1923...
TGS 2012 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW... NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The Giants...again!

Indeed, if not for the G-Men, we would probably be hailing the New England Patriots? past decade alongside the 1960s Green Bay Packers as the best in pro football annals. As it is, the Pats have still won three Super Bowls since the 2001 season, not too shabby. But a pair of last-minute Super Bowl defeats to the Giants, four-and-a-half years ago in Glendale, AZ and then last February at Indianapolis, have prevented New England from making a claim as maybe enjoying the greatest era in modern NFL annals.

In retrospect, we suspect HC Bill Belichick did one of his better coaching jobs (which is saying something) with last year?s team that had nowhere near the defense of past Patriot Super Bowl entries. Yet Belichick was able to camouflage enough of those deficiencies to get New England within a minute of yet another Super Bowl win.

In that game against the Giants, the Patriots also came close despite not having much of a downfield passing threat. Throwing mostly short, and without a completion longer than 21 yards all game, QB Tom Brady still nearly engineered the win after recording one of the great statistical seasons of his decorated career.

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In the aftermath, it was probably fair to wonder if Brady will ever get another shot in the "Supe" as he?s now 35 years of age. It had been four years since Brady's last chance in the big game, and it is now going on eight years since New England's last Super Bowl win when the the 2012 campaign commences next month. But the Patriots are still among the favorites in the AFC, which ironically has sent only three sides (New England, Pittsburgh, and Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis) to the Super Bowl over the past nine seasons.

And master tactician Belichick seems to have lost little of his sorcery, able as he was to blood many new faces into last season's defense, and apparently upgrading the stop unit and strike force where needed in the offseason.

Yet for all of the points (a whopping 513!) the Patriots scored last season, the offense was still not as scary as it was during New England?s previous Super Bowl trip in the undefeated regular-season campaign of 2007, when Randy Moss was still able to provide Brady with a deep-threat wideout. Belichick thinks he might have upgraded the long-ball threat in free agency, which a year ago might have provided the extra edge needed to get over the Giants hump in the Super Bowl. More on those roster additions in a moment.

As for Belichick, though his credentials remain unimpeachable, he remains one of the least endearing characters in pro football annals, a joyless sort along the lines of Alabama HC Nick Saban. As brilliant a coach as Belichick might be, we are not surprised by the disdain may football fans have of the Patriots, becasue "The Hoodie" hardly makes his job look like much fun.

Another Super Bowl win, however, qualifies Belichick as one of the immortal coaches in NFL history, as well as putting QB Brady in a very select pantheon of pro football signal-callers. And Las Vegas wagering outlets suspect Belichick ought to be right in the middle of things as usual this fall, with New England?s season-win total listed mostly at 12 ½.

The Patriots are also prohibitive 1/4 choices at most Nevada sports books to again win the AFC East, and a 16/5 favorite to take the AFC title and return to the Super Bowl. They?re also priced at 6/1 to win the Super Bowl, co-favorites along with Green Bay to snare the crown.

Though Brady is not quite the same physically as he was in the Super Bowl win years, he remains a force, and until further notice the Patriots remain a viable Super Bowl contender as long as he stays in the fold. But offense is not likely to be a reason the Patriots might miss that elusive fourth Vince Lombardi Trophy this fall.

Instead, it?s Belichick?s own stop unit that likely determines whether the Patriots get back to the ?Supe? on February 3 at the Superdome in New Orleans, where Belichick won his first title almost 11 years prior to the day.

Familiar Patriots defensive stalwarts such as Richard Seymour and Tedy Bruschi were long gone from the lineup last fall when Belichick went into a serious rebuild mode with his ?D? that was trying to fit in several newcomers on the fly. New England was strafed repeatedly during this adjustment phase, but fortunately had Brady and a potent offense that was capable of trading points in any shootouts.

When the dust finally cleared last fall, the Patriots ranked 31st (or second-worst) in total defense; the fact Belichick could steer his team so close to another Super Bowl win despite such shortcomings still amazes. Pass defense was particularly soft, allowing an AFC-worst 294 ypg.

Belichick, sensing upgrades were badly needed on the stop unit, practically disdained offense in last April?s NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall. The Patriots went defense-defense-defense-defense-defense-defense-defense with their first six picks, even trading up (from 27th to 21st slot in the first round) to have a chance to take Syracuse DE Chandler Jones (right) with their top pick.

Belichick kept adding defensive parts after grabbing Jones, with Alabama ILB Dont?a Hightower taken four picks later in the first round, and Illinois CB Tavon Wilson nabbed with the 48th overall selection. Safe to say that Belichick was drafting for need in April.

The addition of DE Jones is significant because one of the key offseason losses through free agency was DE Mark Anderson, who signed with the division-rival Bills after recording a healthy 10 sacks a year ago. Along with Hightower, Jones has already been penciled in as one of two likely rookie starters on Belichick?s 2012 defense.

Although Jones could become a fixture at DE, Belichick is likely to continue rotating other positions along the DL aside brutish DT Vince Wilfork (left), who was the one constant in the defensive front last season. Belichick?s multiple defensive looks switch between 3-4 and 4-3 alignments, and constant substitution became a pattern a year ago. Expect more of the same this fall.

While the defense struggled as a whole in 2011, WLB Jerod Mayo (right) certainly did not, emerging as the key element of the platoon and subsequently rewarded with a $50 million contract. The versatile Mayo plays on the inside in Belichick?s 3-4 versions but transitions to the ?Will? role when the Pats opt for 4-3 looks.

