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A dozen fearless Patriots predictions

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 12, 2011 03:17 PM

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Let's leave the flashy intros to Hank Williams Jr., Faith Hill and whoever else. The Patriots' new season is just hours away from kickoff, so let's take a best guess at what's ahead before it finally begins . . .

1. Aaron Hernandez will lead the Patriots in receptions with at least 70. Hernandez is often compared to the Colts' Dallas Clark, who as Patriots fans are well aware has been a dangerous, versatile pass-catching threat over the course of his career. But Clark never had more than 37 catches in his first four seasons before breaking out with 58 in 2007. Hernandez had 45 catches last season while missing two games -- and he was more than three years younger than Clark was as a rookie. He's going to be a star, sports fans. And the ascent begins tonight.

2. Andre Carter will reach double-digits in sacks. Shaun Ellis will be the most consistent and valuable of the assorted veteran defensive linemen brought in during the offseason, but it is the relentless Carter who will do the most to make sure the Patriots surpass last season's total of 36 sacks.

3. BenJarvus Green-Ellis won't approach 1,000 yards again. With Danny Woodhead an integral part of the offense and the arrival of draft picks Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen, the Patriots will have a more varied running game than they did a season ago. While Vereen is still a mystery, based on what we saw of Ridley in the first two preseason games, it wouldn't surprise me if he usurped BJGE as the team's top rusher.

4. Deion Branch will finish with more receptions than Chad Ochocinco. It's probably worth repeating the usual caveat: If he stays healthy. But don't sweat Branch's catchless preseason; as he proved last year upon his return from Seattle, there's a decent change he communicates telepathically with Brady. Don't take this as a suggestion that Ochocinco is going to be a bust; it's simply that until he's comfortable in the offense, he's probably going to be a bit of an afterthought in the early going.

Thumbnail image for finngronk912.jpg5. Rob Gronkowski will reach double figures in touchdown receptions for the second straight season. Ben Coates is the Patriots' all-time leader for receiving touchdowns by a tight end, with 50, 47 of which presumably came when he was double-covered and Drew Bledsoe stuck it in there anyway. Second on the list is All-World Russ Francis, with 28. If Gronkowski can match his rookie season total of 10 this year, he will tie Benjamin Watson -- yep, that Benjamin Watson -- for third on the list. Given the reports of Gronkowski's improved knowledge of the offense, it says here to put him down for a dozen.

6. Randy Moss will sign elsewhere within the season's first month. And the silly conjecture about him returning to the Patriots finally expires.

7. Patrick Chung will make the Pro Bowl. And unlike the last Pro Bowl berth by a Patriots safety, this one will be entirely justified. Chung had his highs (think the Dolphins remember his performance against them in Miami last year?) and lows (the botched fake punt against the Jets, thought it wasn't entirely his fault), but his work ethic and physical ability suggest someone who is going to be a cornerstone player sooner rather than later.

8. Josh Barrett will emerge as a dependable performer at safety. Well, it has to be somebody, and Barrett, a 230-pounder who was plucked away from Josh McDaniels and the Broncos last season when they put him on waivers to try to get him to IR, is the best bet among Sergio Brown and James Ihedigbo to give fans that ah-ha! moment as to what Belichick saw that made him comfortable in cutting both Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders.

9. Albert Haynesworth will reinvent himself as an extremely valuable role player. The Patriots aren't going to ask him to be the wrecking ball who was The Sporting News's choice for NFL defensive player of the year in 2008, and he seems intent on proving that his days of having the best seat in the house to watch Michael Vick scramble just outside of his radius are behind him. He'll play 20-25 snaps a game, grind a couple of quarterbacks' rib cages into saltines along the way, stop the run the way Ted Washington did in 2003, and be exactly what Belichick thought he could be.

10. Tom Brady will double last year's interception total. . . . all the way up to eight, which is still less than a third of Eli Manning's total last season. He could even triple it -- he has thrown exactly 12 picks in a season three times in his career -- and still be a frontrunner for the Most Valuable Player award. Brady may be 34 now, but the offense he's orchestrating is as versatile as any the Patriots have had during his career, and he has a long way to regress just to be called very good.

11. Jerod Mayo will be a serious candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year: He led the league in tackles last season . . . and now he's being let loose to make plays as a pass rusher? Let's put it this way: By season's end, he will get his due as one of the few genuine elite linebackers in the league.

12. The Patriots will win the AFC East, bounce the Chargers and Steelers in the playoffs en route to their first Super Bowl appearance since 2007. . . . where the champion Packers will await. How will that go? Hmmmm. How about we hang on to that prediction for February?

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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