At the start of the 2008 NFL season, if you told me that a Patriots team, minus Tom Brady, could win eleven games, then just miss the playoffs to the division champion Dolphins, I would have called you crazy, perhaps insane, and definitely dreaming.
But those dreams came true, in nightmare variety, when Brady went down in the first quarter of the first game. It almost became a Cinderella story for Matt Cassel, but it just wasn't meant to be.
But that was then, and as I'm sure you're well aware, this is 2009, not 2008. Tom Brady's back, Matt Cassel has moved on to the redder pastures of Arrowhead, and the Patriots are again ready to make a run at the Super Bowl.
That's brings us to...
PREDICTION NUMBER ONE: The New England Patriots will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl (and there should be little doubt about it)
The AFC North has two candidates who could put up a fight, but don't expect it to be two-sided. The Steelers may be defending champions, but they're defending a title from one of the most anti-climactic seasons in recent memory.
Steel town may have better odds than their division rivals in Baltimore, who will most likely fall in the sophomore slump that will be Joe Flacco. And if you want to talk about the Browns or the Bengals putting up a fight against New England, perhaps you should stick to hockey.
In the AFC South, the Colts are a year older. Peyton Manning will be minus his historically favorite target in Marvin Harrison, not to mention there's a brand new head coach, offensive coordinator, and offensive line coach (the latter two are still around as "special consultants", but they'll have to be really special for it to make any sort of impact).
This will be a season of adjustment in Indianapolis even with their potent defense. Tennessee's iron curtain of a defense will display more chinks in the armor in 2009 having lost Albert Haynesworth to free agency.
We won't even discuss the AFC West. Denver can't play defense against the worst in the Pac-10, let alone in the NFL. Kansas City will be Kansas City again, and Oakland... well, let's just say they'll need a miracle to even be mentioned in the same breath as New England (after this article, of course).
Finally, within the division, the Pats' chances are ten-fold when compared to those previously mentioned teams. Despite the fact that they didn't win the division, New England is clearly leaps and bounds above Miami, who boast arguably one of the most difficult schedules in the league.
The Jets are poised to fail behind Mark Sanchez in his rookie campaign, with our without the rumored acquisition of Brandon Marshall. As for the Bills, they won't touch the Pats, Terrell Owens and all. Their offense might be able to put up numbers, but without Marshawn Lynch in the Monday Night opener, Belichick's boys will run away with it. As for their second meeting... I'm siding with history on this one, and history reminds me it's been many seasons since the Bills have won a game against New England.
That's just a little bit of reasoning as to the weakness of the AFC's foes, but there's clearly strengths to give reason to get behind the Patriots, namely their offensive prowess.
PREDICTION NUMBER TWO: The Patriots boast the NFL's best offense in over a decade... if you don't count the 2007 Pats, that is.
The last full season that Brady had his targets in Randy Moss and Wes Welker, he broke the single season passing touchdown record with an unthinkable 50 scores through the air, 23 of which going to Randy Moss, the record for receivers.
That offense once again will take the field. With all injuries aside, there's little to no reason to think that the Brady/Moss connection won't dominate defenses around the National Football League.
Wes Welker was effective as a slot receiver in Miami, but since coming to New England he's become an absolute machine having an average of 111.5 receptions in the two years he's been a Patriot compared to the 96 receptions he made in all three years in Miami. He's got proven hands, explosive quickness, and brute strength for his size.
But let us not forget about the running attack. Most people will state New England can't run, that they're a passing team solely... if you're one of those people, do yourself a favor and check your sources.
In 2008, the Pats were 6th in the NFL in rushing yards with 2,278, second best in the AFC to the Ravens. They also came in second in rushing attempts. Just in case you're wondering, they were 6th in that category in the AFC in 2007 when Brady was there, showing that Bill Belichick will still rush the ball with No. 12 under center.
Last point, those numbers come from when Laurence Maroney, the top halfback on the depth chart, missed significant time due to injury.
In previous years, rushing has been an issue, so the Patriots went out this year and signed Fred Taylor, the veteran who will add to an already stacked running-corps of Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris, and BenJarvis Green-Ellis (who will also lead the league in "best name in football" in 2009). While the foursome may not put up gaudy numbers individually, they will perform amazingly as a unit.
PREDICTION NUMBER THREE: The Patriots defense is younger, faster, stronger, and better.
I know what you're thinking... Tedy Bruschi retired, Rodney Harrison retired, Mike Vrabel is in Kansas City with Cassel, and the Pats will have a lot of problems clicking on defense in 2009.
But look at it this way... the Patriots may have been a cohesive unit behind those veterans, but you need to remember the man pulling the strings: Bill Belichick. He's a defensive genius and one of the best coaches, if not the best, in the history of the National Football League.
While Bruschi and company worked well together, they were also aging and slowing down, something that's been quite evident over the past few seasons.
There are also still veterans on the defense: Vince Wilfork and Richard Seymour come to mind immediately. The return of Jerod Mayo, Adalius Thomas, Brandon Meriweather, and Ty Warren also prove that they can overcome the loss of those veterans.
The youth and quickness of the New England defense will also translate into an aggressive unit that will hit hard. The switch from Bruschi to Gary Guyton, for example, will be evident to even the most casual of football fan and NFL viewer. Guyton is much faster and can cover a much wider area, a definite upgrade from attributes where the slower, older veterans lacked.
The hard hitting defensive line featuring Wilfork and Seymour got a little tougher and bigger with the addition of Derrick Burgess. Twice in his career he had over 10 sacks in a season, bringing in a career total of 47, a number that will surely grow.
Quarterbacks will be thanking their o-lines to keep the New England linemen off of them, but with this year's line, those QBs may have very little thanking to do.
If anything, the secondary might be suspect, but overall, the defensive of the Patriots will be able to keep their opponents scoring less than that super-potent offense.
The Patriots have more wins than any other NFL Franchise over the last 15 years. And this season, they will most likely win more than any other team. Expect to see New England winning anywhere from 12-14 games, and if they happen to go 16-0, don't seem so surprised...they did it with a worse team two years ago.
Only difference between then and now, is that this year, the New England Patriots will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this year, as the Super Bowl XLIV Champions.