Remember way back in 2007 when the Patriots ran the table during the regular season? Remember when some people were waiting to crown them the greatest team ever? Then they lost the Super Bowl.
Ready for the scary part? This year's team could be even better. Yes, BETTER. I know the Jets are guaranteed a Super Bowl win, but I don't think the Patriots got the memo. Here's why.
Those two guys who set all those offensive records, Tom Brady and Randy Moss? Not only are both still on the team, but they're both in contract years. Moss once famously said that he plays when he wants to.
NOTHING makes that type of athlete want to play more than earning the last huge payday of their career. Not to mention, last season Moss wanted to play badly enough to suit up for all 16 games and another in the playoffs, despite separating his shoulder during a Week Five matchup against the Broncos.
And he still recorded 1,264 yards and 13 touchdowns, playing 11 games with a separated shoulder. I've never suffered a major injury like that, but I can't imagine I would even be able to lift my arm for a game of catch, much less endure the physical pounding of an NFL season and still produce All-Pro caliber numbers.
But it wasn't enough, and, here in New England, we questioned his toughness. We wondered if he'd lost a step. After a tough playoff loss, I know die-hard, smart, knowledgeable Patriots fans who never wanted to see him step onto the Gillette Stadium turf again. We had no clue what was really going on and now Moss is seemingly out to prove how wrong we all were.
Randy Cross said during their game against the Saints that Moss looks like he's out to prove that he's the best receiver in the NFL. Reports are that he hasn't missed a single practice the entire preseason, and word out of Foxboro is that he's having his best camp as a Patriot. Considering what he accomplished in '07, that should give Patriots' fans and opposing defenses the chills.
Then, of course, there's Brady. Forget for a moment that he's motivated by a new contract as well. Forget that a quarterback who's had a chip on his shoulder since being passed over for Drew Henson at Michigan is once again being overlooked in the wake of a first round playoff exit. Forget that Patriots brass is giving him the chance to actually go out and prove exactly what he's worth.
Yes, forget all of that because what matters even more is that damn ACL of his. Last season he never quite looked comfortable in the pocket. He struggled to find his rhythm from one week to the next.
He, as always, refused to make any excuses for himself, but if I couldn't help but wonder about that knee, imagine how he felt. Now a full season removed from rehab and recovery and a full season's worth of nervous jitters out of the way, Brady is as healthy as ever. Thankfully his finger injury was "non life-threatening". Thanks Bill, that's great news.
Brady's professional blanket, Wes Welker, is coming off ACL surgery of his own and is miraculously on track to start week one. You have to expect some bumps along the way for the NFL's leader in receptions over the past three seasons, which is the bad news.
The good news: his heir apparent Julian Edelman, or as I call him WW-two, should be more comfortable playing receiver after converting from a college quarterback just last year. If possible, Edelman looks even quicker and more elusive than last season. The two of them on the field together could be like trying to catch fish with a hula-hoop.
Add the explosive playmaking ability of Brandon Tate to the mix and this is easily the most talented group of receivers Brady has ever had to work with, including 2007.
But wait, there's more!
The Pats also drafted two legitimate weapons at the tight end position. Aaron Hernandez slid a bit in the draft, due to his admitted marijuana use, but he's opening a lot of eyes this preseason and seems to be developing a nice rapport with Brady. He was quoted on bostonherald.com as saying, "If I'm open, he'll find me" and at 6'2" and 250lbs, not only has Brady been finding him, but, with the possible exception of swine flu, Hernandez is catching absolutely everything in sight.
It shouldn't come as a surprise either. He won the John Mackey Award last season at Florida, as the nation's best tight end and Tim Tebow's number one target. He's a matchup nightmare in the mold of a Dallas Clark. He played in the spread offense at Florida, so his transition should be an easy one.
The icing on the cake? He plays his best football in the biggest games. In his final three games at Florida, he went for five catches, 83 yards, and two TD's against rival Florida State, eight catches and 85 yards against National Champion Alabama, and nine catches, 111 yards, and a TD against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. He's legit.
As far as the marijuana goes, let’s be honest. A little weed isn't gonna kill ya. Besides, he made the 2007 SEC Fall Academic Honor Roll, so he's no idiot.
Fellow rookie Rob Gronkowski, aka Gronk, is a more well-rounded player than the pass-catching Hernandez, and, at 6'6", 265lbs, he has the physique to dominate as a blocker and receiver. He's basically a freight train with hands. Very good hands. In fact, future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez remarked after last week's preseason matchup that Gronk "has a pretty good receiving game, and he has got the blocking pretty good."
High praise for a rookie, but again it should come as no surprise. Gronk is the University of Arizona's single game, single season, and career leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns by a tight end.
The two of them should provide New England's best production from the tight end spot since the days of Ben Coates.
