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Bob Ryan

Patriots' potential is exceeded only by expectations

The answer is "Never."

The question is "When's the last time there was so much giddy anticipation for a Patriots season?"

It has never been quite like this. It wasn't like this in 2002, when the Patriots were coming off their first Super Bowl championship and were also opening up a new stadium. It wasn't like this in 2003, when the Patriots were coming off a disappointing 9-7 miss-the-playoffs season. It wasn't like this in either 2004 or 2005, when the Patriots were coming off Super Bowl championships two and three. It wasn't like this last year, when the Patriots were coming off a convincing playoff loss to the Broncos.

When you're a fan of a defending champion, you can't help feeling a bit smug about your team. That's why there was not this kind of buzz prior to the 2004 and 2005 seasons. Now it seems like a long, long time since the Patriots were dominating the NFL competition, running up back-to-back 14-2 seasons while putting together a record 21-game winning streak. Now the fans have had enough of 10-6 and losing to the Broncos, followed by 12-4 and squandering a 21-3 lead to the Colts. Now the fans yearn for those Glory Days to return and are now determined to kick serious butt.

What I'm saying is that Feb. 3, 2008, is circled on many a local calendar.

The journey to Glendale (that's Phoenix, to you and me) begins tonight in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium where the New England Patriots engage in the first exhibition game -- I refuse to drink the Rozelle/Tagliabue/Goodell Kool-Aid and call it by that fraudulent, high-falutin' name they prefer -- against the Buccaneers, a once-proud outfit that has become just another stop on the NFL trail. There will be subsequent exhibition games against Tennessee, Carolina, and the New York Giants before they get down and dirty against Eric Mangini and the New York Jets Sept. 9.

According to the pigskin scholars, the Patriots are loaded. They are the favorites to win their fourth Super Bowl in eight years. Everyone says so. Everyone would include the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, the people who put out the football magazines, and, for all I know, the editors of Women's Wear Daily (I think we can guess who their favorite quarterback is, anyway). The fans, who have their own valid opinion, are well aware of all this.

Unlike last year, when Bill Belichick and vice president-player personnel Scott Pioli tried to get by with a substandard receiving corps, the brass has addressed this acute need in a big way. They brought in Randy Moss. They brought in Wes Welker. They brought in Donte' Stallworth. They brought in Kelley Washington. I'm surprised they didn't reactivate Gino Cappelletti.

They didn't mess around.

What they didn't do publicly (but what I hear they kinda/sorta did privately) was apologize to Tom Brady and his fans for leaving him so inadequately prepared to attack opposing secondaries. He tried to make do with Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney, and Bam Childress, plus an occasional glimpse of rookie Chad Jackson, and while I wouldn't say these guys were horrible, they clearly weren't quite good enough. It all made the decision to play hardball with onetime Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch look, um, debatable.

But they didn't stop there. They lost Corey Dillon, but they brought in Sammy Morris, a solid pro. They added veteran savvy at both cornerback (Tory James) and tight end (Kyle Brady).

Oh, and let's not forget Adalius Thomas.

Don't even attempt to tell me there is no pigskin cosmic planner Up There, because common sense tells us there has to be. Someday, somehow, some way, Bill Belichick and Adalius Thomas were fated to cross paths. The most freakish defensive player in the world was put on this earth to perform for the most innovative defensive coach alive. I can only imagine what was going through Coach Bill's mind the first time he laid eyes on this 6-foot-2-inch, 270-pound ballerina masquerading as a defensive end/linebacker. Thomas will be the ultimate king of Professor Belichick's chessboard.

So naturally people around here are excited. They have every right to be. These are not the top-heavy Celtics, totally dependent on three 30-something stars while hoping that some very flawed players will miraculously develop into the kind of vital auxiliary talents every championship team needs. The Patriots are a team with, among other assets, a superb defensive line, a smart, versatile linebacking corps, and a very underrated, dependable offensive line. The quarterback's not bad, either.

Are there issues? Sure. Who doesn't have issues?

1. Asante Samuel We appear to be engaged in a dangerous game of contractual chicken, with the skilled, unhappy cornerback on one side and skilled, principled talent evaluators on the other. Samuel risks watching his teammates celebrate in Glendale in the wee smalls of Feb. 4. The Patriots risk cornerbackitis if either a) an injury such as the one that deprives them of Chad Scott strikes again, or b) their existing crew just isn't good enough.

2. Laurence Maroney The Rook was rolling along, singing a song, just enjoying life when he hurt his shoulder. Now he must prove in a Dillon-less world that he can carry the load, that he can be a reliable 16-game No. 1 running back. There's a lot to like about Maroney, but he's not a mortal-lock Given.

3. Rodney Harrison When he's healthy and ready to go, the 13-year safety is more than just a good player. He is a Capital F Force, both on the field and in the locker room. But he only played three games in 2005 and 10 games last year, and if he misses a lot of time this year that is a major, major blow because though you might stick a competent body back there and call whomever a "strong safety," there is normal, everyday strong and there is Rodney Harrison Strong, you know what I'm sayin'?

The Patriots are an immeasurably better team when No. 37 is roaming back there, you know what I'm sayin'?

4. If anything happened to No. 12 . . . There is only one Brett Favre. Our Tom is on borrowed time. Mr. Brady has started 108 consecutive regular-season and playoff games since the fateful, history-changing hit Mo Lewis put on Drew Bledsoe. Behind him the Patriots offer Matt Cassel, a supposedly talented 25-year-old who has made a career out of backing up marquee players such as Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, and, for the past two seasons, Tom Brady.

Cassel is in possession of a unique résumé in contemporary American sport. Lurks there on another professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey, or soccer roster another player who last started a game in high school?

Would it not be asking for a wee too much from the Pigskin God to deliver two miracle sub quarterbacks to the same team in the same lifetime, let alone decade? We may fancy ourselves as fine people, but nobody is that virtuous, you know what I'm sayin'?

But, hey, it's football, and someone's going to get hurt. Can't worry about that. As I said, everybody has issues. And the Patriots have fewer than most.

In case you're wondering, Phoenix is a bit cooler than you think at that time of year. You might consider packing a light jacket, you know what I'm sayin'?

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail is ryan@globe.com.

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