Experts' Picks (Consensus: first)
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 They might not win as many games as they have the past three years (14 in 2010, 13 in 2011 and 12 in 2012), but with Tom Brady leading the way, it should still be enough to stay ahead of the pack. Playing the AFC North and NFC South makes this a tougher overall schedule, but still nothing that should knock this team off track.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The two-tight end offense is on hold until Rob Gronkowski gets healthy, but Tom Brady is getting the most out of three rookie receivers, an undrafted rookie tight end and Danny Amendola.
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are in place, all is right in New England.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Patriots may be a mess but their division remains weak. As long as Brady and Belichick are together, they will rule the AFC East.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 1 The Patriots have plenty of issues, but they still have Tom Brady.|
Five things you need to know about the Patriots:
1. They have the youngest receiving corps in Bill Belichick's tenure: Belichick said earlier in the offseason that the team, based on a number of circumstances, has undergone a "re-do" at the receiving position. What has resulted is the youngest receiving corps in Belichick's 14-year tenure, with three rookies -- second-round draft choice Aaron Dobson (22), fourth-round draft choice Josh Boyce (22) and undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins (25). The surprise of the group has been Thompkins, who has shown enough to potentially assume the No. 2 role alongside top option Danny Amendola. As for Amendola, he has quickly developed a rapport with quarterback Tom Brady as Wes Welker's top replacement, but he was hobbled after the team's Aug. 16 preseason win over the Buccaneers and didn't play the next week. Amendola is expected to be ready to go for the regular-season opener, but given his recent injury history, any time missed naturally raises some concerns among the team's followers.
2. Brady is 36 but is playing like he's 26: One of the popular topics in New England in recent years is the "championship window" for the Patriots with the 36-year-old Brady. Based on what we've seen in training camp and the preseason, which has been as impressive as Brady has looked in recent memory, such talk seems premature. Brady says he feels the best he ever has in his career and has been open about his intentions of playing past his 40th birthday. He's signed through the 2017 season. The teacher/student dynamic has been evident this preseason, as Brady almost seems invigorated by the challenge of bringing the young receivers along.
3. Don't pigeonhole them into the two-tight end offense: When Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were healthy and at their best in the 2011 season, the Patriots ran more than 80 percent of their offensive snaps out of multiple-tight end packages. The unique and dynamic talents of Gronkowski and Hernandez, coupled with the position they played, created big-time matchup issues for opponents and their success led others to attempt to build their offense in a similar fashion (e.g. Dallas Cowboys in 2013). But one thing we've since learned is that the Patriots' commitment to the two-tight end package was more a result of the personnel than anything else, because when Gronkowski and Hernandez were sidelined with injuries in 2012, the Patriots ultimately had about a 50-50 split between multiple-tight end packages and three-plus receiver packages. Don't be surprised, especially with Gronkowski still recovering from offseason surgeries on his forearm and back, if they lean heavier toward three-receiver packages initially.
4. Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower key for defense: Most of the talk surrounding the Patriots this offseason and preseason has been about the offense because of all the changes, but one could make a strong argument that the most pressing question facing the club is on defense. The identity of the unit is the ability to create turnovers, but when that dries up, do they still have what it takes to stymie the opposition and bail out the offense? Jones (defensive end) and Hightower (linebacker), whom the team traded up to select in the 2012 first round, are a good place to start when considering the answer to that question. They turned in solid rookie seasons but the Patriots naturally want to see them become game-changing difference-makers on a unit that has every starter returning except at one defensive tackle spot, where veteran Tommy Kelly looks like an upgrade over last year's combination of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick.
5. Rare continuity on the coaching staff and offensive line: Belichick is the longest-tenured head coach with the same team (14 years), and it's almost hard to believe that this is just the second time in which his entire coaching staff has returned intact over that span. Furthermore, every coach will be working in the same position as they did in 2012. There was a stretch where Belichick was losing top assistants annually -- Romeo Crennel (2005), Charlie Weis (2005), Eric Mangini (2006) and Josh McDaniels (2009) among them -- and that naturally put a drain on Belichick, who is still intimately involved with the defense. (He hardly watched the first three offensive drives versus the Lions on Aug. 22 because he was coaching the defensive linemen on the sideline.) Furthermore, the entire starting offensive line returns intact, which is also a rarity for the club.
-- Mike Reiss, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
No team drafted more defensive backs than the Patriots in the 2011 and 2012 drafts combined (five), but the acquisition of Aqib Talib midway through last season may have finally given the Patriots the defensive back they had been looking for.
Talib's first game with the Patriots came in Week 11 against the Colts, and he immediately made his presence felt with a 59-yard interception return for a touchdown. But his impact went beyond interceptions.
When Talib was on the field for the Patriots last season, including playoffs, opponents completed 58.1 percent of their passes with a 39.8 Total QBR. When Talib wasn't on field for the Patriots, opponents completed 64.2 percent of their passes with a 67.8 Total QBR.
Not only did Talib impact the effectiveness of the defense, he helped change the way the Patriots played defense. From Weeks 1-10 last season, the Patriots used five or more pass-rushers on only 15.0 percent of opponent drop-backs, the lowest rate in the NFL. After acquiring Talib, the Patriots used such pressure 35.4 percent of the time, the ninth-highest rate from Weeks 11-17.
The Patriots couldn't send added pressure before Talib arrived because they needed to drop more players into coverage. Opponents completed 73.6 percent of their attempts when the Patriots sent five or more prior to acquiring Talib. After his acquisition that rate dropped to 53.0 percent.
With a strong front seven and an improved secondary, the Patriots' defense may finally be back to a championship-caliber level.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
DT Vince Wilfork (14.6 avg. AV since 2010)
Wilfork is the biggest reason New England's D-line allowed the league's fourth-lowest rate of adjusted line yards on runs up the middle. Runs ended by Wilfork himself in 2012 averaged a scant 1.3 YPC.
-- Pro Football Reference