Brace yourself, NFL. It looks like Bill Belichick plans to come back from the lockout with guns blazing.
There's always fear and loathing around the Patriots. NFL coaches don't like the presumption that Bill is smarter than everyone else in the fraternity. Any time New England falls it's a happy day for the rest of the league. There was much titillation when the undefeated Pats lost the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., in February of 2008. Seeing the Patriots lose a home playoff game to the Jets last January no doubt made a lot of Pats haters happy.
Hope you got it out of your system, people. Because it looks like the Patriots are loaded. Again.
"Belichick is through screwing around,'' an NFC executive told The BostonGlobe's Greg Bedard during last Thursday's 31-14 New England drubbing of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "What we saw tonight, if that's the way they continue to go into the season, is a complete departure from what we saw last season. They're not reacting. They're dictating.''
The book on the Pats last year was that they were soft defensively. They were woeful on third down and couldn't mount any kind of a pass rush. Sure, they went 14-2 during the regular season, but the Jets attacked Tom Brady and beat the Pats in Foxborough in the playoffs.
Losing to Rex Ryan and the Jets in January was abject embarrassment for the Patriots. It was like getting fired by your ex-wife's new husband.
Playoff failure is a sore subject in Foxborough these days. While putting together some pretty nifty regular-season records, the Pats haven't gone anywhere in the tournament. Fact is, they haven't won a playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship Game. This means that 13 teams -- the Seahawks, Jets, Ravens, Packers, Steelers, Bears, Cowboys, Cardinals, Colts, Vikings, Eagles, Chargers and Giants have all won playoff games since the last time Belichick and Brady won a playoff game.
The Pats can't even claim to be dominant in their local market anymore. This is the high renaissance of New England sports and despite winning three Super Bowls in this century, the Patriots have the longest championship drought among greater Boston's four professional sports teams.
So now Belichick is back. With a vengeance.
Talk Eagles all you want. Philadelphia has assembled a Dream Team of veteran talent, drawing comparisons with the Miami Heat.
I say the greater threat comes from New England.
In New England's first preseason game, the Patriots scored on their first eight possessions en route to a 47-12 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. And that was without Brady. Mr. Gisele played in the second game against Tampa and led the Pats to a 28-0 first half lead. The first touchdown drive lasted five plays. The first two touchdown passes were caught by Aaron Hernandez and Chad Ochocinco and there was not a Buccaneer in the same Zip code on either play.
"They did not treat this like a preseason game,'' said Tampa defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "That's why they are who they are.''
But it is not New England's offense that should worry the NFL. We all know about Brady and weapons Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Danny Woodhead and now, Ochocinco.
The new threat is on defense. Belichick has gone back to working on what made him great in the first place; stopping the other team. Hoodie won't admit it, but he's gone to a 4-3 defense and he's bringing the house on just about every play. He's brought in every lineman he can find. Albert Haynesworth and Shaun Ellis haven't played yet, but fourth-year linebacker Jerod Mayo looks ready for a breakout season and it's clear that changing packages and pressuring the quarterback will be priorities.
Defensively, the Patriots are deep and their swarming attack made the Bucs look pathetic.
"I think the score is a little bit deceiving,'' Belichick deadpanned after the rout in Tampa. "The first half probably wasn't quite as good as it looked. ... We can do better and hopefully with this long week (the Pats have eight work days between preseason games) we have in front of us now we'll be able to allocate more time to getting things done at a higher level and also putting in some new things and expanding our installation as we head closer to the start of the regular season.''
Preseason is not regular season. The Jaguars and Buccaneers might be terrible teams. Nothing really counts until a team starts winning playoff games. The Packers are the defending champs and the Eagles are the flavor of the month and Rex again says his Jets are Super Bowl bound.
All that said, it looks like the worst fears of Patriot-haters might be realized. The lockout figured to help teams with veteran coaches and tested quarterbacks. The Patriots have both, in spades. They have a system unlike any other system.
They have a coach who loves to scheme, a coach who's had too much time to think about that loss in the desert almost four years ago.
We are only halfway through a preseason after a protracted lockout. There is so much we do not know. But the Patriots look like a monster team. A lot like 2007.
Be afraid, NFL. Be very afraid.