| Brady has shown no ill effects from the knee injury that wiped out his 2008 season. |
|Damian Strohmeyer/SI |
14 BUFFALO (M)
20 at N.Y. Jets
11 at Denver
25 vs. Tampa Bay
15 at Indianapolis
22 N.Y. Jets
30 at New Orleans (M)
6 at Miami
20 at Buffalo
3 at Houston
Derrick Burgess, Linebacker: Entering training camp, the Patriots had only one obvious weak spot: lack of an outside pass rush. They traded veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel (16 1/2 sacks over the last two seasons) to the Chiefs as part of the Matt Cassel deal last February, and that left Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable -- one career sack between them -- as potential replacements.
But then New England followed form and made a surprise pickup on Aug. 6, acquiring the 31-year-old Burgess, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who had become disgruntled in Oakland and was holding out, for two mid-round picks in next year's draft. Burgess had 35 sacks from 2005 through '07 -- the third most in the NFL over that span. Then a triceps injury limited him to 10 games and 3 1/2 sacks last season. "I had a couple bumps and bruises, worked through them, and here I am," he says. "I feel great -- great to be with this organization, and my body feels good," says Burgess, who has not yet reworked his contract with the Patriots.
Burgess played defensive end with the Raiders, but he'll line up primarily as an outside linebacker in the Patriots' base 3-4 on passing downs. He could also become the latest in a long line of veterans who were brought in by New England to plug a hole and left with a Super Bowl ring.
This article appears in the September 7, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
He directed the most prolific offense in NFL history two years ago. Now Tom Brady is back, and the outlook is Super.
Attempting to coax an illuminating remark from a Patriot is like panning for gold in a Jacuzzi. New England players are as well-coached in the fine art of saying something without saying anything as they are in the game of football. Consider the response of strong safety Brandon Meriweather when asked what a defense that ranked 10th in the league last season -- and 15th against the run -- must do to improve. "I think everybody needs to be on the same page," Meriweather says. Anything just a little more specific? "We need to execute our game plan to the fullest." Thanks, Brandon!
The Patriots' near-pathological adherence to platitudes originates, of course, with Bill Belichick. Why, the coach was asked during a mid-August press conference, do franchises around the NFL view his team as the one to beat this season? Have they forgotten that New England missed the playoffs last year? "I don't really know what anybody is or isn't saying around the league," Belichick said. "Doesn't really matter to me. What we're concerned about is this afternoon's practice." Other concerns, according to Belichick: "correcting mistakes," "getting some things installed" and "trying to improve day to day."
"You see a lot of teams boasting about what they're going to be and how they're going to do it," says running back Fred Taylor, who joined the team in February as a free agent after 11 seasons with the Jaguars, "but you never really hear much from this group. They just go and do it."
Just how much the Patriots will be able to go and do will depend on the health of four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, whose 2008 season ended during the opener's first quarter when a hit from Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard seriously damaged his left knee. (New England, naturally, never revealed the extent of the injury, but Brady is known to have sustained a torn ACL and MCL.) So, Fred Taylor, does Brady appear to be fully recovered? "I can't touch that."
Judging from Brady's play in training camp drills and from his confident performances in the first three preseason games (26 for 42 with four touchdowns), he appears to be much the same quarterback who set a record with 50 touchdown passes in 2007, when he spearheaded an offense that scored a record 589 points. That team went undefeated until Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants pulled off a 17-14 upset.
There is perhaps no better testament to the Patriots' system and depth than their 11-5 finish in 2008 without Brady. This year's roster looks to be even deeper than '08, thanks to another infusion of veteran role players, such as Taylor and wideout Joey Galloway, and to 12 draft picks, the franchise's most since 1996. New England, as usual, seems to have used most of those selections wisely. In fact, the most-talked-about rookie in camp was a seventh-rounder, Julian Edelman, a quarterback at Kent State whose ability as a slot receiver has the Patriots thinking they might have found another Wes Welker (though one three inches taller and 13 pounds heavier).
Last year's offense under Matt Cassel -- who hadn't started a game since 1999, his senior year in high school -- ranked fifth in the NFL with 365.4 yards per game, but even that paled in comparison with the previous season's Brady-directed group, whose 411.2-yard average led the league by more than 40 yards. How much better, Wes Welker, does the offense function under Brady than under Cassel? "Now you're asking me questions that are going to get me in trouble."
Finally, a gleaming nugget, sifted from the bromides and prosaism. Welker's answer alludes to the fact that the Patriots know Brady's return will make their offense, merely excellent under Cassel, spectacular once more. And that's the central reason why they should again chase 19-0.
-- Ben Reiter