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NFL 2007 Preview: Pats vs. Saints?

By Andrew Gluck

Section: Sports

September 7, 2007

The back-to-school blues are easily trumped for NFL fans by the anticipation of Kickoff Sunday. All football fans, even those of the Vick-less Falcons, feels that this is the year that their team can exceed expectations and finally win the big one. But is this the year that the local (Foxboro is less than an hour away) New England Patriots return to Super Bowl glory?

As the Indianapolis Colts celebrated their Super Bowl victory last year, Patriots coach Bill Belichik was busy considering potential off-season acquisitions. Not known for much off-season moves, Belichiks Pats participated in a flurry of activity in the free-agency market, and made several trades. They strengthened their offense and filled some holes on defense.

Quarterback Tom Brady, in just six seasons, has already led the Pats to three Super Bowl victories (in two of which he was named MVP) with a mediocre wide receiving corps. With the additions of Dont Stallworth (via free agency), a down-field threat who has averaged over 15 yards per reception for his career, Kelley Washington (free agency), an oft-injured but physically gifted receiver, Wes Welker (trade with Miami Dolphins), a skilled four-year veteran who will also handle some special teams duties, and the highly-talented and oft-controversial Randy Moss (trade with Oakland Raiders), the Pats gained an extreme amount of depth at wideout. This allowed them to cut Reche Caldwell, their leading receiver last year. Belichiks policy of secrecy, tighter than that of the CIA, has left it unknown whether Mosss hamstring/upper left leg injury will keep him out of the Pats season opener on Sunday against the Jets. He should not miss any more time than that, as he returned to practice this Monday after more than a months layoff.

Running back Laurence Maroney is going to have a breakout year. He gained 745 yards in 14 games, none of them starts, as a rookie last season. With the departure of Corey Dillon, he looks to take on a heavier workload and break the 1,000 yard mark. Last year he suffered some minor injuries that kept him inactive for two weeks and limited his playing time in the final weeks of the regular season and the postseason. Although Maroney underwent shoulder surgery this off-season, he certainly looked capable and willing to carry the load in his preseason action against Carolina. With no clear cut number two back, Maroney fantasy owners should be happy to know that he will be used often in the passing game as well.

In a shocking announcement, veteran safety Rodney Harrison recently admitted to using a banned substance, but not steroids, in his rehabilitation this off-season. As part of the leagues substance abuse policy he will be suspended for the first four games of the season. Harrison, now a veteran presence, had been the backbone of this commanding defense. However, the defensive tone is instead set by the linebacking corps led by Mike Vrabel, Teddy Bruschi, and bolstered by the addition of Adalius Thomas (free agency), who looks to improve upon the 11 sacks that he racked up playing for the Baltimore Ravens last season. Thomas fits into Belichiks scheme;

he is a versatile pass-rusher who has played defensive end, linebacker, and safety. He was a Pro-Bowler last year and dont be surprised if he is in Hawaii in February after this season.

Surprisingly, defensive end Richard Seymour, who had been the Pats most reliable run-stopper, has been placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list and will miss at least the first six games of the season. The best news for the Pats defense may be that Asante Samuel, who tied for the league lead in interceptions (10) last season, and returned a Manning interception for a touchdown in the AFC Championship Game, has rejoined the team after threatening to sit out for the first 10 games of the season due to contract disputes. Management and Samuel agreed to a one-year $7.79 million contract. The first four games without Harrison and Seymour could create problems for the defense, as the Pats face four playoff caliber opponents in the Jets, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, and a Monday night game at Cincinnati.

The Patriots home opener Sunday night against the Chargers will be a perfect test for the defense. If they can even contain the highly explosive offense of new coach Norv Turner (ex-coach Marty Schottenheimer was fired after New England displaced the Chargers from the playoffs) then consider it an indication of an enhanced defense. The Chargers have the reigning MVP in RB LaDainian Tomlinson, a budding star in QB Philip Rivers, and tight end Antonio Gates who led all TEs in yards (924) and touchdowns (9). If the Pats can win this game, and slow down the three-headed monster that is the Chargers offense, it would build confidence for a likely meeting in the playoffs.

Another intriguing match-up is on Nov. 4, when the Pats return to the RCA Dome, the site of last years disappointing loss to the Colts. Other tough games include a Monday Night showdown at Baltimore in December, and a Week 17 meeting with the New York Giants, who will likely be fighting for a playoff berth at that time. The Pats should not drop more than one game in divisional play against the Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. If they win the games they are supposed to, and split the tough contests they should finish with the same record, 12-4, as last year, and their fifth straight AFC East crown.

An AFC Championship rematch against the Colts is a high likelihood, but this time I anticipate that the punishing ground game of the Patriots will be able to grind out a victory. As much as the defense is to blame for last seasons loss to the Colts, it was the Patriots offense that had possession of the ball with a 34-31 lead with just 3:22 to go in the game, and was able to burn just one minute off the clock before punting away the ball to the Colts. The 2:17 left on the clock were enough for Manning to lead a seven-play 80-yard touchdown drive to send the Colts to the Super Bowl. With the improved defense and perhaps more importantly, a more punishing ground game, with Maroney taking over much of the work, the Pats will control time of possession and grind out games much more affectively. Look for the Pats to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

If the Pats are going from the AFC, then who is going to challenge them from the NFC? The feel-good story of the 2006 season, the New Orleans Saints, will be the representatives of the NFC. Led by the two-backed tandem of Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, proven quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints will beat up on the softer NFC and make it to the big dance. Last year, the Saints had the best offense in the league – better than the Pats, Chargers, or Colts. With the gained experience of Bush and second-year head coach Sean Payton and several draft improvements, the Saints will lock up their first ever Super Bowl bid. Their toughest challenge is the Chicago Bears, whose defense will still be one of the elite, but whose quarterback, Rex Grossman, can still not handle snaps and whose overall offense is sub par.

If both of these teams make it to the Super Bowl healthy it will be exponentially more exciting than last years Colts victory over the Bears. If the Pats hope to defeat the Saints, they must be patient and use the ground game, where the Saints are weak, (23rd overall last season). However, the Pats much tougher road to the Super Bowl will take its toll on a more veteran team in the form of fatigue and injuries. Belichik will attempt to compensate, but, the Saints (surprise!) will prevail and win their first Super Bowl ever.

Recent sports history has dictated that it is not always good to be an early-season frontrunner. In 2006, the Carolina Panthers were regarded as the favorites to win the Super Bowl, and the Dolphins in 2005, and neither team made it to the playoffs. So for all you non-Pats fans, myself included (J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets!), there is still that hope that this is the year. Yes, even for you Atlanta fans out there, Joey Harrington could be this years MVP.

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