When the New England Patriots lost Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants, the NFL's symbol of dominant consistency over the past decade seemingly crumbled. The league's model franchise found itself two minutes from an undefeated season and instead saw themselves suffering one of the most gut-wrenching losses in football history.
With a foul taste in their mouth, the Patriots took the field for the 2008 season and immediately lost their most important player, Tom Brady, to a season-ending knee injury. They finished 11-5 and barely missed the playoffs for just the second time since 2001.
Now it's 2009. Brady is back and so are his vital weapons Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Laurence Maroney. With every season however, team's are forced to make personnel changes in the front office, the coaching staff and most importantly, the playing field. Out is Scott Pioli, Josh McDaniel, Mike Vrabel, Matt Cassel, and Rodney Harrison. In are veterans Fred Taylor, Joey Galloway, and Shawn Springs.
The addition of Tom Brady poses a logical question for a team that nearly ran the table two years ago. Can they do it again? The short answer to that question is probably not. The Patriots have an extremely deep running back core, the best quarterback in football and arguably the most talented wide receiving duo in the AFC.
On the flip side, their competition has gotten dramatically more talented. In 2007, the AFC East was one of the worst divisions in professional football. Nobody besides New England finished above .500 and the Miami Dolphins nearly failed to win a single game. This season the Buffalo Bills have added a dynamic (however risky) play maker in Terrell Owens, and both the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are legitimate contenders for a playoff spot.
Looking at their own squad for a second, New England will easily have the most explosive offense in the league next year, but their defense remains a slight question mark. The secondary is inexperienced, but promising, with the drafting of Patrick Chung and Darius Butler. Their first round pick from 2007, safety Brandon Meriweather, is on the verge of growing into that rare breed of hard hitting defensive back who can also excel in coverage.
The previously mentioned loss of Mike Vrabel could pose a problem to the outside line-backing core which really struggled at getting after the quarterback last year. Rumored big name prizes such as Julius Peppers and Jason Taylor fizzled out, and the team now looks like it will be forced to develop what it already has.
The Patriots are still an extremely strong team heading into the upcoming season and if no major injuries occur, which is like expecting moderate drizzle during monsoon season, then the New England Patriots should win their fourth Super Bowl of the decade. Anything less than another Lombardi Trophy will most certainly be considered a wasted opportunity.