The class of the AFC (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
I’ve been saying it all summer as I watched the Red Sox play one of the most embarrassing and cringe inducing seasons in recent memory.
“At least I have the Patriots to look forward to.”
Well this weekend the hope of that distant future begins and New England sports fans can finally begin to sooth their wounds with a little Foxborough football on Sundays. See unlike the toxic Red Sox team that I haven’t even watched play an inning in about two months, the Patriots don’t have all that egomania and ridiculousness (like sending a text to management on someone else’s phone like a 13-year old girl). Instead the Patriots montra has always been “Do your job”. Zero locker room incidents just straight wins (homie). Last season with Ochocinco, or whatever the hell he calls him self now, Chad had no incidents and then he can’t even last through training camp without one in Miami. I don’t know how Belichick does it but he gets his guys to buy in.
So let’s get to the eight (get the headline now?) most pressing or intriguing questions facing the squad.
1. What the hell is going on with the offensive line?
Can’t say I’m one to watch a ton of preseason football. I think I tuned in to about seven minutes total, and four of that was watching the awkward and staged cutting of Ochocinco in Hard Knocks if that counts. Still all I’ve been hearing about the line is that it still has to ‘gel’. Excuse me? The season starts on Sunday isn’t gelling supposed to be going on in training camp when you’re bunking with the guy next to you watching Sportscenter repeats and complaining about the beds that wouldn’t fit a dinosaur?
The Patriots still have Logan Mankins coming back but are trying to fill spots left by Matt Light and Dan Koppen. Brian Waters still hasn’t reported and now his number has been given to someone else. I’ve liked what I’ve seen from Nate Solder and Sebastian Wollmer in the past but those two need to really show up this season. You know because if Brady goes down then we can only go 11-5 with a backup quarterback and just barely miss the playoffs. In other words have a failure of a season.
2. Will the defense really be better?
The PAtriots made it clear in the draft that improving the defense is the teams top priority and why shouldn’t it be? You mean a team that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in total defense and was 31st in pass defense (293.9 ypg) might need some help? Did you know that the 2011 defense gave up more yards than the vaunted offense gained? That the unit got sliced up by such future Hall of Famers as Chad Henne and Ryan Fitzpatrick? Yet still this defense was good enough to get within a breath of a Super Bowl title. Now the squad has added Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower and will be getting some guys like Brandon Spikes and Devin McCourty back to full strength. The defense will (and needs to be) better and not just because when you’re at the bottom all you can do is go up. This unit has the look to be at worst a Top-15 defense.
Dont’a Hightower played for Nick Saban, aka college football’s Bill Belichick last, season
3. Which defensive rookie will have the better season?
I’ll give you a hint. It’s not going to be Alfonzo Dennard or Jake Bequette. This question is more easily translated to is Chandler Jones going to turn into JPP 2.0 and rack up 17 sacks in the first four weeks or is Dont’a Hightower going to team up with Spikes and Jerod Mayo to form the best three-man line backing crew in the NFL? I really, really, really like both of these guys. I think Jones is the one more likely to have the breakout season. Hightower is going to be competing with some established talent whereas Jones is really going to be the No. 1 guy at defensive end. The Patriots lost top pass rusher Mark Anderson in the offseason and need that hole desperately filled. My predicted lines for the two guys are 34 tackles, nine sacks for Jones and 88 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 2 INTs for Hightower.
4. Will Wes Welker still be in New England next season?
Rob Gronkowski got paid. Aaron Hernandez got paid. Welker did not get paid. Well alright he signed a $9.5 million franchise tender but that’s a one-year deal not a long-term one he wanted. The man has only pulled in about 781 receptions a season every year (in reality he has led the league in receptions three times with New England, twice pulling in more than 120) and is definitely Brady’s favorite target. But still the Patriots don’t feel like Welker is worth signing long term and I kind of agree with them. Don’t get me wrong I love Welker. Top five Patriot of my lifetime definitely. His jersey is my game day jersey that I wear every Sunday, so yeah I like the guy.
But I get it. Welker doesn’t do anything that you can’t get from somebody else. He hustles a ton and runs good routes but he doesn’t have size and freakish athletic ability that only comes along once every few years (i.e. Calvin Johnson). Could Julian Edelman or Jeremy Ebert eventually take over his role? Probably. Also if Welker does leave will he be exposed as just a product of a system that just worked perfectly for him. What offense, and what quarterback, really would have been more perfect for Welker over the last few seasons. The answer is none. So even if the Patriots don’t bring him back I don’t really see it coming back to haunt them.
That being said the man has given so much to this team and if the money is there why not pay him? Also got to love this exchange.
