A year and a half ago, the life of a New England Patriots fan was an enviable one.
The franchise had already won three out of the last six Super Bowls and with what was hailed as arguably the greatest team ever assembled, the 18-0 Pats seemed like a lock for a fourth title.
Then Super Bowl XLII happened, in which the over-matched, yet undaunted New York Giants pulled off one of the most improbable wins in Super Bowl history and shattered the hearts of Patriots fans everywhere.
Since that fateful loss, the proverbial legs (and more specifically the legs of Tom Brady) have come out from underneath the Patriots.
During the first quarter of the first game of the 2008 season, the Pats’ superstar quarterback suffered a season-ending injury to his knee after enduring a low hit to the legs from Kansas City Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard.
The team was further plagued by the injury bug as running back Laurence Maroney, outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, and strong safety Rodney Harrison, each key members of the 2007 AFC Championship roster, were placed on the injured reserve list during the season.
A season-ending injury to backup running back Sammy Morris in November certainly didn’t help things either.
Despite the valiant efforts of overachieving backup quarterback Matt Cassel (11-5 record) to fill Brady’s enormous cleats, the undermanned 2008 Patriots barely missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2002 season.
With a rejuvenated Tom Brady rejoining a talented roster filled with key offseason acquisitions, expectations are high again and New England sports fans anticipate watching a playoff run through January (and maybe even February) before their attention shifts to the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.
While a Patriots fan is more likely to buy an Eli Manning jersey than entertain the thought of completing the undefeated season the 2007 team came so close to achieving, the Patriots are an early contender to regain their spot as the NFL’s top team, and once again, it’s a good time to be a Pats fan.
Three Key Additions
Fred Taylor (RB, from Jacksonville Jaguars)
Fred Taylor’s 11-year stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars was feast or famine, as his career has been marked as much by impressive accomplishments on the field (12,271 rushing yards, 4.6 career yards per carry) as it has been by nagging injuries, which so often kept him off the field (played in only 141 of 176 possible regular season games with the Jaguars).
In his 11 seasons, Taylor contributed greatly to four different Jacksonville playoff runs. However, each of the Jaguars' playoff bids have come up short of the Super Bowl, with the past two playoff losses coming at the hands of...the New England Patriots.
After an illustrious, yet frustrating career with one franchise, the 33-year-old Taylor would love to play in and hopefully win a Super Bowl before he retires (reminiscent of Corey Dillon, isn't it?).
Taylor will back up the aforementioned Morris.
Joey Galloway (WR, from Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
A four time Pro-Bowler who has also never played in the Super Bowl, the 37-year-old Joey Galloway is an accomplished wide out who offers Brady an immensely reliable option on offense.
In 14 NFL seasons, which include stints with Seattle, Dallas, and Tampa Bay, Galloway has caught 10-plus touchdown passes in a season three times and has amassed 1,000-plus receiving yards in a season five times.
Despite an injury plagued 2008 season, in which he only played nine games, Galloway will be poised to line up alongside Randy Moss and Wes Welker as the team's No. 3 receiver.
Shawn Springs (CB, from Washington Redskins)
Entering his 13th NFL season, Shawn Springs joins the Patriots after successful stints in Seattle and Washington, respectively. Springs was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1998 and in 2004, he became the first cornerback in NFL history to lead his team (at that time the Redskins) in both interceptions (five) and sacks (six).
Respected by opposing quarterbacks as one of the better veteran defensive players in the NFL, Springs will start for the Pats at cornerback along with new acquisition Leigh Bodden.
Three Key Losses
Rodney Harrison (SS, Retired)
You can argue that he was a dirty player, but you simply cannot deny the tremendous impact that the tenacious Rodney Harrison had on the Patriots' during his six seasons with the team.
A vocal team leader, Harrison anchored the secondary of the Pats' stifling defense on the way to Super Bowl victories in 2003 and 2004.
After the 2008 season, during which he suffered a season-ending quadricep injury in a game against the Denver Broncos, Harrison announced that he would retire from the NFL and join the panel of NBC’s Football Night in America as an analyst.
