The Patriots’ championship window, or at least the Tom Brady era, is approaching its end, but there is no reason to believe that another AFC East title isn’t on the way this season. The Bills, Jets and Dolphins do not appear ready to challenge the Patriots, setting up New England for its fifth straight playoff appearance. The Patriots lost one of the league’s most dangerous weapons in the offseason in wide receiver Wes Welker, and there are legitimate questions on defense. But this team is not ready to fall out of the league’s elite quite yet.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 2nd
The Patriots’ recent regular-season dominance on offense has been nothing short of astounding. The Pats led the league in points in 2012 with 34.8 per game, scoring over 500 points for the third consecutive year (matched only by the 1999-2001 Rams). They also led in yards per game with 427.9, giving them six straight seasons in the league’s top 10. Brady led the team to six games of 40 points or more (including the playoffs), and the team matched a franchise record by scoring 59 against the Colts.
Will the success carry over into 2013? With Brady back for his 14th season, the prospects look good, but the biggest obstacle will be overcoming the loss of Welker, who signed a free agent contract with the Broncos in the offseason. Welker led the Patriots in receptions in each of his six seasons in New England, leading the league three times. Welker had 118 catches in 2012, which was 44 more than Pats’ No. 2 receiver Brandon Lloyd (who also is gone). Danny Amendola, signed from the Rams, is slated to fill Welker’s role in the slot, and he appears to be a good fit. The 27-year-old Amendola, however, has played in only 12 games the past two seasons due to injuries after a productive 2010 that saw him catch 85 passes. He must stay healthy if the Patriots hope to have him replace Welker’s productivity.
The rest of the receiving corps is also an unknown. The Pats drafted Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, but it's undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins who has made the most noise during training camp. One or more of the rookies will need to step up as Amendola and Julian Edelman, the lone holdover from the Patriots' receiving corps, are the only veteran options Brady has to lean on.
To make matters worse, tight end went from a position of strength for New England to a rather large question mark during the offseason. First it was Rob Gronkowski, who after undergoing multiple surgeries on a forearm that limited him late last season ended up having back surgery in early June. Then later that same month, Aaron Hernandez was released by the team following his arrest for murder and other gun-related charges. With Hernandez off the roster and Gronkowski's return up in the air, one of the Patriots' primary focuses during training camp was to identify other options. While veterans Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui were the most experienced, undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld from Nevada was the one who made the strongest impression during camp and in preseason games. Sudfeld's performance not only netted him a roster spot, but the Patriots also released Ballard and Fells after the final preseason game, leaving the rookie, Hoomanawanui and Gronkowski as the only tight ends on the roster. Based on these moves, it's looking more and more likely that Gronkowski's not too far away from returning and that regardless of when he does return, Sudfeld should have some sort of role. It's no secret that the tight end position has been key to the Pats' passing attack in recent seasons, so it's entirely possible that Gronkowski and Sudfeld could both end up on the field at the same time, just like Gronk and Hernandez did last season.
The Patriots’ offensive line returns intact, led by five-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins. Stevan Ridley is expected to lead the rushing attack after his 1,263-yard, 12-touchdown performance in 2012. He will be supported by Shane Vereen, who had just 62 carries in the regular season but exploded for 124 total yards and three touchdowns in the Pats’ 41–28 playoff win over the Texans. The Patriots added to their backfield depth by trading for former 1,000-yard rusher LeGarrette Blount.
The Patriots’ defense has been cited as the reason the team has not won a championship since 2004. The criticism has generally been fair, although in their two Super Bowl losses since 2004 the defense gave up only 17 and 21 points, respectively. Still, that side of the ball has lagged behind the offense, and efforts have been made to get it back to the championship-level unit it was in the early 2000s. The Pats jumped from 15th in the league in points allowed to tied for ninth in 2012, but they were 25th in yards allowed and need improvement in several areas.
That starts with defending the pass, where the Pats were 29th, allowing 271.4 yards per game. The re-signing of cornerback Aqib Talib to a one-year contract was critical. He immediately bolstered the beleaguered secondary after his midseason arrival last year, and the team clearly suffered when he went out early in the AFC title game against the Ravens. The Patriots also brought in veteran safety Adrian Wilson from the Cardinals and drafted cornerback Logan Ryan from Rutgers to improve the secondary. Second-round draft pick Jamie Collins is labeled an edge-rusher, acquired to complement defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, whose efforts helped the Patriots rank 15th in sacks last season.
The Patriots were better against the run last season, ranking ninth, thanks to the efforts of stalwart defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and the All-SEC linebacking crew of Jerod Mayo (Tennessee), Brandon Spikes (Florida) and Dont’a Hightower (Alabama). Most of the offseason acquisitions focused on the secondary, meaning that the staff is confident the front seven will improve with experience.
The Patriots were able to compensate for the poor ranking in total yardage last season by forcing 41 turnovers — en route to a league-leading plus-25 turnover margin — and scoring five defensive touchdowns.
Stephen Gostkowski enters his eighth season and is as solid as ever. Gostkowski has made 84 percent of his career field goals and was 11-of-15 from beyond 40 in 2012.
Punter Zoltan Mesko returns for a fourth season after seeing a dip in his net punting to 37.9 yards, although he was able to put 47 percent of his kicks inside the 20.
The Patriots added veteran return man Leon Washington to improve what had been a stagnant return game. Washington shares the NFL record for career kickoff returns for TDs with eight and averaged 29 yards per return with the Seahawks last season.
Final Analysis: 1st in AFC East
The keys for the Patriots to challenge for a Super Bowl title will be to get production out of a revamped wide receiver corps and for the pass defense to make major strides. Brady is still one of the most efficient and dangerous quarterbacks in the game, and the offensive line, running backs and tight end are all known quantities from last season’s dominating offense. If Amendola and Gronkowski can both stay healthy and one of the rookie wideouts can emerge, the Patriots should put up over 30 points per game again. Defensively, having Talib for a full season and starting Devin McCourty as a full-time safety rather than moving him around should stabilize what has been a glaring weakness for a few years. Adding a pass-rush specialist and two defensive backs in the early rounds of the draft demonstrates the team’s concern about its pass defense.
Can Brady and Belichick capture that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring? They will not be a preseason favorite, but they should be in the mix once again next January.
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