Don't understate it: Four more games with Tom Brady change the season

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

You could trust history all you wanted. In 2008, of course, the New England Patriots found a way to win 11 games with Matt Cassel as their starting quarterback.

You could trust the early reports on 2015 backup Jimmy Garoppolo, who has produced some hopeful moments during extensive preseason action. (He has a 92.4 passer rating in 80 attempts over three games.)

But let's face it. Projecting the Patriots without Tom Brady in their first four games was nothing but guesswork. If you accept that the Bill Belichick era has been about a collection of well-chosen parts surrounding and powered by a future Hall of Fame quarterback, you know it was possible that the Patriots' 2015 Super Bowl hopes could have been scuttled before Brady made it onto the field.

The ruling on Thursday by U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman, who overturned Brady's four-game suspension, might have been a seminal moment in NFL history. But for the Patriots, it was much more concrete. The Patriots are now genuine championship contenders, with no debate, a team that has no reason to fear an inorganically driven poor start. In a matter of moments Thursday morning, odds for the Patriots to win the Super Bowl dropped from 12-1 to 9-1, according to William Hill US.

The Patriots' first four games include two against championship-caliber teams: Week 1 at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Week 4 at the Dallas Cowboys. In Week 2, the Patriots play at Rex Ryan's Buffalo Bills, and in Week 3 there's a home date with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

What was a reasonable outcome for that grouping of games with Garoppolo at quarterback? Betting lines had the Patriots as slight favorites over the Steelers, heavier favorites over the Jaguars and significant underdogs to the Bills and Cowboys. A 2-2 record was possible, but given the uncertainty, there really was no telling.

Regardless, recent history would have been working against the Pats. Since 1990, only 36 percent of NFL teams that start the season 2-2 have advanced to the playoffs. (The 2014 Patriots beat those odds.) A 1-3 start means a 14 percent chance of a postseason berth, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The news of Brady's return more than doubled the line for their game against the Steelers, from three points to 6.5, and the over/under moved from 48.5 points to 51 points. The Pats will likely be favorites over the Bills and Jaguars, as well, while the Cowboys game could be even odds.

And that's how it should be. With Brady at quarterback, this team has nothing holding it back.