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Today: The New England Patriots
Last Year: 12-4 (1st place in AFC East, lost in AFC Championship Game)
Did you know it’s been nearly 10 years since the Patriots have won a Super Bowl? I realize that for most franchises, that’s not really an underachievement, but for the Patriots — who won three Super Bowls in four years in the early 2000s — it’s a little disappointing. Still, most franchises would kill to have the kind of success New England has had in the past nine years.
Let’s see, the Patriots have gone to two Super Bowls, pulled off a 16-0 regular season, made the playoffs eight times (the one time they didn’t, they still went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at quarterback), and won their division eight times. Again, the one time they didn’t, they still finished with an 11-5 record.
The Patriots have been championship-less for nine years, but they’ve been the most consistent franchise in the league since the early 2000s. Last season was no different for Bill Belichick’s crew. New England won the AFC East, posted a 12-4 record in the regular season, but would fall to Peyton Manning’s Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
The offense, led by the immortal Tom Brady, was booming yet again in 2013. Even after letting Wes Welker walk in free agency, even after Aaron Hernandez was indicted for murder, even after Gronk and Danny Amendola both missed considerable time due to injuries, Brady still managed to put up over 4000 yards, 25 touchdowns, and only 11 interceptions. Brady’s yards per attempt was at its lowest mark since 2006 (discounting his injury shortened 2008 season), but his season was impressive when considering the receivers he was working with when Amendola and Gronk were off the field.
Defensively, New England had its fair share of issues, ranking 18th against the pass and 30th against the run, which puts into perspective how good the offense was. Brady’s unit finished 10th in passing yards and ninth in running. Largely utilizing two running backs — Steven Ridley and LeGarrette Blount — the Patriots’ rushing attack averaged 129 yards per game, providing plenty of balance to the offense.
The Patriots ran into a problem in the AFC Championship game, however. Peyton Manning lit up the Patriots’ defense for 400 yards and the Broncos marched forward to the Super Bowl after handing the Patriots a 26-16 defeat.
Now, the Patriots are hoping that Gronk and Amendola can get on the field at the same time for more time this season. But defensively, the Patriots need Belichick to turn back into the mastermind he’s been for much of his coaching career.
There’s no question the Patriots are a playoff team. But, for a franchise as prestigious as New England, that’s not quite good enough.
Last Year’s Stud: Julian Edelman
Without Amendola and Gronk consistently in the lineup, Brady needed a reliable pass catcher. Enter Julian Edelman. The shifty slot receiver was reliable enough in 2013, racking up over 1,000 receiving yards, 105 receptions, and six touchdowns.
Runner-up: Tom Brady
Last Year’s Surprise: LeGarrette Blount
Who would’ve thought Blount would average five yards per carry, come a yard away from leading the team in rushing, and would score seven touchdowns. Splitting carries with Steven Ridley, Blount’s success was one reason why the Patriots were able to be so balanced on offense.
This is before Blount’s time as a Patriot, but nobody should ever forget about this run:
Runner-up: Shane Vereen (47 receptions)
Last Year’s Disappointment: Aaron Hernandez
Not much to say about this.
Runner-up: Rob Gronkowski (injuries) and Danny Amendola (injuries)
Dominique Easley is an interesting first round pick for the Patriots. He’s a first round talent, but Easley tore both ACLs in college. Because he’s undersized, Easley requires a quick burst off the line of scrimmage in order to provide penetration, which makes his ACL situation much more critical. If Easley can remain healthy, the Patriots might have drafted a stud in the late first round.
The pick I don’t understand is quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. I would have much rather seen New England use its second round pick on a player that could help them this season, and not on a backup quarterback.
Other notable pick: James White
This Year’s Stud: Rob Gronkowski
When he’s healthy, he’s probably the second best receiving tight end in the league. Plus, dancing:
Runner-up: Tom Brady
This Year’s Surprise: Dominique Easley
I think Easley balls out for the Patriots — provided he’s healthy. He should be able to disrupt plenty of plays in the backfield using his quickness that he displayed so often in college.
Runner-up: James White (Patriots could use the running back by committee approach)
This Year’s Disappointment: Danny Amendola
Amendola, while possessing plenty of talent, has only played one complete NFL season in his career. 2013 was pretty much the same story for Amendola. He only played in 12 games and posted nearly 12 yards per catch. If Amendola misses considerable time in 2014, it might be his last season with the Patriots.
Runner-up: The defense
Draft early: Gronk
Good value in the middle rounds: Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola
Don’t Draft: Steven Ridley (use a late pick)
What Vegas Is Saying (LVH Sports Book): 10.5 wins
What We’re Saying: 12-4 (1st place in AFC East)
What I love so much about this Patriots team is its balance on the offensive side of the ball. If the Patriots can maintain a run game, and if Gronk, Amendola, and Edelman are all on the field together, then this is a scary offense.
The problem potentially lies with the defense. New England spent its first round draft pick on the defensive line, bolstered the secondary by acquiring Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner (though they lost Aqib Talib to the Broncos), and added help on the defensive line by picking up Will Smith. On paper, the defense is much better.
Even if New England’s defense only improves marginally, it still owns the division. I just don’t see the Jets, Dolphins, or Bills overtaking the Patriots in the East.
Of course, simply winning the division isn’t enough in New England. So, can the Patriots win the Super Bowl this season? I don’t think they can unless their defense improves considerably, but I think they made the offseason moves to make that improvement. The Patriots should challenge the Broncos for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
[genericon icon=twitter] Follow Sean Wagner-McGough on Twitter @seanjwagner