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For the past eight years the Patriots have come into the season as a heavy favorite to compete for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and deservedly so.
In 2002, 2004, and 2005 the Pats were coming off of championship seasons. In 2007, New England acquired Randy Moss and gave Tom Brady his first true number one receiver of his career.
In 2008, the Patriots were coming off of an undefeated regular season and a last second loss in Super Bowl XLII. In 2009 the team of the decade was getting back it’s starting quarterback from injury for only his second start since his record-breaking 50 touchdown ’07 season.
Now in 2010, the Super Bowl swagger that the Pats bring into the season year after year is gone. They aren’t coming off of any Super Bowls, or undefeated seasons, or free agent acquisitions. The Patriots are coming off of a season in which they were pummelled in a first round home playoff loss by a Baltimore offense whose passing game consisted of four completions for 34 yards and an interception.
Brady and Belichick may still be at the helm but things have changed in New England. Here are four BIG reasons why the Patriots are no longer scary.
1. Experience – There may not be a more experienced quarterback in the NFL than Tom Brady, but even Tom Terrific needs a supporting cast. The Pats are expected to have just eight players on the 2010 53-man roster that have won Super Bowls in New England. The average age of those eight players is over 31 and many of them won’t be able to duplicate their performance during the Super Bowl era.
The Patriots don’t bring that championship confidence and experience to the table anymore. Players such as Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, and Jerod Mayo are young and haven’t experienced the championship success the few veterans have. Sanders, Meriweather, and Mayo don’t intimidate teams like Harrison, Samuels, and McGinest did.
2. Run Defense – Most of New England’s problems reside on the defensive side of the football. The Bruschis, Vrabels, and Seymours are no longer punishing ball carriers. That task is left up to Pierre Woods, Gary Guyton, and Mike Wright. Most fans outside the AFC East are probably wondering who the heck those guys are and that’s my point. The big names on defense are few and far between.
Sure Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are two plugs up front, but where were they in the playoff loss to Baltimore? New England’s 23rd ranked rush defense gave up 234 rushing yards including an 83-yard Ray Rice touchdown run on the first play of the game in the 33-14 Raven drumming.
On third downs when the defense needed to step up the most, they allowed the Baltimore rushing attack to convert 10-16 times and keep Brady off the field. On a day when Joe Flacco had a passer rating of 10.0 and Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was scared to even attempt a pass, the Patriots allowed Ray Rice, Willis McGahee, and the rest of the Raven rushing attack to shove it down their throats.
3. Schedule – While this may not be a reflection of the Patriots as a team, it certainly will reflect their record. The Patriots have one of the toughest records in the NFL this season for many reasons.
One, they are a defending division champ so that means they play all of the other AFC division champs. Those games include home games versus the Bengals and the Colts and a road trip to San Diego.
The second reason the Pats schedule is so tough is because of the two divisions they must play. The AFC East is paired up with the AFC North and the NFC North in 2010. That means home games versus Baltimore, Green Bay, and Minnesota and road trips to Chicago and Pittsburgh. Chicago should be improved with the pairing of Mike Martz with Jay Cutler and Pittsburgh will not have the championship hangover 9-7 season they had in ’09.
Lastly, the AFC East has improved dramatically. The Jets added Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, Jason Taylor, and LaDainian Tomlinson to a team that was one game away from the Super Bowl. Mark Sanchez has a full season under his belt and won’t make the same mistakes he did versus New England last November.
The Dolphins don’t have the quantity of additions the Jets have but they certainly have the quality. The ‘Fins acquired one of the most coveted free agents of the offseason in LB Karlos Dansby to improve a defense that finished 22nd in the NFL in total defense in 2009.
The real acquisition though came in the form of ’08 and ’09 pro bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall. Marshall will help balance an offense that finished fourth in the NFL in rushing last season. With road games versus Detroit and Cleveland, Pats fans will be only able to pencil in a win at home vs Buffalo in week three. If the Patriots do get through this schedule and make the postseason, they’ll have three games and at least two road games to reach the Super Bowl.
4. Wes Welker’s Left Knee – This may be the biggest reason of all no team will fear the Patriots in 2010. In week 17 against Houston last season, Wes Welker tore his left ACL and MCL forcing the Patriots to play without their leading receiver in the playoff game versus Baltimore. In that playoff loss to Baltimore, Tom Brady had just 154 yards on 42 attempts with three interceptions. Welker was obviously missed.
How could he have not been missed? Welker was a first team All-Pro in ’09, leading the entire league in receptions with 123. Welker’s 123 catches were 16 more than the next receiver, Steve Smith, who had 107 grabs. Welker was second in the NFL in receiving yards to Andre Johnson and also third in the league in punt return average. Out of 155 touches in ’09, Welker fumbled the ball only twice, recovering both of them.
How in the world is Wes Welker supposed to come close to matching those numbers less than a year after tearing up his left knee? The answer is he can’t. Doctors say that a player recovering from knee surgery such as Welker’s does not get back to 100% until their second season.
Yes, I saw the tape of Welker at mini-camp running crisp routes with that huge knee brace on. That’s all great and I’m happy for him that he’s recovering well. The fact remains though that not only will he be far from 100%, but he is likely to begin the ’10 season on the physically unable to perform list.
Wes Welker is a 100 catch receiver no matter who his quarterback is. He proved that with his 111 catch season with Matt Cassel in 2008. Tom Brady and even Randy Moss need a full strength Welker in the lineup in order for the offense to be consistent on a week-to-week basis. In Welker’s absence, Brady had his worst postseason game of his career and Moss had just five receptions for 48 yards and no scores.
While Brady will find someone to throw the ball to with Moss double teamed, they will not be near the player Welker is with the ball in his hand.
Welker has led the NFL in yards after catch two of the past three seasons. He has come up with multiple big catches on third and fourth down that have kept the chains moving for three years in New England.
In 2009 he became only the third player in NFL history to record three straight 100+ catch seasons joining legends Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice. This kind of production cannot be replaced. Not by Julian Edelman, not by Torry Holt, and not by an 80% healthy Wes Welker. This offense takes a huge hit with Welker’s injury.
The Patriots aren’t who they used to be. They may be the three-time Super Bowl winning team of the 00′s but it’s a new decade and the Pats are a different team. The veterans who won Super Bowls are difficult to find in the Pats locker room and the ones remaining are in the latter parts of their prime.
With an aging offense, an inexperienced defense, an injured star, and a schedule that could keep almost anybody out of the playoffs, the Patriots are in for a long 2010 and will be feared by nobody.