A potent offense and a young defense that grew a great deal as the season went along propelled the Patriots to yet another AFC East title in 2010, but for the second straight year the team was one-and-done in the postseason, losing to their heated rivals, the Jets.
And it will very likely be the talkative, in-your-face Jets, the opposite of the buttoned-down Pats, who will be standing in New England’s way again this year as the teams battle for divisional supremacy.
Losing to New York left the Patriots frustrated, but they do not look radically different now compared to that January evening. This season, that may be a plus: Bill Belichick has controlled the franchise for over a decade, his coaching staff has largely remained the same for the last few years, and nearly all of their regular starters from last season are expected to remain. In a year without offseason programs, that continuity should work in New England’s favor.
Tom Brady turned 34 in early August, and this year he will be without personal passing guru Tom Martinez, whom he frequently called upon for work on his mechanics. Brady is coming off the second-best statistical season of his career, and he got a measure of comfort with the return of Deion Branch last year. However, as the playoff loss to the Jets showed, New England’s biggest problem offensively is the lack of a vertical threat, something the team didn’t address in the draft. Brandon Tate was expected to step into that role, but he was inconsistent in 2010 and will need to find his stride this year.
Branch and Wes Welker, on the other hand, are consistent and reliable. But Branch is 32, and after a series of leg issues, he isn’t as fast as he once was. He still has an uncanny chemistry with Brady, and that, coupled with a veteran’s savvy, keeps him effective.
Welker will be more than 18 months removed from his torn ACL come September, and though he still pulled in 86 passes last year, he should be more like his pre-injury self this season. Chad Ochocinco was acquired in a trade from Cincinnati in a classic Belichick low-risk, high reward deal. He is no longer an elite receiver, but Ochocinco still caught 67 passes for 831 yards in 2010.
At tight end, Rob Gronkowski became a force in the second half of his rookie season, and the knowledge and confidence he gained will propel him going forward. Aaron Hernandez was slowed by a hip injury that required postseason surgery, but at full strength he is a difficult matchup for defenses and could become a downfield threat.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis — the steady but unspectacular former undrafted free agent who became New England’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2004 — will lead a suddenly young unit that includes versatile cult hero Danny Woodhead and rookies Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
No one was more pleased than Brady when the team re-signed veteran left tackle Matt Light to a new deal. With first-round pick Nate Solder, the left tackle of the future, unsigned at the beginning of training camp, the Patriots got a deal done with Light in an effort to protect their most valuable commodity — their quarterback. Dan Connolly will likely begin the year at right guard after Stephen Neal’s retirement. Connolly has been a solid player the last two years, seeing time at all three interior spots as well as at fullback.
The Patriots will benefit from the return of key players on this side of the ball, as corner Leigh Bodden and lineman Mike Wright have recovered from significant injuries.
That duo can help bolster a statistically confounding unit: Last year New England was dead last in the league in third down defense (47.1 percent) and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete more than 63 percent of their passes. On the other hand, the Pats set a league record for giveaway-takeaway ratio at plus-28 (38 takeaways against 10 giveaways) and allowed fewer than 10 points per game over the final five weeks of the regular season.
One of the teams weaknesses — lack of a consistent pass-rush — was addressed with the acquisition of Albert Haynesworth in a trade with Washington. Haynesworth shined in Tennessee but bombed in his two seasons with the Redskins. This could be the steal of the offseason if Belichick can get Haynesworth back on track.
Even with Haynesworth, the Pats need their linebackers to do a better job of getting to the quarterback. Tully Banta-Cain had 10 sacks in ’09 but was hobbled by a groin injury for much of last year and was released in July. Second-year pro Jermaine Cunningham used his time during the lockout to watch a trove of film aimed at improving his play and understanding of the Pats’ defense. End Eric Moore, signed after the UFL season ended, could help as well.
Now an unquestioned leader, Jerod Mayo will once again anchor the defense from his inside linebacker spot, though it will be interesting to see how Brandon Spikes and Gary Guyton are used alongside him. Spikes, suspended for the last four games of the season after violating the league’s substance abuse policy, is better against the run, while Guyton is stronger against the pass.
