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Sunday, September 11, 2011
Patriots eager for fresh beginning

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- No need to remind Tom Brady of the specifics.

When he leads the New England Patriots against the Miami Dolphins in Monday night's season opener, it will be 240 days since the New York Jets ruined last year's 14-2 season, and just more than 2,400 days since the Patriots won their last Super Bowl. A 73-23 regular-season record during that span does little to mollify a team whose annual goals end with hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

"There's only one team every year that has a good season and we haven't been that team in a long time," Brady said. "How this team takes to that challenge, we'll see. I don't know. This team has never been together in this current state with that opportunity, so how the other teams did and measured up, this is not those teams. This team will have its own identity and it's all going to be based upon the work we put in, the toughness that we play with, [and] the way that we play under pressure.

"It sucks to lose at the end of the year, there's no doubt about that. But we've got a great opportunity to be on this team with opportunities this year and we'll see if we can take advantage of them."

The 2011 Patriots begin the process of carving out that identity under a national spotlight against the Dolphins in an AFC East battle (ESPN, 7 p.m.).

On paper, the Patriots appear to have strengthened a 14-win team (if that's possible). Offensively, they added 11 Pro Bowl appearances between wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (six) and guard Brian Waters (five). The defense was largely overhauled, including a switch to a base 4-3 look with eyes toward utilizing veteran linemen Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter (four more Pro Bowls in that group).

That's not to say there aren't concerns.

Question marks exist on the offensive line, where injuries could force rookie Nate Solder into an immediate starting role with second-year right tackle Sebastian Vollmer out with a back injury, and Waters remains unproven at the right guard spot, where he was added to provide depth.

The Patriots also overhauled their secondary, jettisoning Brandon Meriweather, Darius Butler and James Sanders -- three players who occupied starting roles last season -- and new faces will have to emerge in their place.

Patriots players are eager to start answering those questions.

"It's a lot of excitement going into the game on Monday night," said second-year cornerback Devin McCourty, voted a captain by his teammates. "After going through that whole training camp and preseason, guys are anxious to get out there and play a game that counts now, put it all on the line and show what we can do."

The Patriots handled the Dolphins on Monday night in Week 4 last season, becoming the first team in NFL history to score a touchdown on a kickoff return, blocked field goal and interception return in the same game en route to a 40-14 triumph. Still, Miami has been a tough place for the Patriots, as Brady's 4-5 career record at Sun Life Stadium will attest.

The Dolphins are coming off a 7-9 season in which they ranked 30th in the NFL in points scored. Over their final five games of 2010, the Dolphins averaged only 13.6 points per game (including a 38-7 loss in New England in Week 17).

During the offseason, the Dolphins reportedly courted a new head coach before electing to retain Tony Sparano. Miami did bring in a new offensive coordinator, hiring former Patriots assistant Brian Daboll, who was offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns last season (the same Browns who rolled up 400 yards of total offense in handing New England one of its two regular-season losses).

Cameron Wake
Tom Brady expects the Dolphins, whose defense was a strength last season, to bring a lot of pressure.

One thing the Patriots probably don't have to worry much about is the Wildcat. Back in 2008, the Dolphins utilized the no-quarterback formation to torch the Patriots for four touchdowns. (For the season, Miami averaged 6.5 yards and scored eight touchdowns on 89 plays out of the formation.) But according to ESPN Stats and Info, the Dolphins averaged just 3.3 yards per play in the Wildcat last season, generating one touchdown on 57 plays.

"They ran a lot of it in the past," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "Brian ran it in Cleveland with [Josh] Cribbs, and we saw it over the last couple of years. We prepared for it, I think, literally every week. We'll prepare for it this week, we'll prepare for it next week, even if a team hasn't shown it. It's not that far-fetched because so many teams have run it anyway."

Despite their offensive struggles last season, the Dolphins were stout defensively (ranking sixth in the league in total yards allowed and third in first downs allowed). The biggest key for the Patriots should be how their offensive line holds up against the Miami pressure.

"A team like Miami, they put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of different ways," Brady said. "We've got to understand what they're trying to do to us by trying to study a lot of film and see the things they do well so that we can hopefully not make critical mistakes against them.

"By the time the ball is snapped on Monday night, we're all hopefully going to be on the same page, doing the things that we need to do consistently to get the ball in the end zone, because offensive football, you need to make very consistent plays in order to sustain drives and get the ball in the end zone. If you don't do that, then you're not going to score points. If you don't score points, you lose the game."

Given New England's success over the past decade, it really only matters if they lose their last game of the year. But for the Patriots, the road to playing at Indianapolis in February begins Monday night in Miami.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.