The New England Patriots are always among the favorites to make a run to the Super Bowl, and this article is no different.
Of course, it won't be 100-percent smooth sailing along the way. There will likely be at least one loss in there, and not everyone will put up otherworldly stats. The offensive line is also a cause for concern.
But with Tom Brady at the helm of the offense, the Patriots are poised for big things once again in 2012.
Here are some predictions as we gear up for the opening of the 2012 NFL season.
Protection issues have been prevalent all preseason, and unless the offensive line has put it together in the short time since we last saw them, quarterback Tom Brady could be under a lot of duress this season.
Only four times in his 10 full years as an NFL quarterback has Brady been sacked more than 30 times ('01-'03, and '11), and only once more than 33 times (41 sacks in '01).
The quarterback learned to release the ball more quickly, but the offensive line also meshed into a unit that was one of the best in the league and for awhile was among the most steady units on the roster.
That is no more, with a ton of turnover on the offensive line over the past few seasons. We await the status of right guard Brian Waters, who has yet to report. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer's back remains a concern as well. Although Nate Solder performed much better in the third preseason game, he did not look good in the first two contests.
The rising number of concerns on the offensive line could lead to a rising number of sacks on Brady, and 33 sacks would be the most Brady has endured since becoming the starter in 2001.
The more important question, and the one I am unable to make a bold prediction on, is whether the beating Brady endures will result in him missing any time this season.
Yes, this is really more like two predictions in one, but I wouldn't consider it overly bold to say that Welker won't be a New England Patriot in 2013 after the extension handed to tight end Aaron Hernandez.
But even with the emergence of the tight ends, Welker should still be in line for an NFL record fifth year with more than 100 receptions.
I said just over two weeks ago that Welker would pull in 110 receptions, and with less proven veteran receivers on the roster now than the Patriots had just a week ago, it would seem the case has been built more strongly for Welker to surpass that number.
This is essentially the same offense as last year, minus Deion Branch and plus Brandon Lloyd. After an offseason where it seemed like the Patriots were determined to surround Brady with familiar weapons, Welker's presence remains the most familiar one.
The Patriots brought in Brandon Lloyd because they needed an outside-the-numbers threat, and a receiver who is familiar with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' system.
In other words, they didn't bring him in to be the second coming of Randy Moss. Or Chad Ochojohnson.
Lloyd will be neither-nor this year—he will not be the record-setting receiver Moss was, nor will he be the epic fail that Johnson was.
It would be easy to predict big things for Lloyd, who has put up big numbers in McDaniels' offense two straight years with a combined 147 receptions for 2,414 yards and 16 touchdowns, but Lloyd was easily the best receiver for the Broncos in 2010 and the Rams in 2011. With Wes Welker and the tight ends, there won't be an overwhelming number of opportunities coming his way.
Expect solid numbers from Lloyd—somewhere in the 50-catch, 800-yard, eight-touchdown range—but not the otherworldly numbers one might ordinarily expect from an emerging receiver catching passes from one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
So far, Devin McCourty's career has been up (2010) and down (2011). 2012 could be a make-or-break year for him, but after an up-and-down preseason which saw him play well against the Saints and then give up one reception after another against the Buccaneers, it's still unclear where he projects.
He may simply not be as suited to cover the outside of the field as he appeared to be in his rookie season.
One move the Patriots might make that would make a bit of noise would be to put McCourty in the slot.
Yes, ideally a first-round cornerback isn't your third cornerback, but the Patriots run sub packages more often than they run a base defense, which means the third cornerback is essentially a starter anyway. Plus, moving McCourty to the slot takes advantage of his willingness to get his nose dirty in run defense.
He also had a sack on a corner blitz out of the slot against the Packers in 2010.
McCourty could find a home in the slot, much like Charles Woodson has for the Packers.
Many draft pundits thought it would take defensive end Chandler Jones some time before he'd be ready to contribute on a wide scale.
The Patriots' first-round draft choice had different plans, and he stormed out of the gate this preseason, putting a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and logging a sack of Buccaneers starting quarterback Josh Freeman.
The Patriots are looking to replace 20 sacks left behind by defensive ends Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, and although Jones figures to do much more than simply rush the passer, he will have plenty of opportunities to do so. If the preseason is any indication, he should be able to maximize those opportunities.
In 2010, Hernandez and Gronkowski combined for 16 touchdowns. In 2011, Gronknandez teamed up for 25 total touchdowns (24 receiving, one rushing).
That averages out to 20.5 touchdowns between the two. I'll take the over, but just to put a little more chutzpah into it, I'll go 1.5 over.
Yes, this is a more versatile offense than the ones we've seen in the past with these two tight ends, but with the absence of a top-notch goal-line back like the Patriots had in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the Patriots might be throwing the ball a lot more down near the goal line than they have in recent years.
Also, don't forget that Hernandez could even be utilized in interesting ways out of the backfield.
That would seem to play into the favor of the Patriots getting their money's worth out of their two biggest matchup headaches.
There is no other back in the league as dependable as BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but just because he's a one-of-a-kind back doesn't necessarily mean the Patriots will sorely miss him.
As mentioned earlier, the two tight ends will likely figure into the game plan much more strongly in the red zone and down near the goal line.
Plus, Brady is often regarded as one of the best in the game at executing the quarterback dive on 3rd-and-1.
At some point, one of New England's running backs will inevitably fumble the ball. At that point, New England sports talk radio will inevitably blow it out of proportion, saying that they shouldn't have let Green-Ellis walk (especially if it costs them the game).
But you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that Stevan Ridley's two fumbles last year were a sign of fumbleitis in its infantile stages.
One of the Patriots' surprise cuts as they trimmed the roster down to 53, Deion Branch figures to make a return at some point in the 2012 season.
The Patriots currently have just four wide receivers on their roster. Although the position isn't as valuable to the Patriots as it is to other teams (by virtue of there being only two or three wide receivers on the field at most), just one injury could leave the Patriots thinner than a twig at wide receiver.
After an All-Pro season for tight end Rob Gronkowski, it would be too easy to predict big things for him again.
Besides, I don't think he can replicate that kind of production anyway, for multiple reasons.
The first being that defenses will be keying in on him more often than they did last year—after hauling in a record-setting 17 touchdowns in 2011, it's not hard to see why they would.
Secondly, Gronkowski is underrated as a blocking tight end. With the aforementioned offensive line issues, specifically at tackle. keeping an extra tight end in line to chip defensive ends may be part of the offensive game plan this year more often than last year.
Not only all of that, but Hernandez has looked increasingly comfortable with Brady all preseason long in practices. He is the Patriots' quintessential matchup problem, and the Patriots will likely look to take advantage of that wherever they can.
The addition of Brandon Lloyd could also open things up even further for the tight ends over the middle.
It may not be the sexy prediction that 16-0 would be, but to predict a team to lose just one game is bold enough from this perspective, especially since only five teams in NFL history have gone 15-1 since the league expanded to a 16-game season.
Of those teams, only two have won the Super Bowl.
It's certainly feasible for this team to go undefeated, and the league's easiest schedule makes it tempting, but I just can't bring myself to predict an undefeated regular season.
So who do they lose to? The Baltimore Ravens. With a bitter taste in their mouth from the AFC Championship Game, expect the Ravens defense to come out swinging. Also expect the fans to be louder than even for some games against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Oh, and Billy Cundiff isn't there to shank a field goal.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.