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Friday, January 27, 2012
Are Patriots building another dynasty?

By James Walker

Bill Belichick & Tom Brady
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have won three Super Bowls together -- can they make it four?

The New England Patriots are favored to win their first Super Bowl since the end of the 2004 season. That capped a run of three championships in four years, which happened to be the most recent NFL dynasty.

But are the Patriots quietly building another dynasty? New England is the only team to win back-to-back Super Bowls in the past dozen years. If any organization is consistent enough to pull it off, it's New England.

Here are five reasons the Patriots have a chance to once again reach dynasty status:

Reason No. 1: Patriots will beat the Giants

Whoops! Did I reveal my prediction too soon? Oh well. There was no point in waiting. The Patriots will beat the Giants on Feb. 5 to win the fourth Super Bowl of the Bill Belichick era.

This is not only revenge for the Patriots, this is double revenge. New England lost to New York during the 2011 regular season and in Super Bowl XLII. Teams simply don't beat New England three times in a row. Belichick and Tom Brady are too good and too locked in to allow it. New England's defense is also playing much better in the postseason.

New York has looked impressive in wins over the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. But New England will present some unique matchup problems and will attack New York's 29th-ranked pass defense. The Patriots also have allowed just one sack in two playoff games. If the Patriots' pass protection is successful, the Giants are toast.

A lot of people, particularly in the AFC East blog, have criticized my Patriots predictions all season. But I have been right about them every single time. New England was my Super Bowl pick in August, and I've never wavered.

The Patriots will win Super Bowl XLVI over the Giants, which will give them a chance to repeat and begin to chase dynasty status next season.

Reason No. 2: Brady shows no signs of slowing down

Last week we did a story on how much longer Brady can play at a high level. Everyone we spoke to says he still has several great years left in his Hall of Fame career.

Brady, 34, had one of his best seasons in 2011. He threw for the second-most yards (5,235) in NFL history and finished with a passer rating of 105.6. He almost single-handedly carried the Patriots to an AFC East title and a No. 1 seed.

Brady says he wants to play until he’s 40. That will be difficult. But after another great year, it’s hard to doubt him.

It's safe to say Brady will be an elite quarterback for at least the next two or three seasons. Three years is just enough time for New England to make a run at multiple Super Bowls. The Patriots will be a strong contender as long as Brady is healthy. He’s had only one major injury his entire career.

Reason No. 3: Patriots have draft capital and cap room

Guess which AFC East team has the most salary-cap room and first- and second-round picks this offseason? It’s the Patriots.

Belichick has done a masterful job of fielding a championship-caliber team while simultaneously positioning New England well for the future. The Patriots have two first-round picks and two second-round picks thanks to previous trades. The Patriots also have approximately $20 million in cap room to spend in free agency.

Expect most of those resources to go to New England's 31st-ranked defense. Belichick is a defensive-minded coach and I wouldn't be surprised if he spends at least three of those first four picks on that side of the football. That is where the Patriots need depth and impact players.

Leading receiver and pending free agent Wes Welker will take up a chunk of New England's cap space, assuming he re-signs. But the Patriots can still add two or three difference-makers in free agency.

A cover corner? A hard-hitting safety? A deep threat at receiver? The Patriots have the ability to plug all these holes next season.

If this year's Patriots are good enough to win a championship despite their flaws, why can't next year's team? New England should be even better next season.

Reason No. 4: AFC quarterbacks are average

Name the elite quarterbacks in the NFL: Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and you might be able to throw Eli Manning's name in the mix now. Most of the elite quarterbacks play in the NFC.

This year's AFC playoff field included quarterbacks Tim Tebow, T.J. Yates, Andy Dalton and Joe Flacco. The overall quarterbacking in the AFC is average and lopsided compared to the NFC. That is a huge advantage for the Patriots.

New England has arguably the only elite quarterback in the AFC. (We are taking the injured Peyton Manning out of the equation for now.) Brady's closest competition is Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Like Brady, Roethlisberger has won multiple Super Bowls. But years and injuries are piling up for Roethlisberger and the Steelers; they didn’t win a playoff game this season. The core in Pittsburgh is past its prime.

Brady and the Patriots are fortunate they don't have to contend with quarterbacks like Rodgers and Brees, unless they reach the Super Bowl. In the AFC, they can continue to beat the Tebows and Flaccos of the world for the next few seasons.

Reason No. 5: Young tight ends

Contractually, Patriots stud tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez will be together for at least two more seasons. Both signed four-year contracts after being drafted together in 2010.

Gronkowski and Hernandez are both 22 and already in the top 10 at their position. A case can be made that "Gronk" is the best at his position, although it’s safer to place him in the top three.

As long as Gronkowski and Hernandez are together, New England’s offense will be hard to stop. Opponents have yet to figure out how to slow them down. Their development also made it easier for Brady to make quick reads and throws over the middle. That keeps the pass rush off Brady.

There is no doubt that Gronkowski will be a Patriot for a very long time. He’s the better all-around tight end, and New England will offer Gronkowski a big contract extension in the next year or two.

Hernandez’s case is a little more unpredictable. He’s clearly a No. 1 tight end, but how long will he be willing to play second fiddle? That’s clearly not an issue now. Both players are having fun learning and growing together. But two years from now, when Hernandez is in his prime and becomes a free agent, would he be willing to rejoin the Patriots as a No. 2 tight end? Also, can New England pay top-10 money to two players at the same position?

But those questions are down the road. Right now, New England is four quarters from securing another Super Bowl win.

Will a Super Bowl victory jump-start another Patriots dynasty?