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Patriots have one glaring weakness

The New England Patriots are utterly dominant. They have been to each of the last AFC Championship Games and won three of them. New England has won five Super Bowls since 2001, including last year’s overtime thriller over the Atlanta Falcons, which featured a 25-point comeback with less than 20 minutes remaining in regulation.

In the offseason, Bill Belichick actually strengthened his roster. The Patriots were expected to be relatively quiet throughout the free agency period, but bucked all notions of that with trades to acquire wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and defensive end Kony Ealy. In addition, New England was able to retain middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower while signing corner Stephon Gilmore, stealing him away from the Buffalo Bills.

However, there were some quiet losses. Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard, both pillars of the defensive line last year, left for the Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts, respectively. New England also saw edge-rusher Rob Ninkovich retire, leaving another hole to be filled.

In that vein, the Patriots used their first pick in the 2017 draft to select Derek Rivers, a defensive end out of Youngstown State. Unfortunately, Rivers now appears lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered in practice on Wednesday during a special teams drill. Without their prized rookie, the Patriots have real concerns about who is going to be getting after the quarterback.

Last year, New England racked up 34 regular-season sacks, ranking 16th. Yet the combination of Sheard, Ninkovich and Long totaled 13 of them. Ealy only accounted for five with the Carolina Panthers in 2016, equaling the production of Sheard.

So what does it all mean? It means that Trey Flowers should be a force off the edge as he builds off a seven-sack season. Other than him, New England has nobody to rely on.

The Patriots will be fine against most teams. The offense will be rolling and able to score 35 points with ease when need be. Tom Brady will throw his 40 touchdowns and, if healthy, Rob Gronkowski will go for 1,200 yards and 12 scores. Cooks will run up and down the field while Julian Edelman quietly has another 1,000-yard campaign.

But when the playoffs begin, New England could see its Achilles heel pop up. The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the best offenses in the league, and could find themselves with plenty of time to throw to Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant in Foxboro. While not nearly as prolific, the Kansas City Chiefs could become a problem with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce having ample time to get open. Factor in Kansas City’s punishing defense, and it could be enough to topple the Patriots.

Make no mistake, New England is still the best team in football. Still, suddenly, there is a real weakness to exploit.

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