ATTEMPTING TO coaxan 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 somethingwithout saying anything as they are in the game of football. Consider theresponse of strong safety Brandon Meriweather when asked what a defense thatranked 10th in the league last season—and 15th against the run—must do toimprove. "I think everybody needs to be on the same page," Meriweathersays. Anything just a little more specific? "We need to execute our gameplan to the fullest." Thanks, Brandon!
The Patriots'near-pathological adherence to platitudes originates, of course, with BillBelichick. Why, the coach was asked during a mid-August press conference, dofranchises around the NFL view his team as the one to beat this season? Havethey forgotten that New England missed the playoffs last year? "I don'treally know what anybody is or isn't saying around the league," Belichicksaid. "Doesn't really matter to me. What we're concerned about is thisafternoon's practice." Other concerns, according to Belichick:"correcting mistakes," "getting some things installed" and"trying to improve day to day."
"You see a lotof teams boasting about what they're going to be and how they're going to doit," says running back Fred Taylor, who joined the team in February as afree agent after 11 seasons with the Jaguars, "but you never really hearmuch from this group. They just go and do it."
Just how much thePatriots will be able to go and do will depend on the health of four-time ProBowl quarterback Tom Brady, whose 2008 season ended during the opener's firstquarter when a hit from Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard seriously damaged hisleft 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, doesBrady appear to be fully recovered? "I can't touch that."
Judging fromBrady's play in training camp drills and from his confident performances in thefirst three preseason games (26 for 42 with four touchdowns), he appears to bemuch 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 wentundefeated until Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants pulled off a 17--14upset.
There is perhapsno better testament to the Patriots' system and depth than their 11--5 finishin 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 wideoutJoey Galloway, and to 12 draft picks, the franchise's most since 1996. NewEngland, 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, aquarterback at Kent State whose ability as a slot receiver has the Patriotsthinking they might have found another Wes Welker (though one three inchestaller and 13 pounds heavier).
Last year'soffense under Matt Cassel—who hadn't started a game since 1999, his senior yearin high school—ranked fifth in the NFL with 365.4 yards per game, but even thatpaled in comparison with the previous season's Brady-directed group, whose411.2-yard average led the league by more than 40 yards. How much better, WesWelker, does the offense function under Brady than under Cassel? "Nowyou're asking me questions that are going to get me in trouble."
Finally, agleaming nugget, sifted from the bromides and prosaism. Welker's answer alludesto the fact that the Patriots know Brady's return will make their offense,merely excellent under Cassel, spectacular once more. And that's the centralreason why they should again chase 19--0.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
138--86 in NFL, 10th season with Patriots
Kevin Faulk (83att., 507 yards; 58 rec., 486 yards; 6 TTDs), Laurence Maroney (28 att., 93Yards) and Sammy Morris (156 att., 727 yards, 7 TTDs) will pitch in at RB.
Woods, anundrafted free agent out of Michigan in 2006, takes over for the departed MikeVrabel; Guyton replaces the retired Tedy Bruschi.
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FL 2009 SCHEDULE
2008 RECORD 11--5
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 6 > 12 > 5
DEFENSE 15 > 11 > 10
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
* in London
NFL Rank: 3
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .590
Games against playoff teams: 6
The Pats went 11--5 without Tom Brady in part becausethey had one of 2008's easiest schedules. Not so this year: New England plays12 teams that had winning records and will rack up more frequent-flier milesthan their AFC East rivals thanks to a transatlantic trip to face the Bucs. Butthe Pats were 16--0 against a similarly tough schedule in '07, so it may notmatter whom they play.
Derrick Burgess, Linebacker
ENTERING TRAINING camp, the Patriots had only oneobvious weak spot: lack of an outside pass rush. They traded veteran linebackerMike Vrabel (16½ sacks over the last two seasons) to the Chiefs as part of theMatt Cassel deal last February, and that left Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable—onecareer sack between them—as potential replacements.
But then New England followed form and made a surprisepickup on Aug. 6, acquiring the 31-year-old Burgess, a two-time Pro Bowlselection who had become disgruntled in Oakland and was holding out, for twomid-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 himto 10 games and 3½ sacks last season. "I had a couple bumps and bruises,worked through them, and here I am," he says. "I feel great—great to bewith this organization, and my body feels good," says Burgess, who has notyet reworked his contract with the Patriots.
Burgess played defensive end with the Raiders, buthe'll line up primarily as an outside linebacker in the Patriots' base 3--4 onpassing downs. He could also become the latest in a long line of veterans whowere brought in by New England to plug a hole and left with a Super Bowlring.
DAVID BUTLER II/US PRESSWIRE
IT'S ALL GOOD Brady has shown no ill effects from the knee injury that wiped out his 2008 season.
DAVID SILVERMAN/NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS