, can fill a need for the Patriots as an edge rusher. AP

Fans are hoping that the highlight of this year’s NFL draft is not just the shot of Belichick’s dog, Nike, sitting in Belichick’s chair in front of his laptop.

By not drafting a quarterback, the Patriots essentially gave the keys to the car to young Jarrett Stidham, the second-year player who backed up Brady last year. Brian Hoyer will likely be the backup.

New England got younger and more athletic on defense, two things the Patriots sorely needed to do. Yes, safety Kyle Dugger of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne was a surprise pick at No. 37 (when doesn’t Belichick make one of these picks?), but he was graded by everyone as a second-round pick. He has skills and potential. And he can learn a year from Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.

Michigan’s Josh Uche and Alabama’s Anfernee Jennings provide the young edge rushers New England needed.

The Patriots drafted two tight ends, Devin Asiasi of UCLA and Dalton Keene of Virginia Tech, who have different skills and should aid the passing game. And they picked a desperately needed kicker – they didn’t have one on their roster – although, again, it was a surprise, Justin Rohrwasser of Marshall, who previously played at Rhode Island.

Only time will tell, of course, if any of these work. Belichick is fond of saying that championships aren’t won at the draft, or in OTAs, or in training camp.

Rosters are built, then rebuilt, during the season. And there’s a long way to go before we can even think about an NFL season.

When Gronkowski suggested he would come out of retirement, but only if he could play with Brady (prompting the Patriots to trade him), people took that as a sign that players don’t want to play for Belichick.

We’ve heard that before, remember? In 2003, after the Patriots lost their opener to Buffalo 31-0 – just days after New England cut popular safety Lawyer Milloy and he signed with the Bills – all we heard was that Belichick had lost the locker room.

Somehow, New England went 14-2 and won the second of their six Super Bowl titles.

So relax a bit. Be patient. And remember:

These are the New England Patriots.

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