Only a few months removed from their last Super Bowl appearance, the New England Patriots have spent the offseason infusing their roster with fresh talent in a quest for a fourth banner.
Expectations are high this season, but those expectations are coupled with an enormous task: No team has reached back-to-back Super Bowls since 2003 and 2004. Of course, the Patriots were the ones who accomplished that feat, so this situation is familiar to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
The question is: How likely are they to get back to the Super Bowl in 2012?
My feelings on the subject are mixed.
On one hand, I'm 100 percent confident in Tom Brady. Having just turned 35, Brady shows no signs of wear and tear. His efficiency continues to be nothing short of remarkable.
If you ask me, I'll hang on to Brady for as long as humanly possible. He recently told the media, "Hopefully, I'm still talking to you guys when I'm 42."
I'll take him until he's 50.
I'm not concerned about Brady's performance in 2012, I'm concerned about his protection and his ability to stay safe. The Patriots' offensive line is thin and far from elite. They're assembling this unit with scotch tape. This method was used last season with our secondary and it didn't work.
Playing funny mix-and-match games with the defensive backs is one thing, but playing games with Brady's bodyguards is a horse of a different color. Now, they're playing with fire. If this bridge burns, the season burns.
Here's the most frustrating part of this whole thing: These problems with the offensive line were easy to predict. It was suspected that Matt Light was retiring, even before he did officially. Everyone knew Logan Mankins was banged-up. It was obvious the future of Brian Waters was sketchy.
Everyone knew the quality along the O-Line was dwindling. These woes didn't creep up on anyone, they've been here for months.
And yet, this wasn't concern in the draft. After making a pair of intelligent choices with Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, the Patriots made a series of debatable selections that easily could've been spent on offensive linemen.
Granted, it wasn't a supremely strong draft year for offensive linemen, but I'd rather roll the dice on protecting Brady than take a gamble on Nate Ebner's potential on special teams.
The team's weakness along the O-Line isn't a secret. I'm friends with a few diehard Jets fans, we talk almost every day, and they're all salivating looking at our offensive line. They smell blood in the water. They barely talk about the internal strife within their team's franchise, but they have plenty to say about Brady.
Normally, I don't make it my business to care about what Jets fans think about Tom Brady and the offensive line. But in this case, I have to make it my business because they're right. Nothing irritates me more than when Jets fans are right on the money.
There is a glaring hole that the Jets (and Bills) are capable of exposing.
As usual, for fans of any team in the AFC East, every discussion ultimately comes down to Tom Brady.
Brady is the variable that separates the Patriots from the rest of the division. While the roster has changed repeatedly over the last decade, Brady has remained constant and true. No matter what alterations have been experienced, he's been the unbreakable nucleus that has kept the divisional crown on our team's head.
Tom Brady is special. He makes his teammates better—Wes Welker is proof of that. But it's Brady's second talent which makes him so indispensable: His offensive prowess allows the lesser-skilled units to get away with being just "good enough."
The Pats don't need Jason Pierre-Paul or Darrelle Revis to reach the Super Bowl. Brady's so efficient, his team can reach the Super Bowl with Andre Carter's season being cut short by injury and Devin McCourty having a down year. Brady allows the Pats to move mountains with a "good enough" defense.
But a "good enough" offensive line? That's a different story, and the divisional enemies are wise to this.
Buffalo's offseason moves have already shown their cards. And, truth be told, they have good cards to show. It's clear they've studied Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI and came to the proper conclusion: Get to Brady and beat the Patriots.
Brady is the reason the Bills acquired Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. The Bills are operating on the reverse-mentality of the Patriots. With such a strong pass-rushing unit, Buffalo's offense only needs to be "good enough" to ultimately unseat the Patriots from their throne.
Of course, Buffalo doesn't have Eli Manning throwing the football, so their blueprint for winning should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, their pass rush has improved while the Patriots offensive line has weakened.
Bottom line for Patriots fans: We have a fantastic team, but they are extra vulnerable at the most vulnerable spot. We have a great brain with a soft skull. Opposing teams and opposing fans have already recognized this truth and they're ready for full-contact war.
How concerned should we be? Well, we can't live in fear. Football is a violent game and every quarterback is in danger, so potential injuries are a universal concern across the board.
To live in that fear is futile. If it happens, it happens. Worrying about it won't affect the way it all shakes out, one way or another.
But, then again, it isn't our job to worry about it. You and I don't get paid to assemble New England's offensive line. We don't receive checks with a little note in the memo saying: "Great job protecting Brady! You earned this!"
Nope, that's not us. Ain't our job.
But certain people actually have this job. There are people who make a living by assembling a proper offensive line to guard New England's most important asset. This is their livelihood.
But as of now, I don't like what I'm seeing on the practice field. This offensive line is shaky at best.
This is a rough spot to be in. We've overachieved in so many areas, but we've seemingly underachieved at the one spot which should be airtight.
Brady must be protected.
We can't have a "good enough" offensive line. If that's what we have, then what we have is unacceptable.