NFL Preview, Part 4: The Patriots

NFL Preview, Part 4: The Patriots
September 6, 2013, 4:45 pm
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If the Patriots finish this season with a record of 13-3, Bill Belichick will become only the seventh coach in NFL history to win 200 games. That would be a pretty remarkable feat, and whether or not he’d admit it, it’s one that you know Belichick would be proud of.

As of today, there are a few things working in the coach’s favor on the road to that special milestone: 1) The Pats have averaged exactly 13 wins a season over the last three years. 2) He has Tom Brady. 3) The rest of the AFC East is horrible. And 4) Despite a few concerns, Belichick’s put together a damn good football team.

The most unheralded unit is probably the offensive line. Why? Because they’re the offensive line. They’re always overlooked. But as the world was reminded during preseason, protecting Tom Brady is New England’s No. 1 priority this year and every year until he stops playing.

Fortunately, the Pats line is in good shape. They have two ginormous former first round picks (Nate Solder and Logan Mankins) defending Brady’s blind side, 6-8 Sebastian Voellmer anchoring the other end and Dan Connelly and Ryan Wendell there to consistently fill in the gaps.

In other words, it’s the same unit as last year. And only four teams in the league allowed fewer sacks in 2012 than the Patriots.

Linebacker is another interesting position. When you look back at some of the best defenses of Bill Belichick’s coaching career, a solid linebacking unit is always literally and figuratively at the center of it. With Giants, he had LT, Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson. With the Patriots, he had Bruschi, Vrabel, and McGinest. And while this year’s crew isn’t anywhere close (yet) to those former players, they’re still the strength of this defense.

Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are starting their fourth season of holding down the fort together, and if Spikes can keep his head on straight, they’re one of the best combos in the league. Throw in Dont’a Hightower (who should improve in his second season), Dane Fletcher (who, when healthy, is always around the ball) and rookie Jamie Collins and there’s reason to believe.

But will linebackers get any help?

Obviously, the secondary has been a huge issue for the Patriots since the final days of Hank Poteat, but this year there’s one reason to start the season with additional optimism: Aqib Talib.

I still believe that the Patriots would have won last year’s AFC Championship had Talib not gotten injured. Everything changed when he went out. It went right back to the way it was before Talib got here.

Check out this table that breaks down the Pats secondary with and without Talib last year:

With him, opponents’ completion percentage dropped from 66.1 to 57.3 and their QB rating dropped from 97.3 to 73.8. The Pats secondary allowed 19 touchdowns in nine games without Talib, and only eight touchdowns with him. Clearly, he made the Patriots a better team, and he’ll do the same this year – assuming he’s healthy. Doesn’t hurt that this is a contract year.

Devin McCourty finally has a permanent home at safety (another benefit of having Talib on board), and that singular focus will hopefully pay off. Even though Adrian Wilson won’t be a factor this year (or any year), you have to think that he was able to pass a thing or two along to McCourty over their few months of working together.

As for Alfonzo Dennard, his hearing got pushed back again last week, and no one will be surprised if he’s somehow able to delay until after the season. If he’s around, he’s a decent No. 2 corner. You can say the same about Kyle Arrington, if he’s your No. 3. And in rookie Logan Ryan, it appears as if Belichick’s obsession with Rutgers may have produced a winner.

But depth is still an issue for these guys. And optimism aside, the talent could be a little better. So, what might help the secondary is if opposing quarterbacks don’t have as much time to throw the ball.

Moving Rob Ninkovich from linebacker to the defensive line should help the attack down there. Also, the addition of 6-6, 325-pound Tommy Kelly next to Vince Wilfork gives the Pats a ton of strength in the middle. But the game-changer is obviously Chandler Jones. If he can take the flashes he showed early in his rookie season (five sacks in his first six games) and stretch it out over 16 games, the Patriots will have a weapon that’s yet to exist in the Belichick era, and he could be the added dimension that raises the defense to the level where it needs to be.

Don’t worry about the offense.

As usual, Belichick and Josh McDaniels will mess around with their rushing attack from week to week, but more often than not, some combination of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon Bolden will be enough to get the job done. Especially with the offensive line out in front of them.

Obviously, the receiving corps looks a little shaky. Even more so when there’s reason to worry about the durability of Brady’s only two established targets: Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola.

Either way, I might be naïve to just assume that Brady will find a way to make this work, but that’s the feeling right now. Whether it’s Kenbrell Thompkins or Aaron Dobson or even Julian Edelman, there will be open receivers and No. 12 will find them. Maybe that's oversimplified, but with Brady, sometimes it’s that easy.

And maybe this whole post sounds a little overly optimistic, but what can I say? I’m optimistic about this season. Not that it will be easy. It’s never easy. Along the way, I guarantee that there will be stretches when the offense looks horrible. There will be games where the defense turns to mush. There will be numerous radio segments featuring hours of debate over whether Tom Brady still has it, or how Bill Belichick’s too stubborn, or how the whole franchise has lost its way.

It’s same every year. Meanwhile, so, for the most part, is the Pats record: 12 wins, 13, wins, 14 wins, 10 wins, 11 wins, 16 wins, 12 wins, 10 wins, 14 wins, 14 wins . . .  

It might stop sometime, but not this year.

Give me the Pats at 12-4.

Another AFC East title.

And we’ll talk about the playoffs when they get there.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine