The New Year has come and gone. Every year is different, and the team faces new challenges every season.
In the immediate future the New England Patriots will prepare for their playoff matchup against the New York Jets on Sunday. The winner moves on to the AFC Championship.
However, with the New Year so fresh, what does the entire year of 2011 hold for the Pats?
Here are the biggest story lines and questions for the Patriots in the upcoming year.
The Patriots have not been to the Super Bowl since the New York Giants ruined their perfect season in Super Bowl XLII in the 2007 season. They haven’t won it all since the 2004 season.
Many feel, however, that this year’s team has a fantastic chance at bringing another trophy home to Foxborough.
The Pats finished the season with a 14-2 record and earned the top seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
They ended the season on an eight-game winning streak and did so in impressive fashion, scoring at least 31 points in each game. Over the course of the season they’ve beaten six teams that qualified for the playoffs (Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Colts, Packers and Bears), and in consecutive weeks they outscored the Jets and Bears a combined 81-10.
They’re spreading the ball around on offense, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the first Patriots player in six years to rush for 1,000 yards, also the last time the team won the Super Bowl. The defense features a lot of young players, but they have learned on the fly and improved. In the past five games they have only given up more than seven points once.
They’re confident and playing their best football. Their chances are as good as, if not better than, anybody’s.
Many consider the AFC East to be one of the more competitive divisions in football. More times than not, however, the Patriots are the class of the division.
The team has finished as AFC East champions in eight of the past 10 seasons, finishing second the other two. Will anyone be able to stop their reign?
The top contender is obviously the New York Jets. They have a talented roster fueled by a coach that believes his guys are the absolute best. They’ve finished second the past two seasons and have made the playoffs. Last year they went to the AFC Championship Game.
The rest of the division may not be as flashy, but they usually put up a fight. The Bills have been non-factors for years but were competitive at least this season and never quit. The Dolphins have lots of talent on their roster but severely underachieved this year.
New England has come out on top time and time again, but they do have a rather large target on their backs. Will someone be able to unseat them as division champs?
New England holds six picks in the first three rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft. Over the past couple seasons the team has worked hard to infuse young talent into the roster, especially on the defensive side.
With so many top picks, the team has a chance to really bolster its lineup. The biggest areas of concern are getting younger on the offensive line and getting better pass rushers. Luckily for New England, the draft is loaded with these two types of players.
Who will they target? Will Bill Belichick trade down again like he notoriously does? Will they go after a different position? With so many picks, anything can happen.
Matt Light, Logan Mankins, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kyle Arrington will be free agents. All have played important roles on this Patriots team, and big paydays will also be in order.
Along with Green-Ellis, Kevin Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor will also all be free agents, destroying the depth at that position—not to mention Faulk is such a fan favorite.
Mankins held out the majority of the season and was displeased with how the team handled his contract situation. Is all of that a precursor of what is to come?
The Patriots' free agency philosophy tends to be to take care of the in-house guys, and then once they’re in the fold, the team can bring in some additional, complementary pieces. There are a lot of valuable pieces the Patriots will need to make happy.
Who will they bring back? What direction will the team go in? How will negotiations go?
The Collective Bargaining Agreement is expired, so a new one needs to be in place before the start of next season. However, there is a labor dispute between the players union and the owners.
Things like an 18-game regular season schedule and a rookie wage scale are disagreed on, and a lockout is looming.
Until the two sides reach an agreement, no football will be played, so all the previous questions will be moot.