All five panelists asked to pick the AFC East had the Patriots finishing first. Here's my intelligence report on New England:
Five things you need to know about the Patriots:
1. Defense changing its style: The Patriots have primarily utilized a two-gapping 3-4 defense in Bill Belichick's tenure as coach, which was often described as a read-and-react style of play. But things have looked significantly different this preseason, with the defense adopting more of a 4-3 look and attacking at the snap. It's a change that players are embracing. The Patriots ranked 32nd in the NFL on third down last season, but there have been early signs of improvement this year, sparked by the new emphasis on getting up the field. Belichick has already said the team is likely to keep more defensive linemen this year.
2. No surprise, Brady looks like the 2010 MVP: In the second preseason game against the Buccaneers, Tom Brady looked to be in midseason form, getting the offense in and out of the huddle at such a quick pace that Tampa defensive lineman Gerald McCoy said after the game, "Um, Mr. Brady, can we line up?" Brady has been sharp, showing no signs of trouble from the right foot surgery he had in January. A big part of his training camp has been devoted to spending time with receiver Chad Ochocinco as the two work to develop a rapport. Brady still looks like he has top arm strength.
3. Ochocinco easing into mix: Learning a new offense, and seeing the game through Brady's eyes so the two can communicate on the field without talking, has challenged Ochocinco. He is basically playing Randy Moss' old role and projects to be part of every receiver package. In the second preseason game, Ochocinco and Belichick had an animated discussion on the sideline, with Belichick pulling Ochocinco out of the game for two plays, seemingly because he wasn't pleased with his blocking down the field. For his part, Ochocinco said he has appreciated the hard coaching.
4. Big plans for Haynesworth: Despite rumors that the Patriots might cut Albert Haynesworth before the season, it was never a serious consideration. The team has big plans for him as a defensive tackle in its new-look defense, and believes that pairing him inside with Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork could be a lethal combination. Owner Robert Kraft signed off on the Haynesworth trade despite Haynesworth's off-field issues, noting that he didn't come for the money ($1.5 million base salary) and that he "found him to be genuine and sincere." Belichick said Haynesworth has done more than has been asked of him.
5. Meriweather in the doghouse: Brandon Meriweather -- the safety who was selected in the first round of the 2007 draft and has made the Pro Bowl twice -- could be on the outs. When the coaching staff rested all Pro Bowl players in the preseason opener, Meriweather played the entire first half. Then in the second preseason game, coaches adopted a three-man rotation at safety, with Meriweather coming off the field on the third series of the game. Clearly, coaches are trying to light a fire under him. If it doesn't ignite, that will be a key situation to monitor when rosters are trimmed to 53.