In Foxboro, Mass., where Patriots practice on Friday turned into an impromptu party for Tom Brady. Fans sang "Happy Birthday" to their beloved quarterback, who turned 35, but not all of Brady's teammates were aware of the occasion. "I didn't even know about it!" said second-year offensive tackle Nate Solder, after practice. "Is that why they were singing? Look at me, I'm so oblivious."
When you work for Bill Belichick, the only time to really celebrate is after a Super Bowl win, which, after New England's loss to the Giants last February, now somehow hasn't happened for seven years. The Patriots, though, have averaged 12 wins a season since their last championship, and they enter 2012 as the AFC favorite, and with very few obvious holes.
1. Will the offensive line hold up? Solder might have good reason not to focus on things such as his teammates' birthdays, as the 17th pick in last year's draft is about to embark on the most important year of his life. Matt Light, who spent most of the last 11 seasons protecting Brady's blind side, has retired, and the 6-foot-8, 319-pound Solder, who allowed four sacks as a rookie, will replace him at left tackle.
Light, though, is not the only large man missing from the practice field, as right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and left guard Logan Mankins are both injured, and veteran right guard Brian Waters -- who made his sixth Pro Bowl last season, his first with New England -- did not report to camp, for reasons that remain unexplained (he might very well be retired). A patchwork line could be the only reason this year's offense might not surpass last year's, which trailed only the Saints.
2. Brandon Lloyd will be what Chad Ochocinco was supposed to be. One reason to expect the offense to be even more productive is Lloyd, the 31-year-old wideout signed to a three-year, $12 million, free-agent deal in March. Lloyd jumped at the chance to be reunited with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was the Broncos head coach when he had his stunning 1,448-yard breakout in 2010, and to finally play for a winner. Lloyd's teams have gone just 32-73 in his career, and he has yet to appear in a playoff game.
Lloyd has been outstanding since Day 1 of training camp, and has delighted the Patriots and their fans with his acrobatics and precise routes. "Shoot, I mean, just terrific all around," says cornerback Kyle Arrington. "He's a heck of a route runner. Great hands. Freakish catches. He's definitely going to be exciting to watch." He's also going to add another dimension to an already multidimensional offense: a genuine deep threat. For all of his production, Brady never really had one last year, as Ochocinco failed in his season in New England, and Brady's top three receivers -- Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez -- all operate best at short range, between the hash marks.
3. The secondary remains a concern. For a time last season, the Patriots' banged-up, underwhelming secondary seemed as if it would certainly set an NFL record for passing yards allowed in a season. A moderate late season improvement meant it did not, but only barely, as the Packers became the record-holders by yielding 4,796 aerial yards, 93 more than New England.
The Patriots have the offense to win more than their fair share of shootouts, but they could use an improved performance from their defensive backs. That's particularly so on days on which the offense isn't clicking -- such as in the Super Bowl, when New England scored a season-low 17 points, and Eli Manning completed 30 of his 40 passes for 296 yards.
The good news is that the secondary is completely healthy, including key contributors in cornerback Ras-I Dowling and safety Patrick Chung, who played in just two and eight games, respectively, last year. They will join now-tested mainstays like Arrington, who in four years' time went from undrafted rookie to practice squad member to the NFL's interceptions co-leader (he had seven last season). Anyway, the secondary doesn't have to be great. Average will be good enough.
Stevan Ridley, running back. Ridley had a rollercoaster rookie year. He gained 139 yards on 16 combined carries in Weeks 3 and 4, and just 83 over the Patriots' next eight games. After a strong finish to the regular season -- he averaged exactly 70 yards per game in wins over the Broncos, Dolphins and Bills -- he hardly saw the field in the playoffs, as he had just four carries as Belichick turned to the proven and sure-handed BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Green-Ellis, though, is now a Bengal, and Ridley seems poised to beat out Shane Vereen to become the Patriots' lead back, as he's shown an impressive mix of strength and speed in camp. He should be another reason this iteration of the Patriots' attack will make last year's look pedestrian.
Dont'a Hightower, linebacker. The Patriots traded the 31st and 126th picks in the draft to grab the 6-2, 265-pound Hightower at No. 25, and he has already shown why. The former Alabama captain has widely been viewed as their camp's second most impressive player, after Lloyd. "Big boy," says linebacker Rob Ninkovich. "He going to be a force playing inside, and having guys try to block him."
Last year's co-sacks leaders -- Mark Anderson and Andre Carter (they both had 10) -- have not returned, but the presence of Hightower and fellow first-rounder Chandler Jones, a 6-5, 266-pound defensive end out of Syracuse and the brother of UFC star Jon "Bones" Jones, means that the front seven likely won't suffer.
It doesn't seem quite fair, but the NFL's schedule makers have given last year's Super Bowl opponents rather different roads to potential repeat appearances. While the Giants have the league's most difficult schedule, as measured by 2011 records -- their opponents went a combined 140-116 last season -- the Patriots have the easiest, as the teams on their slate combined to go 116-140. A league-low four of them had at least nine wins. While it is unlikely that the Patriots will run the table -- a Week 4 game at Buffalo seems daunting, as do back-to-back early December home matchups against the Texans and 49ers -- last year's 13-3 record should constitute a mere starting point, unless that shaky offensive line leads to an unexpected amount of playing time for Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett, the backups to the freshly 35-year-old Brady.