NFL Team Previews: New England Patriots

The record is staggering during the era of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady for the New England Patriots. In the eleven seasons since 2001, they’ve averaged a 12 wins each regular season. They’ve produced nine AFC East titles, five AFC championships and three Super Bowl rings. Brady is 35 years old. How much longer can the beat go on? TheSportsNotebook breaks down the Patriots…

OFFENSE: Brady’s excellence is unparalleled and I consider him to be the top quarterback of my lifetime, which we’ll start in the late 1970s, when I can actually remember the players. The supporting cast around him is not bad, but it doesn’t exactly conjure up memories of the Montana-era 49ers. The interior of the New England offensive line, save for guard Logan Mankins is suspect and vulnerable to gut pressure. The tackles are decent, but not spectacular and right tackle Nate Solder needs to have some natural second-year improvement.

The shaky offensive line, which has not inspired confidence in its preseason games this year, would make deep drops and getting the ball down the field problematic as it is. But it might not matter, because unless free-agent wide receiver Brandon Lloyd comes through, the Pats don’t have anyone can stretch the field. Well, I suppose Rob Gronkowski can, but as good as “Gronk” is, when the tight end is your primary deep threat I think that alone speaks volumes.

What New England does have is a good collection of players who can run routes underneath and a quarterback who can quickly find them with precision. Wes Welker is probably in his last year in Foxboro after not agreeing to a contract extension, but that also means he’ll be motivated to earn himself big money. Gronkowski is money in short-to-mid-range spots. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez is effective in the short game, as is veteran receiver Deion Branch. It’s a lot of pressure to have to create open receivers in a confined space with limited pass protection, but the Pats have the volume and it doesn’t take much open space for Brady to get them the ball.

The short passing game has served as the New England running game the past few years and with the issues on the offensive line I see little reason to think there will be a change. I’ve got nothing against Stevan Ridely, the main back, but he’s not to going to carry a questionable line.

DEFENSE: New England addressed the defense in this year’s draft, using both of their first-round picks on this side of the ball and between the draft and free agency they addressed all three levels of the D. Belichick is currently aligned in a 4-3, which is a break from his background in the 3-4, both in his coordinator days under Bill Parcells and most of his tenure in New England. The drafting of defensive end Chandler Jones to rush the passer likely means the 4-3 is here to stay. Vince Wolfork anchors the middle as well as anyone, but at 30-years-old, the Pats have to be worried about the mileage on his body.

Dont’a Hightower from Alabama was the big draft-day prize at linebacker and he’ll join with young Jerrod Mayo to make a solid tandem on the flanks of the 4-3. Brandon Spikes is in the middle and while he’s not a standout, he’s at least competent and he’s still young enough to think improvement is on the way.

The corners are decent with Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington, and there’s room for each to get better, especially McCourty. Patrick Chung is an asset at strong safety. The Pats went out and got veteran Steve Gregory from San Diego to play free safety, but the folks at ESPN’s Scouts Inc, who grade these players aren’t particularly impressed with the former Charger. If they’re right, that leaves a lot of pressure on the corners not to get beat.

Overall, this is a defense with some decent pieces, but they need a real star to step forward, one who forces offenses to change their gameplans. Jones is the best hope for that happening this year. In the meantime, Pats fans can settle for the fact that the head coach orchestrating all this pieces is a star in his own right.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 12.5—As I said about the Green Bay Packers, the other team with a number this high, I feel I have to go Under just automatically. A lot has to go right for any team to have a 13-3 season and if that’s the minimum, that’s too much to bet on in August. Furthermore, I don’t think the Patriots are a 13-3 caliber team anyway. They reached the number last year, but somewhere along the line somebody on the defensive side and in the offensive front needs to really step up and excel. In reality, this is the kind of team I’d normally slot at nine wins, but the Belichick-Brady tandem alone grabs a couple extra W’s. Either way, that still leaves them Under.