Expect 'Deflategate' to motivate Patriots for 2015 season
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The last time the NFL punished the New England Patriots for cheating, they ran through the regular season with a perfect 16-0 record.
Expect that same fury in 2015.
With more time this offseason spent debating the ideal gas law than the team's fourth Super Bowl title since 2001, the Patriots have prepared the same way they usually do: allowing some of their biggest stars to leave, avoiding the big-name free agents, and quietly reloading the roster that has won the AFC East 11 times in the past 12 years.
So while their fans turn to conspiracy theories about why New England is the target of such scrutiny, the players report to camp this week with extra motivation. After Spygate, when the Patriots were caught illegally videotaping opponents' signals, they ran off a spotless regular-season record before losing in the Super Bowl to blow their chance at the NFL's first-ever 19-0 season.
The accusations this time are pointed directly at quarterback Tom Brady, who has been suspended for four games for being ''at least generally aware'' of the scheme to doctor the footballs. The Patriots aren't waiting until the case makes its way through the courts to rally around the three-time Super Bowl MVP.
Here are some things to look for as New England reports for training camp at Gillette Stadium on Wednesday:
PRESSURE: The criticism from Patriots critics since 2007 has been: ''They haven't won it all since Spygate.'' The implication: They can't do it without cheating. Now the team has to deal with claims that it only won last season because it was doctoring the footballs. The fact that New England outscored Indianapolis 28-0 in the second half - after the balls were fixed - answers some doubters. It could take another title to take care of the rest.
VOLUME: New England fans have made ''Free Tom Brady!'' their rallying cry - on Twitter, on T-shirts, at Red Sox games and at a rally to support the embattled quarterback at Gillette Stadium. Brady will have their support during training camp, and whenever he does take the field in 2015.
NUMBERS: Vince Wilfork, a five-time Pro Bowl selection on the defensive line, is gone. So is six-time selection Darrelle Revis, who was with the team for just one year but solidified an NFL championship defense. Running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley combined for 190 carries last season - nearly half of the team's total - and they're both gone, as well.
Malcolm Butler, who snagged the interception that clinched the Super Bowl win over Seattle with 20 seconds left, is the favorite to move into the starting lineup at cornerback. First-round draft pick Malcom Brown, from Texas, could be the replacement for Wilfork. And Jonas Gray looks like the No. 1 running back - if he can make it to practice on time.
CONSTANT: As long as the Patriots have Brady, coach Bill Belichick - and tight end Rob Gronkowski - they will be a threat. The coach and quarterback are the only constants since 2001, when Brady stepped in to replace the injured Drew Bledsoe and then won three Super Bowls in his first four seasons as starter. And if Gronkowski, who joined the team in 2010, is healthy, Brady has the top target he needs regardless of who is lining up at wide receiver.
TEMPERATURE: The heat is on backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who waited for his chance behind Brady last season, mostly performing well in mop-up duty when he got the chance. The team signed Matt Flynn as a free agent, and he could be the choice during Brady's suspension if Garoppolo isn't ready.
One of them could have to play as many as four games if Brady's suspension isn't overturned in court. If the Patriots can win two of them, the team will head into Game 5 no worse than last season.
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