Though Mayo is a constant force, Belichick has not received that sort of consistency from the rest of his LBs. In particular, 3rd-year Brandon Spikes is reaching a crossroads after having trouble staying healthy the past two years and often performing erratically when on the field. At his best, however, he dominates, form in which Belichick hopes will be featured more often this fall.

The secondary also remains in flux, especially if 3rd-year CB Devin McCourty can?t rediscover the Pro Bowl form of his rookie season in 2010. McCourty was mostly abysmal last fall, prompting Belichick to even move him to safety at times late last season. If McCourty can?t bounce back this fall, Belichick?s secondary will again lack a coverage leader, consequences of which could be dangerous if the Pats again rank at the bottom of AFC pass defense stats.

We have spent most of this space wondering about what might happen defensively because we have little concern about the New England strike force, despite the fact o.c. Bill O?Brien has left Foxborough for Penn State. That?s mostly because of the presence of Brady, but also partly because new o.c. Josh McDaniels is also the old New England o.c., having served in that capacity during the record-breaking 2007 campaign when developing an easy working relationship with Brady.

Though McDaniels? head coaching adventure in Denver didn?t go well, and was stuck in a tough situation last season in St. Louis, his skills seem to mesh with the role Belichick has granted him once more.

Maybe it simply doesn?t make too much difference who is coordinating the Patriots? offense as long as QB Brady is still around. Tom Terrific has hardly given signs that he is on the downside of his career; last year Brady passed for a personal-best 5235 yards, one of the best seasons in NFL history, and added a whopping 39 TD passes. His 105.9 rating in 2011 was the third-best of his career, which hardly suggest he might be slipping.

Other than his fastball losing a little bit of zip in recent years, and his mobility not quite as good as earlier in his career, Brady has made up for those slight downgrades with experience and mechanical improvements, including a better feel for sliding within the pocket and avoiding danger. Brady will never be RG III, but has at least developed a better sense of avoiding pressure, if only for an extra split-second, than earlier in his career.

The most-significant issue on the attack end is what the Patriots are going to do about their ground game. Although mastering a short-pass mode of attack that effectively took the place of an infantry diversion last fall, New England is lacking an established power back to gouge out the tough yards that departed Benjarvus Green-Ellis (who moved to the Bengals in free agency) used to provide. The 1-2 RB combo of Stevan Ridley (right) and Danny Woodhead hardly offers that sort of dimension; there is an opening for a variety of fullback-types to carve out a short-yardage niche in the backfield, and sources say that ex-Navy banger Eric Kettani, released early from his service commitments, looms as an interesting alternative.

Still, Brady?s ability to throw short and accurate somewhat lessens the need for a top-notch infantry diversion. Developing great rapport with TEs Rob Gronkowski (left, vs. the Ravens in the AFC championship game) and Aaron Hernandez (employed as a H-back at times late last season, and even carrying the ball a few times in that role) became the core of last season?s prolific offense.

And how! Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for a staggering 169 catches last fall with 24 TDs between them (17 by Gronkowski). No NFL team comes close to using the tight ends as effectively as New England.

There were some offseason distractions in the wide receiver ranks, however, as the productive Wes Welker (who led NFL receivers for the third time in five years last fall with his astounding 122 catches) was involved in a contract dispute and entered training camp in a disgruntled mood after being slapped with the franchise player tag. But the Pats enlisted WR reinforcements in the offseason, where the once-productive ex-Bronco and Ram Brandon Lloyd and ex-Redskin Jabar Gaffney were added to the receiving corps and could help with the deep threat that was mostly absent a year ago and bit the Pats in the Super Bowl.

The key development on the offensive line front will be to see how 2nd-year Nate Solder handles the switch from the right tackle spot to the left side, where he replaces the retired Matt Light, who protected Brady?s backside for the past decade. We also suggest keeping an eye on developments regarding both guard spots, where returning starters Brian Waters (contract dispute and still out of camp as of the first week in August) and Logan Mankins (still rehabbing from ACL surgery) are not currently available, though most AFC East sources believe both could be in the lineup for the September 9 regular-season opener at Tennessee.

Meanwhile, special teams remain mostly solid, with Stephen Gostkowski havign emerged as one of the most-reliable PKs in the business, and Julian Edelman a punt return threat. There will be summer auditions for kick returners, however, as that was one area in which the Pats' STs struggled a year ago.

Interestingly, Belichick?s troops have emerged as the NFL?s premier "over" team the past couple of seasons; they?re "over" a staggering 26-8 since 2010, confirming both a defensive downturn and more proficiency from Brady and the strike force.

New England has also offered better spread value as a visitor (11-5 vs. line) the past two years than at Gillette Stadium, where the Pats have been only .500 vs. the number the past two years.

Summary...With AFC East foes in various stages of repair, it would be a stunner if Belichick didn?t once again dominate his division and get back to what would be New England?s tenth playoff appearance in twelve seasons. But success in Foxborough is measured by Super Bowls. And if Belichick?s new defensive additions make it easier for the master to scheme his stop unit combinations as he has been able to do with his better New England defenses in the past, and Brady overcomes the apparent shortcomings within the infantry, the Patriots have a good chance to return to another Super Bowl...and perhaps win it all for the first time in eight years ago.

If, that is, they don?t run into the Giants again.


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