Postcard from camp: Patriots
In heaven, according to Chad Ochocinco. That's how the former Bengal, acquired by the Patriots in a July trade, has taken to describing Foxboro, and the Boston area generally. Heaven, apparently, is a fairly featureless place (the Pats, as usual, are holding training camp on the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium), and one in which its constituents are forbidden by a win-at-all-costs deity from publicly expressing anything beyond how hard they're working. It's also a place in which wide receivers drop more than their fair share of passes, as Ochocinco has at camp. "All of us are human," he explained the other day. True enough, but a day in Pats camp is enough to convince any observer that Bill Belichick's group, a few drops here or there aside, approaches the divine more than any other in the NFL.
Brady has so many other weapons at his disposal -- including up-and-comers like wideout Taylor Price, who had five catches for 105 yards in New England's preseason opener -- that the Patriots should fairly easily lead the NFL in scoring offense once again in 2011, with or without Ochocinco.
Not least among their contributors will be the best tight end tandem in the league, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, both of whom are entering their second year and both of whom are far too big for defensive backs to cover, yet far too fast for most linebackers. "Gronknandez" combined for 87 catches, 1,109 yards and 16 TDs last season, and those numbers could each increase by 50 percent this year.
Yes, New England ranked 14th in sacks last year (36) -- but they were second in pass attempts against, because teams were so often playing them from behind. They were 11th in overall run defense, but 13th in yards allowed per attempt.
Last year's line's weakness became starkly clear against the Jets in the Pats' playoff loss, when Mark Sanchez wasn't sacked once and New York again and again ripped off chunks of yardage on the ground, usually right up the middle. That won't happen this year, not with Albert Haynesworth joining Vince Wilfork inside. And if Haynesworth's heart isn't in it, Belichick has his choice of 17 other very big men to try in his place.
The former fifth-round pick out of Michigan kicked well as a rookie in 2010 -- his 38.4 net average tied for 11th. But he plays for a team that, due to its potent offense, doesn't often require his services (25 players had more punts than he did last season), meaning each kick has a greater importance. "It's more quality over quantity," he says.
A 14-2 record is a distinct possibility. It seems unlikely that the Patriots will lose any of their first four games (at Miami, San Diego, at Buffalo, at Oakland) or their last four (at Washington, at Denver, Miami, Buffalo). If they suffer any losses at all they might come during a somewhat daunting eight-game stretch that runs from early October to early December. Games at Pittsburgh, at Jets and at Philadelphia seem particularly difficult. Still, New England should emerge with its fifth 14-plus-win season of the Belichick era. Three of the first four led to Super Bowl appearances.