The biggest criticism and prediction going against the New England Patriots headed into Super Bowl XLVI six months ago was that their defense couldn’t stop anybody. After finishing the regular season by allowing an average of 411 yards per game, finishing with the 31st ranked defense in the league, it was a valid argument.
But the game came and went, and it wasn’t the defense necessarily that lost the game for them. The much maligned Patriots defense held the Giants to only 21 points on 396 total yards, including 3 sacks on Eli Manning. Sure, they allowed the big drive at the end of the game that ultimately won it for the Giants, but had Wes Whelker been able to hang onto a pass that he catches 99 out of 100 times late in the game, New York never gets that opportunity.
It’s a game of inches as well as if’s and but’s, but New England looks to be better positioned this year than they did last year after the draft and free agency concluded. So for all of those predicting their demise need to pump the brake a little bit.
In free agency, New England added what was the worst kept secret of the signing period by inking wide receiver Brandon Lloyd to an affordable deal. Then they picked up former Patriot Jabar Gaffney who was released from Washington after poor conduct in social media, among other things. Just like that, Tom Brady has two legitimate wide receiver threats that he didn’t have with the combo of Deion Branch and Chad Ochocinco.
Then, on the defensive side of the ball, the team picked up Alabama stud linebacker Dont’a Hightower and highly rated pass rusher Chandler Jones out of Syracuse. Just like that, the team already made their secondary better than last year by improving their line play that might actually be able to keep the opposition from having 12 seconds per play to throw the ball. With that amount of time, any wide receiver in the NFL is going to find a way to get open.
Surely, the rookies are a question mark until we see what they can do on the field, so this is all on paper. But improving the Patriot offense as well as the defense, hypothetically, there is no reason to believe a team that put up another 13 wins in the regular season last year is going away any time soon. Not as long as the combination of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are still around.
Some of their competition in the AFC took a step back in the offseason in the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are fighting cap problems and were forced to cut some key contributors, and the Baltimore Ravens who lost the defensive player of the year in Terrell Suggs to injury.
Then you have some of the teams on the rise such as the Houston Texans, who many still debate would have made a Super Bowl run had they not had a 3rd string rookie playing quarterback and certainly improved through the draft, but took major losses in Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans as well as their starting offensive line. Also, keep an eye on the upstart Cincinnati Bengals who turned it around last year and had, many experts say, the best draft in the 2012 class. They won’t be going away any time soon.
But if you try to name the next “powerhouse” after the New England Patriots in the AFC this season, I’m not so sure you can do it off the top of your head. Sure, the Steelers, Ravens and the usual suspects will still be around.
But to say the Patriots aren’t the favorite to win the AFC and get another crack at the Super Bowl in 2012 are either deluded…or a Jets fan.