6 Encouraging Signs Heading into New England Patriots' 2012 Season

Marc FreshmanContributor IJune 20, 2012

6 Encouraging Signs Heading into New England Patriots' 2012 Season

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    When your football team makes accurate decisions during the offseason, the season can't arrive soon enough. The energy is electric. You can feel it in your bones and in your fingertips. You'll take the crumbs of preseason, anything that even remotely fills you with the rush that comes from the opening day kickoff.

    Every day that passes is one day closer to seeing Brandon Lloyd take the field and catch his first touchdown as a Patriot.

    Every day is one step closer to seeing Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower suit up and dominate.

    Every day is another step closer to finding out which unsung hero will step up for New England and become the next Sterling Moore. Speaking of Moore, every day that passes is another step closer to seeing this young prodigy blossom before our eyes.

    Rest assured, Patriot Nation, your team is looking very sharp right now.

    Here are six encouraging signs heading into the Patriots' new season. 

The Patriots Fixed Their Biggest Hole on Offense

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    New England's offense was nearly perfect last season, but it contained one major flaw: There wasn't a single player who could catch the deep ball and make the big play.

    It was a startling hole in their offense which was often concealed by the dazzling theatrics of Rob Gronkowski. Wes Welker routinely helped to conceal the depth of the hole with his masterful ability to march the chains downfield. It was enough to lull you into believing that perfection really existed and New England had somehow captured it in a bottle.

    But still, the flaw was there, waiting to be exposed.

    Heading into Super Bowl XLVI, Gronkowski was seriously banged up. He was done for the year. Gone were the theatrics which had propelled the team to so many dramatic victories throughout the regular season. His sudden ineffectiveness is what caused the bloody flaw to seep through the bandages. 

    Welker's infamous drop ripped the bandages right off. As brilliant as Welker is at collecting short-to-medium yardage, that wasn't a catch he was likely to make. He was never going to make the biggest play in the biggest game of the year. It's not his thing.

    Simply put: The Patriots didn't have a guy who could've made that catch.

    Now they do. They have Brandon Lloyd.

    Problem solved.

The Jets Haven't Improved

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    Last season was a nightmare for the Jets. They got swept by the Patriots, which put the newly-heated rivalry on ice and proved that Rex Ryan wasn't fit to be engaged in a duel with Bill Belichick.

    Mark Sanchez stopped evolving as a quarterback. Rex Ryan's endless taunts essentially spurred the Giants on a warpath of bloodshed straight through the playoffs.

    The Jets missed the postseason with a dismal 8-8 record. Their locker room was in shambles, even after the team's season was over.

    It all ended with Ryan's two arch-rivals facing off in the Super Bowl.

    You'd think that would be rock bottom, but it wasn't. 

    Prior to the 2012 draft, WEEI's fantastic blog "It Is What It Is" released a very interesting list of upcoming draft picks with character concerns. As I read through it, I got a funny feeling that the Jets would use their first selection on one of those players. And, of course, they did.

    That's not a knock against Quinton Coples. He's a terrific player. But still, it's an illustration of how predictable this franchise has become.

    This is a team that doesn't think twice about making Santonio Holmes a captain. The acquisition of Tim Tebow was crazy, but not terribly surprising when you consider the franchise. Giving Mark Sanchez an extension was equally as strange, but fit right into their pattern. The Jets don't make chess moves, they simply bang the board with their fists until the pieces move.  

    Always an encouraging sign when your biggest divisional adversary refuses to help itself. 

The Patriots Have a Growing Stockpile of League Leaders

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    Here are a few key players and where they ranked in the NFL over the last two seasons:

    2010

    Tom Brady: No. 1 in passer rating (111.0 rating)

    Brandon Lloyd: No. 1 in receiving yards (1,448 yards)

    Jerod Mayo: No. 1 in tackles (175 tackles)

    Devin McCourty: No. 2 in interceptions (7 picks)

     

    2011

    Kyle Arrington: No. 1 in interceptions (7 picks)

    Wes Welker: No. 2 in receiving yards (1,569 yards)

    Tom Brady: No. 2 in total passing yards (5,235 yards)

    Rob Gronkowski: No. 2 in touchdowns (18 TD)

    Rob Gronkowski: No. 6 in receiving yards (highest-ranked tight end, 1,327 yards)

    Very encouraging numbers, indeed. Which Patriot will lead the league in 2012? Can't say for sure, but one thing is certain: The season can't get here fast enough. 

They Have the Perfect Schedule

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    The path is there for New England to capture a playoff bye.

    Still, this isn't a cake walk; there's enough hardcore competition on the docket to really gauge the team's progress and whip it into championship shape. It's just the right amount of balance, which ever-so-slightly tips in New England's favor.

