The machine is that the New England Patriots gears it up for another year, in what oddsmakers presume will be at least another AFC East title and being a part of the Super Bowl conversation. The question, as Tom Brady hits 36-years-old, is whether all those wins can be rolled over into the first Super Bowl win since 2004.
New England’s done a major makeover of their skill position talent. Goodbye to Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead, and hello to Danny Amendola and Michael Jenkins. And though the Pats didn’t intend, this, there’s also been a goodbye to Aaron Hernandez after his indictment on murder charges this past summer.
All the changes force the classic debate of whether Brady makes his skill position talent, or whether the team will really miss the departed. TheSportsNotebook’s NFL analysis is in the camp that says they’re all, at least within certain parameters, interchangeable. Amendola will be more than adequate in replacing Welker. The team will find a way to replace Hernandez’ production at tight end.
Where the problem comes is that while Tom Brady can make players on the short-to-intermediate routs through his precision, he can’t make a player into a deep threat that secondaries have to respect. Rob Gronkowski is a great tight end, but when a TE is your premier down-the-field option, it’s a sign that you’re limited offensively. And Gronkowski has shown himself to be quite limited when it comes to staying healthy.
The Patriots made great strides last year in terms of their toughness up front, and on both sides of the ball. They ranked 2nd in the NFL in rush attempts. The yards-per-attempt was in the middle of the pack, but at least they’re attempting to mix in the run, a welcome change from recent years. And Stevan Ridley is a nice young back that can continue to get better.
Defensively, the Pats were sixth in the NFL in yards-per-attempt and did a good job forcing fumbles. This has not been a truly tough team since the Super Bowl-winning years of 2001-04, and proof that while a great quarterback can always keep you in the conversation, you need to be physical to win championships. It’s a good sign that the Pats are back on that path.
The biggest concern is the pass coverage. New England ranked poorly in this area regardless of what measuring stick you use. The most you can point to is that they were in the middle of the league in sacks and have two good young defensive ends in Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. There’s not much reason to think the defensive backs are going to be a lot better than the unit Joe Flacco torched in the second half of last year’s AFC Championship Game.
New England’s Over/Under number for wins in Las Vegas has usually been obscenely high, requiring a 12-13 win season to go Over. This year, the oddsmakers are a little more friendly, posting a reasonable 10.5 number. My regard for Belichick, Brady and this team’s improving line play point me to the Over.