SI AFC East Preview: Patriots

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    SI AFC East Preview: Patriots

    New England Patriots

    What the Patriots do best: Pass the ball.

    To a Tom Brady-led passing game that produced a league-best 37 touchdowns, against a league-low five interceptions, the Patriots added a wideout who ranks fourth among active players in receiving yards (10,783) and fourth in touchdown catches (66). But whatever production the Patriots receive out of Chad Ochocinco, acquired from the Bengals for a fifth- and sixth-round pick, will be more of a nice bonus than essential.

    That's because New England has one of the deepest pools of talented receiving options in the league. It starts with Wes Welker, continues through second-year rising deep threat Taylor Price and ends with second-year tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the best tandem of pass-catching tight ends in the league and each a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. With the 34-year-old Brady still in his prime (even if his career is nearing its downswing), the Patriots' passing game should approach its performance in 2007, when it produced 4,859 yards through the air, the 12th-most ever.

    What the Patriots need to improve: Their defensive line.

    Make that, what the Patriots needed to improve. The line proved to be the team's fatal flaw last season, when it was overwhelmed by the Jets in their stunning second-round playoff victory in Foxborough -- New York rushed 29 times for 120 yards, including 17 attempts and 66 yards up the middle, and Mark Sanchez wasn't sacked once. After a long offseason, Bill Belichick acted decisively in restocking his line around centerpiece Vince Wilfork, adding tackle Albert Haynesworth and veteran pass-rushing ends Mark Anderson, Andre Carter and Shaun Ellis. The nature of that personnel suggests that Belichick plans to move away from his base 3-4 alignment into a 4-3, but Belichick promises fluidity.

    "How, strategically, we want to move guys around and put them in certain alignments, or how to configure them relative to certain formations and tie it in with coverage and things like that -- I think there's flexibility there," the coach says, in his usual cards-concealing way. Still, it looks as if New England's major problem has been solved. "I envision it as being one of the best defenses around," says Wilfork. "I hope."

    Which Patriot needs to step up: Punter Zoltan Mesko.

    Mesko wasn't called upon much as a rookie, due to the Patriots' highly efficient offense: he was 26th in the league in punts. That meant that when Mesko did trot onto the field, something had gone wrong -- as it might in the several playoff games for which these Patriots surely seem headed. "It definitely requires a greater degree of focus on the sideline," Mesko says of his lack of use. "But I'm getting mental reps if I'm not in there, or if I am."

    Predicted record: 14-2

    The Patriots seem certain to win the season's first four games, and its last four (if they need to). Their only potential roadblocks might come in a relatively difficult mid-season stretch, particularly in games at Pittsburgh (Week 8), at the Jets (Week 10) and at Philadelphia (Week 12). Then will come the playoffs -- in which, it must be said, New England hasn't won a game since 2007.

    That's good news:
    This guy thinks the player who needs to step up is Mesko, just because he got few reps. Super Bowl this year! (Hopefully)
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