The last time we saw the Patriots play a meaningful game, we saw them walk away on the wrong side of a 28-13 AFC Championship home loss at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens.
Heading into the offseason there were plenty of questions about what would happen with wide receiver Wes Welker, how well Rob Gronkowski would recover from his fractured forearm, and what the Patriots would do to put a stronger defensive group on the field for the upcoming season.
In the middle of all that came the Aaron Hernandez fiasco, which despite the Rolling Stone article last week Bill Belichick has done a terrific job burying that story and keeping it from becoming a distraction and has his team playing some good football. Now his players are preparing to go out and hopefully put together yet another championship run, and there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about just how far they can go this season.
Here’s a look at some of the things to watch heading into the 2013 NFL Season:
1) Which rookie receiver breaks through first? – The Patriots drafted rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, and also added undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins over this offseason. Dobson was spotty during the preseason while Thompkins was the one who shined, but both showed plenty of promise during the Patriots four exhibition games. Granted this team has veteran newcomer Danny Amendola and incumbent Julian Edelman, but for this group to be successful they’re going to need consistent play from at least one of their rookies. Hopefully the adjustment to the NFL goes smoothly for them as quarterback Tom Brady tries to break them into the offense.
Will Zach Sudfield emerge as a big play threat at tight end this season?
(USA TODAY Images)
2) Who emerges opposite Rob Gronkowski at tight end? – This preseason it was rookie free agent Zach Sudfeld who made a big splash and ended up being a pleasant surprise as fans watched him earn his way onto the roster. Sudfeld was one of their more consistent performers in each exhibition game, making catches that were similar to what we saw from Gronk during his rookie season. In the NFL teams rely on consistency and losing Hernandez leaves them with a void in what had previously been one of the most dangerous tight end tandems in the league. Sudfeld has shown he has the potential to contribute to this offense, and also back with the team is Michael Hoomanawanui, who already has a year of experience in this system. Hoomanawanui was a solid addition last year and has had his moments, and it will be interesting to see how both contribute this year.
3) Will the secondary be better than it was last year? – It’s been a long time since the Patriots defense was considered to be one of the more formidable ones in the league, but it appears they’re finally making progress. Devin McCourty has become one of the league’s best cover safeties, and the team was able to re-sign cornerback Aqib Talib, who was arguably their best outside defender last season. Kyle Arrington is another year older and more experienced, and as long as Alfonzo Dennard avoids prison time and rookie Logan Ryan continues to progress, it’s tough not to like this group. One thing to remember, they may struggle early on, but as last season taught us it’s not how they start, but how they finish. So it will definitely be an interesting area to watch this year.
4) Will the pass rush take the next step? – Last season Chandler Jones looked strong early on before injuries hampered his development, but he’s looked terrific so far this preseason as he heads into his sophomore season. Rob Ninkovich had a strong training camp and looks like he’ll pick up where he left off last year. Both players will likely be the ones who get the most opportunities to go after opposing quarterbacks, but fans can also expect Tommy Kelly to also provide them with an additional threat. Another player to watch is rookie linebacker Jamie Collins, who also showed some ability against the Lions two weeks ago. The more pressure they’re able to bring the easier that will be on their secondary, so it will be interesting to see how effective they’ll be this season getting after the quarterback.
5) Will Stevan Ridley be able to repeat his 2012 performance? – Last season saw Ridley rush for over 1200 yards, which is the type of performance we haven’t seen since the days of when Corey Dillon was carrying the football. Over the offseason Ridley appeared to spend a lot of time getting stronger, and during the exhibition season he kicked things off in impressive fashion by breaking off a run of 62 yards which helped set up a 1 yard touchdown run in their opening game against the Eagles. If he can put together a similar performance to last year it makes it difficult for teams to handle an already tough passing game if they have the same balance they had last season. Had the Ravens Bernard Pollard not knocked him unconscious in the AFC Championship game it's tough not to wonder how that game could have potentially turned out. But Ridley's back with a vengeance and he looks to be much improved, so he should be fun to watch in the coming weeks.
6) In the end, it all comes down to Brady – Save for the rough night they had in Detroit, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was razor sharp this preseason and looks to be in top form heading into this season. One interesting thing worth noting was the difference between how well the rookie receivers looked with the veteran throwing passes to them compared to when Ryan Mallett and Tim Tebow were on the field. Brady clearly elevated their game and brought out their best, which is something he’s always been good at. That’s one asset that has always been one of the reasons why this team hasn’t had a losing season since he’s been here, and likely one that will hopefully put them in position for another championship run by the time January gets here.
After a long offseason, it all begins Sunday when they battle the Bills in Buffalo at 1:00pm.