Even after seven months, it's still tough to put the sting of last season's Super Bowl loss in perspective.
With every major turning point in Super Bowl XLVI playing out like a bad formulaic Hollywood sequel (think Expendables 2) to 2007's Black Sunday game, it has been a summer-long road to recovery for New England Patriots fans.
Of course, 30 other NFL fan-bases might say we're ungrateful. After all, we've seen an unprecedented run of success for a hometown team that was once an NFL afterthought.
We've enjoyed 11 straight winning seasons, five Super Bowl appearances, and three Lombardi Trophies.
Not bad for a team that was once trounced off the field by William "Refrigerator" Perry and the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Pats fans are lucky to witness the brilliant combination of QB Tom Brady and Coach Bill Belichick, and the good times appear poised to continue, with the Patriots ranked No. 1 in talent under the age of 25 according to Football Outsiders.
As a potential nightmare match-up on offense, with a revamped (and hopefully improved) D, the Pats look ready to make another run at the Super Bowl. Let's take a look at why the Pats are due for yet another epic season.
When the Pats Have the Ball
This edition of the Pats offense has a chance to set records again this season.
Beyond Brady, they've got elite offensive weapons, including the two-headed TE monster of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. "Gronk" set the record for TD receptions (17) and pass yards (1,327) by a tight end. He also contributed to a prolific Pats offense as a mauling blocker in both the pass and run game.
Hernandez brought versatility as a big, fast, receiving target who could split out wide or line up as an H-back (a tight end who lines up a yard or so behind the line of scrimmage and can pass protect, run a route, or be put into motion according to the defensive alignment). He came in the top five in the NFL in TE receptions, receiving yards, and touchdowns, just behind Gronk.
They also return slot-receiver Wes Welker, who racked up 122 receptions and 1,569 yards last season.
As if that weren't enough, the Patriots brought in big-play wideout Brandon Lloyd, who leads the NFL in targets (73) and receptions (27) over 20 yards downfield in the past two years.
Most importantly, he's sure-handed: in that time, he never had a single drop of a downfield pass.
With these four receiving talents and promising young runners Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen keeping defenses honest (and opening up the screen pass for returning OC Josh McDaniels), Tom Brady has the weapons to toy with every level of opposing defenses.
There are concerns with the health and performance of what is now a patchwork offensive line (with LT Matt Light retired, RT Sebastian Vollmer injured, and the status of RG Brian Waters in doubt). Still, the Patriots can always count on OL Coach Dante Scarnecchia to whip the unit into shape by Week 1.
When the Opposing Team Has the Ball
Much has been made of the Patriots' 31st-ranked defense last season.
Ultimately, the yards-allowed stat is misleading: very few teams have lost a game 300 yards to 293. It's the points-allowed total that matters, and the Pats ranked 15th in that category last season.
Still, it's clear to onlookers that the Patriots struggle to get off the field on third down, and they'll need to do so with much-increased consistency if they hope to hoist the Lombardi Trophy next February.
In order to do so, they'll need to pressure the quarterback more: according to ESPN's Inside the Numbers, Pats' opponents attempted throws under duress (under throw-altering pressure) only 14.1 percent of the time, which ranked 30th in the league.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism: the front-seven has been revamped with youth, athleticism, and talent. Belichick spent all of his draft picks except his seventh-rounder on defense, including two in the first round on DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower. Both players have performed well in preseason, with Jones in particular using a flurry of advanced pass-rush moves to dominate opponents at the point of attack.
With Jones and DT Vince Wilfork, the Pats have a stout defensive line that has the quickness and discipline to set the edge against the run and the strength to push the line and collapse the pocket.
With Hightower, the Pats have a stud LB who can allow captain Jerod Mayo to move to the outside, where he's a much more effective playmaker. This talented pair, coupled with monster run-stuffer Brandon Spikes, give the Patriots a fantastic linebacking corps.
The weakness on the Pats D is, yet again, the secondary. It remains to be seen whether CB Devin McCourty can recover from his sophomore slump, and Kyle Arrington had seven interceptions last season, but gambles too often and gets picked on by elite QBs.
Nevertheless, even this unit looks improved, with a healthy Patrick Chung and offseason signing Steve Gregory manning the safety positions, instead of below-replacement-level players like Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett.
The depth at corner looks better too, as the Pats return 2011 second-rounder Ras-I Dowling and bring in seventh-rounder Alfonzo Dennard to solidify the nickel position.
Though questions remain, it looks like the defensive unit may now have enough play-makers to make big stops when needed.
If so, the Pats will be in for a remarkably epic season in 2012.
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