Even the O-Line and much lamented loss of Logan Mankins looks to be a strong unit. Matt Light has been a fixture at left tackle seemingly forever. Dan Koppen is one of the most underrated centers in the NFL. Dan Connolly is holding his own. Sebastian Vollmer plays right tackle like a man-eating savage. Stephen Neal is a mauling run blocker, who also happened to beat Brock Lesnar in a NCAA wrestling match.
That's as good an O-Line as there is in football. With a stable of running backs that now features hard-running Fred Taylor, Brady and the offense are poised to once again fire on all cylinders.
But none of that is why this year's Patriots could be the best ever. We've seen the fireworks before. They re-wrote the record books in '07 and still lost in the end. What's different this season is the defense.
That Patriots' defense that was old and slow? Don't look now, but it's gone. In its place is a revamped squad loaded with promising young talent. Fast young talent. Hard-hitting young talent. The kind of young talent that tends to grow together when you feed it a steady diet of NFL coaching. Anyone who's seen them flying to the ball this preseason knows what I'm talking about.
There isn't a single player in the secondary who was a starter during that 2007 campaign. Of the current starters, only Brandon Meriweather was on that roster, as a rookie. He has since elevated his game to a Pro-Bowl level. With his playmaking ability as a safety, all he needs is more consistency to challenge as the best in the business
Newcomer Leigh Bodden played very well last season and earned a new contract with the team. He slots nicely as a physical corner with disruptive cover skills. Chad Ochocinco once said Bodden was the CB who gave him the most trouble in coverage.
Sophomore Darius Butler out of UConn (Go Huskies!) had his fair share of highlights as a rookie. He's a burner with excellent ball skills and should emerge as a playmaker starting across from Bodden.
Safety Pat Chung looks vastly improved in year two, as well. Thus far in the preseason, his phenomenal closing speed has been on display for all to see, as has his ability to bring the lumber. He's also shown solid tackling, enveloping the opposition in open space on several occasions.
This is the same player who drew comparisons to Rodney Harrison coming out of Oregon, where he was a four year starter.
In the Pac-10.
He went up against some of the best offensive players in college football. Players like DeSean Jackson, Jahvid Best, Marshawn Lynch, Mark Sanchez, Matt Leinart, and Reggie Bush, among others. Chung proved he can play against the best.
Add the developing Terrence Wheatley to the mix, as well as rookie/human missile Devin McCourty, and the Patriots have their most promising secondary since Asante Samuel was a young buck learning under Ty Law and Harrison.
The linebackers have gone from over the hill to wet behind the ears seemingly overnight. Gone from the 2007 squad are leader Tedy Bruschi and pass rush extraordinaire Mike Vrabel, as well as colossal disappointments Adalius Thomas and Rosevelt Colvin.
In their places stand All-Pro waiting to happen Jerod Mayo and rookie tackling machine Brandon Spikes up the middle. There may not have been a better marriage of a player and a team in this year's draft than Spikes and New England. Watching him patrol the box brings to mind former All-Pro Brian Cox (minus the whole flipping off the fans thing). Mayo and Spikes are going to be a fearsome duo for a long time.
Banta-Cain takes over as the unit's top pass rusher. He's no Vrabel, but he held his own with 9.5 sacks last season. It seems right now that newcomer Marques Murrell is the front runner on the other side. He's something of a no-name, but so was Vrabel. If Belichick likes what he sees, I've learned to trust him.
With the anvils in the middle stuffing the run like a turkey on Thanksgiving, it makes things a whole lot easier for the edge rushers. They can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. Pierre Woods, Gary Guyton, and Rob Ninkovich all add solid depth to a group that will be very stout against the run, forcing teams to throw into the teeth of their eagerly awaiting secondary.
Admittedly, their D-Line isn't what it was three years ago, but Wilfork is still an immovable object in the middle, and that counts for a lot. He has a legitimate claim to being the best nose tackle in football, especially given Albert Haynesworth's lollygagapalooza.
At 6'4", 325 lbs, Gerard Warren is a behemoth in his own right. The former third overall draft pick should hold down the edge nicely. Fan favorite Mike Wright and veteran Damione Lewis are both quality players, as well.
Bottom line, the '07 team got ahead early and often, forcing teams to throw. The offense is even more talented than it was then, so it should be more of the same. With the clock working against them and Mayo and Spikes enforcing the line of scrimmage, opposing teams will be forced to abandon the run and heave it through the air again. Meriweather, Chung, Bodden, Butler, and McCourty must be salivating.
The Patriots were one fluke play away from being the greatest team ever. Although 19-0 is virtually impossible, with an improved offense, brute force up the middle, and their most talented secondary since 2004, they're in a position to make 18-1 a distant memory.