    Here's the schedule:

    Week 1: @ Tennessee Titans

    Week 2: Arizona Cardinals

    Week 3: @ Baltimore Ravens

    Week 4: @ Buffalo Bills

    Week 5: Denver Broncos

    Week 6: @ Seattle Seahawks

    Week 7: New York Jets

    Week 8: @ St. Louis Rams (in London)

    Week 9: Bye

    Week 10: Buffalo Bills

    Week 11: Indianapolis Colts

    Week 12: @ New York Jets (Thanksgiving)

    Week 13: @ Miami Dolphins

    Week 14: Houston Texans

    Week 15: San Francisco 49ers

    Week 16: @ Jacksonville Jaguars

    Week 17: Miami Dolphins

    All in all, it's the perfect schedule. This has the makings of a 13-3 season.

Their Defensive Backfield Looks Lean and Mean

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    Four encouraging signs about New England's secondary in 2012:

    1. Ras-I Dowling is recovering nicely from the hip injury which sidelined him last season. He has a tremendous opportunity to re-do his rookie year and leave a lasting impact on this team.

    2. After saving the Patriots' season in the 2011 AFC championship with a brilliant end zone strip on Lee Evans, Sterling Moore now has a full season to settle into the roster and blossom into his role. He'll probably play every game, which will be incredible for fans to watch. If instinct is the most essential component of defending the backfield, then Sterling Moore has a very special future.

    3. Devin McCourty finally has a full offseason to prepare. Look for him to dust off the cobwebs of his sophomore slump and bring the heat in 2012. For an encouraging look at McCourty's progress over the offseason, check out this great video. And this one.

    4. Nate Ebner will be a fan favorite in New England. Fan favorites are important because they energize the home crowd and emotionally propel themselves and their teammates to new heights (Rob Gronkowski and Andre Carter come to mind).

    Ebner is tough as steel. He'll have an impact on special teams, but also look for him to spend some time as a strong safety. I wouldn't be surprised to see this kid turn into a dynamo.

    Here's a great article detailing Ebner's college days at Ohio State and his path from rugby to football. Impossible not to love this kid. A great little quote from Paul Haynes, defensive coordinator and safeties coach from Ohio State:

    "The guys we protected during the week were the quarterback and Nate Ebner."

    This secondary is really shaping up. When you factor in the old reliables like Patrick Chung and Kyle Arrington, along with new guys like Tavon Wilson, Steve Gregory, Marquice Cole and Will Allen, you have the recipe for a dynamic defensive backfield. So far, so good.  

The 2011 Patriots Were Extremely Flawed and Still Almost Won the Super Bowl

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    The Patriots have three phenomenal episodes of NFL Network's "America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions." The episode which chronicles their 2001 season is narrated and hosted by Tom Brady, former kicker Adam Vinatieri and former Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy. Here they are, reflecting on a particularly meaningful game from the 2001 season.

    Adam Vinatieri:

    "I think the pivotal time in that season was the game against the St. Louis Rams, the first time."

    Lawyer Milloy:

    "We're 5-4, starting to feel good about ourselves again. But this was 'the greatest show on turf' coming in, this was the team that everybody labeled 'the Super Bowl champions' before the season. All the publications had them winning the Super Bowl."

    Tom Brady:

    "I think you're always trying to compare yourself to teams, trying to figure out where you stand. I think that game, even though we lost, gave us some confidence."

    Adam Vintatieri:

    "If this is the next Super Bowl champion, hey, they're not that much better than us."

    Lawyer Milloy:

    "In the locker room, you would've thought we won the game because they're supposed to be the next Super Bowl champions, what can we be?"

    Those are powerful quotes which are still very relevant today. 

    Generally speaking, teams reach the Super Bowl in one of two ways: They're either playing truly amazing football or they're riding a strong tidal wave of momentum.

    The 2011 Giants had both of these things going for them.

    As soon as the Giants dismantled the Jets, they went on a rampage. Everything about that team fell right into place at the right time. Heading into the Super Bowl, the Giants were playing their best football and they had a ton of momentum pushing them forward.

    The Patriots, however, were not playing their best football when they entered the Super Bowl. Also, they didn't have nearly the same momentum as the Giants.

    Top to bottom, the Giants were a more complete team with a wider array of receivers and a more blistering unit of pass rushers. In addition, the Giants were simply more confident. You could detect the swagger in their strut. 

    The Giants entered the Super Bowl at the peak of their powers. They were playing championship-caliber football. The Patriots entered the Super Bowl by playing just good enough to get there.

    But that, in of itself, is amazing. Getting to the Super Bowl when you're not playing your best football is incredible. Getting there, then losing by only four points, is astounding. It's fresh momentum for next season.

    This is exactly what Brady, Vinatieri and Milloy were talking about in the documentary. They were trying to find their identity, they were growing as a team and trying to figure themselves out, and they still almost beat the championship-caliber Rams. The Patriots used that momentum to eventually defeat the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

    The 2011 Patriots lost to a superior team by only four points. Think about what the 2012 Patriots can accomplish.

    It's going to be a great year.