5. Is there going to be any run game?
Shane Vereen. Danny Woodhead. Stevan Ridley. Brandon Bolden. Those are the Patriots stable of running backs this season. Guess who has the most rushing yards and rushing attempts on the team? Tom Brady. While Brady is certainly one of the most mobile quarterbacks around that’s not a very awesome running game. With the LawFirm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis the Patriots lost more than just one of the ebst nicknames in sports. They lost a dependable back that never fumbled and punched it in the endzone from a yard out better than anybody. With the passing game as awesome as it is the Patriots haven’t needed a ton from the running game but I’m not sure this group can give us anything. When I play as the Patriots on Madden all I run is shotgun formations and I maybe run it three times a game so my stats at the end of the year are something like 6,981 pass yards, 154 rushing yards. Somehow I think that might be around what the Patriots have this season. My guess is that Ridley and Woodhead are the biggest contributing backs.
6. Will this offense be better than the 2011 version?
Look a number 85 that will actually be an important part of the offense!
With no run game this question may seem ludicrous. But is it really? The Patriots 2011 squad out gained the amazing 2007 unit and that was without any real semblance of a deep threat. Gronk was the best option they had there but he wasn’t running fly patterns like Moss was in in 07. Enter Brandon Lloyd. Last season Lloyd caught 70 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns. In 2010 he led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,448 while bringing in 11 scores. He did that all that with Kyle Orton, Tim Tebow, Brady Quinn and Sam Bradford throwing to him. Essentially the guy was an All-Pro receiver despite the lack of talent around him. Now he has the best quarterback in the league (yeah, yeah I can hear your outrage Green Bay fans) throwing to him while he’s surrounded by a ton of other targets that can’t just be forgotten like the receivers he’s played along side in the pass. Oh and remember that season when he led the league in receiving? Guess who is head coach was that year? Josh McDaniels. You know the Patriots current offensive coordinator. What I’m trying to get at is that Lloyd is going to have a monster year.
The only issue the offense may face is trying to find enough receptions for everybody. Gronk, Hernandez, Welker and Llloyd are all 80-plus reception guys and although the Patriots will certainly throw and throw and throw some more, there may be a discrepancy somewhere.
To actually answer the question posed above I think yes. Below are my predictions of the four receivers and Brady’s stat line.
Tom Brady 441-643, 5344 yards, 42 TDs, 11 INTs
Rob Gronkowski 83 receptions, 1219 yards, 11 TDs
Aaron Hernandez 61 receptions, 812 yards, 7 TDs
Wes Welker 90 receptions 1333 yards, 6 TDs
Brandon Llloyd 74 receptions, 1198 yards, 8 TDs
7. How big is the Patriots Super Bowl window?
As long as Brady is still under center is the real answer to this question. As soon as Tom decides he needs to spend more time with the family and just being a boss in other aspects of life the Patriots will come back down to earth. Last season the Patriots almost got another Super Bowl ring, something that has been missing since 2004 and that I (along with every other New England fan) really want to see Brady get. Although I have written extensively that Paul Pierce is my favorite Boston athlete ever, Brady is a very close second. If he gets a fourth ring he will be one of three QBs all-time along with Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana to have accomplish the feat.
So how many more years does Brady have left. He’s 35 this season and although he’s only had one serious injury that doesn’t mean he
I envision a whole lot of Gronk spikes this season.
can play another five years. I think this team has to be in win now mode. If it doesn’t happen in the next two seasons I’m not so sure it will.
8. How will the Patriots ultimately fare this season?
It’s really not even a question whether or not Belichick and the boys will win the AFC East. That is a foregone conclusion as this point. The Patriots also play one of the easiest schedules I’ve seen for a defending conference winner. There are maybe two or three games I’m slightly concerned about. At Baltimore, vs Houston and either against Denver or the 49ers. Other than that this schedule just looks like a list of wins for New England. So as far as the regular season goes I see the Patriots either repeating at 13-3 or possibly putting up a 14-2 or 15-1 type season. I’ll say 13-3 before my hubris reaches exhaustible levels. (What it already did?)
How this team will be defined is how it does in the playoffs and I’m supposed to be afraid of the ancient defense of Baltimore (minus T Suggs), the exact same team in Pittsburgh, a Texans team that lost Mario Williams and has a QB with the hairline of a 56-year old or the Broncos and Peyton Manning who has exactly one playoff win against the Patriots and that was before this injury thing. Also everyone keeps talking about all the weapons Manning has. Uh when did Eric Decker and Demarvius Thomas become ‘weapons’? Plus if the Patriots take care of business in the regular season they will be the No. 1 seed with home field throughout. ‘Nuff said for the second straight season I’m going to pick the Patriots to take the AFC Conference.
How would you answer these questions? Are the Patriots the favorites in the AFC? Let us know on Twitter (@seeuinoctober) or in the comments.