The secondary has depth, which should serve it well with pass-happy clubs like San Diego, Philadelphia, Dallas and Indianapolis on this year’s schedule. Devin McCourty was impressive as a rookie and should only be better in his second season. The return of Bodden could mean that Kyle Arrington, who saw his snap count rise dramatically last year, will slide to the Star position in the slot, and Darius Butler remains as well. The wild card is draft pick Ras-I Dowling, a tall, physical corner who was considered a first-round talent before injuries affected his final season at Virginia.
The Pats’ kicking game should get a bit of a bump with the return of Stephen Gostkowski, who missed the second half of the season after tearing the quadriceps in his right (kicking) leg. With one season under his belt, cerebral punter Zoltan Mesko is expected to be more consistent. Tate got off to an amazing start, averaging 33.4 yards per kick return with two touchdowns in the first four games of the season. However, over the rest of the season he averaged just 19.8 yards per return. Julian Edelman finished second in the NFL with a 15.3-yard punt return average last year.
This team looks much the same as the one that posted a surprising 14–2 regular season in 2010, so it is hard to believe it won’t be strong again this year. However, since Rex Ryan took over in New York, the Jets have won three of five meetings between the clubs and have become formidable challengers for the AFC East crown.
Another playoff appearance is in the offing for New England, although the window for Brady is closing. The defense needs to improve if New England is to play in the Super Bowl for the fifth time under Belichick.
Outside the Huddle
Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis was able to fly in an F-16 fighter jet with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds in May; he called it a “once in a lifetime experience” that he truly enjoyed. Green-Ellis also spent time training at the Miami gym of boxing legend Angelo Dundee.
Coming off a rookie season that ended with a Pro Bowl appearance, cornerback Devin McCourty became something of a media darling — in addition to appearing on a catalog cover for athletics retailer Eastbay, he and twin Jason, who plays for the Titans, were on NFL Network, ESPN and other outlets together. The two also share a Twitter account (@McCourtyTwins) and a Facebook page.
Maybe Some Day
All-Pro guard Logan Mankins, who played last year under a restricted free agent tender, is designated this year as the Pats’ franchise player, meaning he’ll go yet another season — this is his seventh — without a long-term extension or the ability to hit the open market. In April, he was asked about his future playing prospects and said, “I’ve heard there’s this thing in football called free agency … but I haven’t seen it. Maybe one of these days I could actually experience that.”
Watch Your Feet
Pats draft pick Marcus Cannon is a man of many talents: He can squat over 700 pounds, play the piano, knows how to execute flipping, twisting dives at the pool at 6'5", 350-plus pounds, and is a practical joker. A favorite at TCU: At the team hotel the night before a game, he’d fill a wastebasket with water, lean it against the door of a teammate’s room, knock and run. When the door was opened, the bucket tipped, soaking the feet of the unsuspecting teammate, and sending him looking for revenge.
Turnovers = Points
Thanks in large part to their league-leading turnover ratio (+28), the Patriots led the NFL in scoring by a wide margin — they averaged 32.4 points per game, 4.8 more than the No. 2 team — despite ranking only No. 8 in the NFL in total offense (363.8 ypg).
Being the reigning league MVP and married to a supermodel means Tom Brady gets attention from all sorts of media outlets. And those outlets make lists. In recent months, Brady was named the second-most influential athlete in America by Forbes magazine, and Forbes also placed him 55th on its annual Celebrity 100 list. FOXSports.com named him one of the 10 most injury-prone players in the NFL. Then there’s the footage of him dancing at Carnival in his wife’s native Brazil — that may have been the most awkward video of the year.
What’s in a Name?
Cornerback Ras-I Dowling got his name after boxer Livingstone Bramble began boxing under the name Ras-I Bramble; Dowling’s father liked the moniker and gave it to his son. Fellow second-rounder Shane Vereen is a cousin of entertainer Ben Vereen.
Soft Closing Stretch
New England has to weather a tough schedule — until it reaches the four-game home stretch of the season, when it plays also-rans Washington, Denver, Miami and Buffalo, teams that combined for only 21 wins in 2010. This less-than-imposing quartet of contests could position the Patriots for a run at homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.