Tom Brady's back, so all expectations are that the Patriots will once again be not only among the elite teams in football but competing for yet another Lombardi Trophy this February. That's not to say there won't be bumps in the road for New England, unlikely to see the sort of good fortune the team had last time Brady was running the ship in the perfect 16-0 regular season in 2007
There has been plenty of turnover in New England, both on the coaching staff and in the locker room. Offensively maybe the biggest question the team faces is whether Bill Belichick and first-year quarterbacks coach/de facto offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien can maintain the consistency in the scheme and play calling to maximize the unit's talent. Because with Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and the bulk of the record-setting unit from 2007 back, there is no doubt the offense has the talent to be elite if not record-breaking.
Defensively is where the concerns are in New England. The secondary has been totally overhauled and the unit lost a trio of key leaders this offseason with the trade of Mike Vrabel and retirements of Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison. A lack of depth at linebacker and the continued search for the pass rush and coverage that were so utterly lacking last fall remain a question mark even after summer practices and preseason games. There is no question the defense is the lesser of the two units in New England, but the only worry is whether or not the failings on that side of the ball will ultimately be fatal flaws.
Whether the Patriots are wining high scoring shootouts or more in more dominant, balanced fashion one thing is clear, there is the expectation from both inside and outside the team that there will indeed be a lot of winning once again this fall in New England.
THREE KEYS FOR THE SEASON
1. Staying healthy on offense is key for New England. Tom Brady is atop that wish, but so too are the name Randy Moss and Wes Welker. With the Patriots changes and recent struggles on defense the offense will have to carry a heavy burden and could struggle to do so without either of the top pass catchers, neither of whom has missed a game in their only two seasons together in Foxborough.
2. At some point, even with potentially the best offense in football, the Patriots will have to show the ability to stop an opponent through the air. New England's pass defense has failed in recent years as the coverage and the rush have both fallen into disrepair. At least some of the new/young faces (CB Leigh Bodden, LB Gary Guyton, LB Pierre Woods, CB Jonathan Wilhite) in both the secondary and the pass rush will need to sow the ability to make plays if the team is to remain balanced and as good as it hopes to be.
3. As funny as it may sound for a team led by Bill Belichick, arguably the best coach in the game, the New England staff as a whole must prove its mettle. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees needs to prove the decline of the unit in recent years isn't his doing. Offensively the team works without a coordinator in the titular sense, but Bill O'Brien must prove his play-calling background in college is enough to prepare him for that job in the pros. And Scott O'Brien must return the big-play ability to the kicking in his first season at the helm of the special teams units in New England. If those assistants can't hold their own, Belichick may get spread too thin to do his job as head coach to his utmost abilities.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
LB Gary Guyton: The second-year former undrafted free agent could start at inside linebacker in 3-4 fronts or on the outside in some of New England's 4-3 looks. Either way he'll be looked to fill some of the void left by Tedy Bruschi's retirement. He played in all 16 games a year ago as a rookie but must make huge strides in year two for the defense to grow and improve.
DE/LB Derrick Burgess: Burgess was brought in from his final troubled days in Oakland, but the Patriots need him to be the pass rusher he was in his first two seasons as a Raider when he tallied 27 sacks in to Pro Bowl campaigns. He didn't join New England until early August, so he's still learning the system. But at some point he needs to prove himself a pass rushing force for a team that is serious lacking in that department.
CB Leigh Bodden: When Ty Law left New England, Asante Samuel developed into a playmaker. When Samuel left New England Ellis Hobbs fell flat on his face for a secondary that fell apart. Bodden will be looked to as a potential playmaker in his first season in New England, a skill he flashed with eight picks not long ago playing for former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel in Cleveland. Bodden may not be All-Pro like Law and Samuel, but he must offer more than Hobbs ever did as the team de facto No. 1 corner.