Harrison leaves behind what was already a lackluster secondary at the end of last season.
Ellis Hobbs (CB, Traded to Philadelphia Eagles)
While Ellis Hobbs will unfortunately be remembered by Patriots fans as "the guy covering Plaxico Burress at the end of Super Bowl XLII," he will also be remembered for his grittiness and hustle.
Standing at a diminutive 5'9", Hobbs was a tough defensive player who missed only one game due to injury in his four seasons with the Pats and picked off nine passes during that span.
Matt Cassel (QB, Traded to Kansas City Chiefs)
One of the pleasant surprises of the 2008 NFL season, Matt Cassel’s play in the wake of Tom Brady’s absence far surpassed the expectations of Patriots fans.
Having not started a game at quarterback for a team since high school, Cassel went 10-5 in his 15 starts and was even named the Associated Press Offensive Player of the Week on two different occasions.
Patriots fans truly appreciated Cassel’s performance in his one season as the team's starting quarterback, but with Brady returning from injury, the team had no choice but to trade Cassel's value.
Key Matchup: Nov. 8 vs. Miami Dolphins
The last time the Miami Dolphins came to Gillette, they embarrassed the Patriots in a 38-13 blowout. Although the Pats managed to even the season series with a 48-28 romping of their own in Miami later in the season, the Dolphins are the defending champions of the AFC East, a title the Pats would like to have back.
Key Player Matchup: Nov. 15 at Indianapolis Colts
The ongoing debate of "Brady or Manning?" is as contentious a debate as the "Kobe/ LeBron" argument that currently captivates the NBA world.
Peyton Manning is fresh off earning his third NFL MVP award, but the 2007 NFL MVP, Brady, has three Super Bowl rings to Manning’s one.
Initially a spirited, yet one sided rivalry in favor of Brady’s Pats, Manning’s Colts reinvigorated the rivalry during the 2006 playoffs, beating the Pats in the AFC championship en route to a Super Bowl XLI victory.
Pats-Colts games are often hard-fought barn burners where two of the games' best QBs orchestrate a wild 60-minute show of "can you top this?"
Key Coaching Matchup: Oct. 11 at Denver Broncos
Josh McDaniels' departure from the Patriots' coaching staff is unlikely to spark a war of words/awkward post-game handshakes with Pats' coach Bill Belichick, such as the rivalry that ensued between Belichick and Eric Mangini (McDaniel’s predecessor as the Pats’ offensive coordinator) when Mangini left the Pats to coach the Jets.
Still, it will be interesting to see what the pupil throws at the professor when McDaniels and Belichick coach from opposite sidelines for the first time.
The main concern of Patriots fans this season is the health of Tom Brady. After tearing his ACL in the season opener last year, Brady has worked extremely hard to get back on the field for this season and has enjoyed a virtually seamless rehab thus far.
That doesn't mean, however, that Patriots fans won't be holding their collective breath every time Brady endures a big hit from an opposing defensive player (which probably won't happen often due to the Pats' solid offensive line).
Even after a yearlong hiatus, the record-setting Brady-Randy Moss duo is still one of the deadliest in football. While Moss remained a model teammate even as Cassel struggled to figure out how to utilize Moss' abilities, Moss must be chomping at the bit to hit the field with No. 12 again. Expect Moss' numbers to be more like those of his 2007 season.
Pro-Bowler Wes Welker, who thrives in the slot and can do just about anything on a football field, makes this arguably the best quarterback-receiving corps in the NFL. Newcomer Joey Galloway will only help.
Led by perennial Pro-Bowler Richard Seymour, the Pats' D-Line is the team's greatest strength on the other side of the ball.
Behind Tedy Bruschi, the older, yet still effective linebacker corps hits hard, but is vulnerable across the middle of the field.
The additions of Springs and Bodden will bolster the backfield, but Harrison's departure leaves a huge void. Third-year Patriot Brandon Meriweather and even rookie Patrick Chung will be called upon at the safety position.