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Tom Brady is back, but there are 3 things the Patriots still have to worry about

Brady’s return doesn’t guarantee the Patriots a trip to the AFC Championship.

NFL: Preaseason-New England Patriots at New York Giants Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The Tom Brady Revenge Tour will make its first stop in Cleveland on Sunday. The New England Patriots opened as a 10-point favorite over the lowly Browns and are expected to roll all the way to the AFC Championship. But while the DeflateGate saga has been nearing its merciful conclusion, some concerns that have nothing to do with Brady have popped up over the last month — including one trend that goes back to last season.

Winning three of four games without Brady is a remarkable accomplishment for the Patriots. Though Bill Belichick is a four-time Super Bowl champion, one of his greatest coaching achievements may have been New England’s Week 3 shutout win over the Houston Texans. With a third-string rookie quarterback — Jimmy Garoppolo was out with a shoulder injury — and just three days to devise a game plan, the Patriots embarrassed one of the best teams in the AFC. The Texans fumbled two kickoffs and didn’t even cross midfield until 1:35 was left in the third quarter. It was a complete whooping.

But last week against Buffalo, the Patriots came crashing back down to earth. Jacoby Brissett started his second consecutive game and looked, well, like a rookie third-stringer. His lackluster performance combined with a penalty-ridden effort and soft defense paved the way for “Walt Patulski’s” Bills to shut out the Patriots at home for the first time since 1993.

With one loss now in the books, the Patriots’ road to the No. 1 seed in the AFC looks tougher. The Denver Broncos are currently 4-0 and don’t look like they’re about to go on a slide anytime soon. In Week 15, New England travels to Denver, where Brady has a 2-7 career record. With the possibility of a head-to-head loss to the Broncos, the Patriots should operate like they’re already two games off the lead.

The other top contender in the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers, will host the Patriots in two weeks. Ben Roethlisberger could have a field day with a pass defense that’s in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed.

There’s little doubt the Patriots will win their eighth straight AFC East win this season. But Brady’s return doesn’t guarantee them another trip to the Super Bowl.

1) What’s up with Gronk?

Rob Gronkowski says he can’t even go to the grocery store without getting harassed about his lackluster fantasy stats. He’s only caught one pass in two games this season and admits he’s been hampered by a hamstring injury he suffered during training camp.

After missing the first two games of the season, Gronkowski took the field for just 14 snaps against Houston. He played 39 snaps last Sunday, but wasn’t a part of the offense.

Gronkowski says he’s getting better each week, but every injury is a concern given his history. His extensive injury history at the University of Arizona — he missed his entire junior season due to back surgery — is the reason he fell to the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

He’s also been under the knife several times during his six-year career. Gronkowski had ankle surgery following Super Bowl 46 and later that year, he broke his left arm twice. But that paled in comparison to the following year, where he had four forearm procedures and one back operation, keeping him sidelined until Week 7 of the 2013 season.

Since then, Gronkowski has been relatively healthy — he missed two games with a knee strain in 2015. But with a track record like that, Gronkowski’s hamstring should be watched the rest of the way.

2) Underwhelming defense

Heading into the season, the Patriots’ defense was expected to be one of the best in the league. But that hasn’t been the case.

Through four weeks, the Patriots are ranked in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed (19th) and have also struggled on third down. They’ve allowed their opponents to convert third downs 46 percent of the time, third-most in the NFL.

The Patriots have surrendered the fourth-fewest points, so the defense probably won’t be a fatal flaw. But it seems as if they’re back to playing a softer prevent style of defense, which was largely their strategy for a six-year stretch from 2008-13.

The biggest reason for this apparent underachievement are linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. Neither of them has taken the expected step forward during contract years — especially Hightower, who’s missed two games this season with a partial tear in his meniscus. A returning Rob Ninkovich could help them out, but Hightower and Collins need to step up.

3) Weird Bill Belichick decisions

The Patriots lost three of their last five games to close out last season, and some wacky decisions from Belichick were partially to blame. In Week 12 against the Philadelphia Eagles, safety and rugby star Nate Ebner inexplicably dropkicked the football after the Patriots had extended their lead to 14 points. The play misfired and sparked an Eagles comeback.

A few weeks later, Belichick outsmarted himself when he opted to defer instead of receive at the start of overtime against the New York Jets. Wide receiver Eric Decker scored a touchdown on the Jets’ first possession to win the game.

The Week 17 loss to the Miami Dolphins, which took the Patriots out of the running for the No. 1 seed, featured a game plan that seemed to come out of 1947. Brady only threw the ball 21 times and mustered a mere 10 points.

Injuries to Julian Edelman and several starters on the offensive line played into the Patriots’ late season slide, too. But those were all winnable games that appeared to turn on a puzzling Belichick decision.

If Brissett re-aggravated his thumb injury against the Bills last week, Edelman would’ve played the rest of the game at quarterback, since the Patriots didn’t bring in a veteran backup while Garoppolo was out. That would’ve been a terrible look and been the perfect cap on an afternoon in which the Patriots were completely outplayed. It’s not often that a Belichick-coached team racks up nine penalties and appears to be entirely unprepared.

Belichick’s fearlessness is one of the reasons why he’s so great. But as of late, his gutsiest and questionable calls have been rather foolish.