NFL 2006: New England Patriots

The dynasty of the New England Patriots ended last season in the NFL playoffs when Denver posted a 27-13 win at Mile High. That loss ended a run that may not be duplicated again in the free agency era.

The boys from Beantown captured three Super Bowl championships in four years and broke the Miami Dolphins consecutive game win streak in the process. Who would have thought it could happen in this day and age?

Last season, injuries, illness and a defense that surrendered 338 points left the Patriots at 10-6, still good enough for the AFC East crown, but not good enough for home field advantage. With a solid draft and some healthy veterans returning – Bill Belichick and the boys look to climb back to their old ways and become Super Bowl contenders.

Offense: It starts and ends with Tom Brady. We all know the story by now. Sixth round pick does good and leads team to three world titles. In 2005, Brady proved he’s not only a good leader but a damn good quarterback as well. The Michigan grad led the NFL in yards passing (4,110), while completing 63 percent of his passes to go along with 26 touchdown.

Brady is the main cog of the Belichick engine. He understands the system, he’s like a coach on the field – dissecting the defense and knowing what every person is supposed to do on his team and the opponents. The Patriots better pray he doesn’t get hurt or the season is over. Matt Cassel and Cody Bramlett are the backups. Oh my God!

Corey Dillon had an injury-prone 2005 season. He failed to reach 1,000 yards (733), but he did find the end zone (12 TDs. He’s back healthy and with some competition so that should fire him up. New England drafted Lawrence Maroney out of Minnesota to be the future star of the franchise. Dillon is no spring chicken and Maroney runs with force and power – just like the old Cory Dillon. Don’t be surprised if Maroney becomes the featured back this season. Kevin Faulk returns as the third down back.

The Patriots are fortunate to have two solid fullbacks on the roster in starter Patrick Pass and backup Heath Evans. Both are experienced veterans who can block, run and catch passes effectively.

New England lost the services of David Givens, but responded by signing Reche Caldwell from San Diego and drafting Florida standout Chad Jackson in the second round of the draft. Deion Branch (78-998-5) returns as Brady’s main target, but he’s been a distraction, threatening to holdout of training camp unless his contract is redone. Ageless wonder Troy Brown (39-466-2) returns to add depth and experience.

The tight end position is a strength for the Patriots and it only got stronger with the drafting of Garrett Mills from Tulsa. Mills is an excellent receiver and solid blocker who was a fullback in college. He has excellent potential as an H-Back. Ben Watson (29-441-6) and Daniel Graham (16-225-3) are a solid 1-2 punch.

The line is a stable group with Tom Ashworth the only departed member. Dan Koppen returns at center with Stephen Neal and NFL 2005 All-Rookie Logan Mankins at guard; with Matt Light and Brandon Gorin holding down the left and right tackle slots. Russ Hochstein, Nick Kaczur and rookie road grader Ryan O’Callaghan provide depth.

Defense: The defense faltered a little in 2005, but that was do more to injuries than lack of ability. Eric Mangini is gone and new coordinator Dean Pees hopes to bring the defense back to its Super Bowl level of the past.

The defensive line returns intact with Ty Warren and Richard Seymour at defensive end and Vince Wilfork at the nose. Jarvis Green and Marquise Hill provide backup at the end slots. For some unknown reason, Belichick decided to trade with New Orleans to get career underachiever Johnathan Sullivan. He didn’t disappoint by getting arrested recently, which didn’t set to well with Patriot brass.

The linebacking corps suffered a blow when Willie McGinest was let go for cap reasons. Big mistake! McGinest is a hard worker who hustles on every play. He’s also a leader in the locker room who will be missed. Still, all is not lost. Tedy Bruschi returns 100 percent and along with Mike Vrabel (108 tackles, 4.5 sacks), make a scary good inside tandem. Roosevelt Colvin (seven sacks) returns on the outside with Tully Banta-Cain taking over for McGinest. Monty Beisel, free agent pickup Barry Gardner and Don Davis provide depth.

The secondary was downright dismal at times last season. The unit managed only 10 interceptions in 2005, one of the worst outputs in the league and needs to improve. The good news is strong safety Rodney Harrison returns healthy after an injury plagued season. He’s starting to show his age, but he’s still one of the best SS to ever play the game. Eugene Wilson occupies the free safety position, while Tebucky Jones and Artrell Hawkins are capable backups.

Starting corners Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs led the team with three picks each, but will be pressed by Chad Scott and free agent Eric Warfield, long time starter out in Kansas City.

Special Teams: The biggest off season news for New England was with its special teams. Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri and returners Bethel Johnson and Tim Dwight weren’t retained. Bad news for Patriots fans. The Vinatieri decision is a complete mystery to me. How can you get rid of possibly the best clutch kicker in NFL history and think that Martin Gramatica is an upgrade? Unbelievable!

Josh Miller (45.1) returns as punter. Hobbs will replace Johnson as kick returner and Brown will go back to returning punts. Rookie Stephen Gostkwoski was brought in to challenge Gramatica.

Outlook: There have been big losses in New England (McGinest, Givens, Vinatieri) but the players love Belichick’s system and respond well to it. He’s exceptionally good at evaluating talent and how it fits that system. The Patriots have declined since their Super Bowl run, but with Brady and a solid, experienced group, New England should hold off Miami and win another East title.

Prediction: The Patriots keep back an up-and-coming Dolphin squad to win another division crown. They’ll lose a game or two without Vinatieri and finish 10-6 or 11-5.

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