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Sky's the limit for the Patriots, but there are questions

Posted by Gary Dzen, Boston.com Staff  July 25, 2012 10:15 AM

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As coach and coordinator in the National Football League, Bill Belichick has as many rings as the Olympics logo. Belichick sets his expectations high. And then he manages them impeccably.

Which is a good thing.

Because the sky appears the limit for the 2012 Patriots.

Fresh off yet another Super Bowl defeat to Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning and the New York Giants, Belichick and the Patriots will open training camp on Thursday with perhaps their deepest roster since the fateful 2007 campaign. The schedule looks relatively soft. And while there are obviously no guarantees in sports -- particularly in the unpredictable world of the NFL -- the Patriots look like a leading candidate to secure one of the top two seeds in the AFC by season's end.

If they stay healthy ... the Patriots are loaded, folks.

So what could derail this team? Lots of things -- which Belichick is certain to point out. Here are five things worth considering as the Patriots enter camp:

1. The offensive line is currently in a state of disarray.

Hardly a minor concern, right? Matt Light has retired. Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer will begin camp on the physically unable to perform list. Brian Waters -- at least to those of us on the outside -- is up in the air. That leaves more questions than answers in front of quarterback Tom Brady.

Of course, it is difficult to imagine that Belichick is unprepared for any of this. He must know that Waters is returning. He has resigned both Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly, and he has added Robert Gallery for depth. He still has Marcus Cannon and Nate Solder, among others. Last season, the Patriots lost Koppen in the season opener at Miami -- and they really didn't skip a beat.

Still, nothing can undermine a team's hopes line a bad offensive line, though a few things can come close. Like, for example ...

2. The defense.

Belichick apologists love to emphasize one of Belichick's long-lasting tenets -- points matter, not yards -- but the truth is that yards hurt the Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Giants held the ball for 37:05 to the Patriots 22:55, and the Patriots defense simply could not get off the field. Beginning in 2007, the Patriots defense has gone from fourth to 10th to 11th to 25th to 31st in yards allowed.

Even Belichick now seems to have conceded that this has been a major problem, spending much of the offseason revamping the defense through the draft and free agency. The Patriots did not sign Mario Williams, but they spent almost all of their draft collateral (including two first-round picks -- Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower) on defense and made a handful of free-agent acquisitions (Jonathan Fanene, Steve Gregory, Trevor Scott).

Watching the defense develop (or not) will be one of the major stories of this season.

3. The backfield.

As we all know, the Patriots pass first and run second, as well they should. In the final eight regular season games of last year, Brady threw 19 touchdowns against just two interceptions, replicating the pace he held during much of the 2010 season. Belichick added fullback Spencer Larsen to the mix, but the cast of potential ball carriers really seems to include only Joseph Addai, Stevan Ridley, Danny Woodhead and Shane Vereen.

So who gets the ball on third-and-1?

Or do the Patriots just abandon all pretense and throw?

Remember: after fumbling in a meaningless situation against Denver in the playoffs last year, Ridley never got the ball again. Vereen has 15 attempts in his career. Addai has averaged better than four yards per carry just once in the last four years, and Woodhead is more of a situational back most effective as a runner when operating out of spread formations.

Some of this obviously relates to the state of the offensive line, but will the Patriots have any power running game if and when they need it?

4. Injuries, specifically to You Know Who.

The last time the Patriots came off a Super Bowl loss, Brady did not make it through the first quarter of the subsequent season opener. Just like that, the Patriots' entire season changed, Matt Cassel assuming the controls during an 11-5 campaign that is widely celebrated in these parts as a success.

Here's the problem: Brady now has far less time left in the hourglass than he did four years ago. There is every chance someone like Brian Hoyer could lead the Patriots to double-digit wins for a 10th straight season, but every year becomes a little more urgent for Brady, who turns 35 next week.

Obviously, keeping Brady out of harm's way is Priority 1 every season -- but that task becomes more and more important each year.

5. History.

Make of this what you will, but since the Miami Dolphins rebounded from a Super Bowl loss and went undefeated in 1972, no Super Bowl loser has come back to win the title the next season. Not one. In the case of the Patriots, who are now 3-4 in seven Super Bowl appearances, the season after their three previous defeats have produced records of 11-5, 10-6 and 11-5.

Pretty good, right? Except that the Patriots didn't make it past the divisional round in any of those years, going 1-2 in the postseason (in the 1986 and 1997 seasons) and missing the playoffs altogether (in 2008).

In the last five years, the only Super Bowl loser to have even won a playoff game the following year is the Arizona Cardinals, who made it to the divisional round in 2009. Pittsburgh lost in the wildcard round last year. Indianapolis lost in the wildcard round the previous season. Prior to Arizona, the Patriots and Chicago Bears missed the playoffs entirely.

Given his attention to detail, Belichick undoubtedly knows this.

As a result, rest assured that his players will, too.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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