Tom Brady likes to share credit by saying a lot of the Patriots are undefeated as starters in the playoffs, but in reality, few have started all nine postseason games since 2001. Only kicker Adam Vinatieri, Matt Light, Joe Andruzzi, and Brady on offense and Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi on defense can make that claim. With Andruzzi in Cleveland and Bruschi doubtful for 2005, that will leave the Patriots with just three position players and a kicker who are 9-for-9 in that span.
Did you know?
The last Patriots quarterback to lose a playoff game was Scott Zolak, who filled in for an injured Drew Bledsoe in a 25–10 loss at Jacksonville at the end of the 1998 season.
Beating the best
The Patriots are 16–1 in the last two seasons against teams that made the playoffs.
Winning the turnover battle
In 2004, the Patriots were plus-10 in the playoffs in turnovers with 11 takeaways and one giveaway.
Harrison steps it up
Safety Rodney Harrison has six interceptions in six playoff games with the Patriots. He has five interceptions in 32 regular-season games.
The Prophecy: “Corey Dillon will take pressure off (Tom) Brady and give the Patriots a cold-weather, bruising back who can help them protect leads and win late in the season.”
The Lie: “The Patriots solved their biggest weakness by signing punter Josh Miller ... ”
— Athlon Sports Pro Football 2004
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Bill Belichick is fond of saying the Patriots start each season at the bottom of the NFL mountain, along with the other 31 teams. The goal, of course, is to scale the summit, something the Patriots have managed to accomplish a remarkable three times in the past four seasons.
In 2005, however, Belichick will have to do his mountain climbing without his two most trusted guides. Romeo Crennel will be climbing a somewhat steeper mountain in Cleveland, while Charlie Weis brought his four Super Bowl rings back to his alma mater, where he will try to resurrect Notre Dame.
Of all the injuries and personnel changes New England has undergone during their four-year reign, replacing Crennel and Weis will be Belichick's toughest challenge yet. The Patriots still have a strong core of their championship team intact, and Belichick is regarded as one of the masterminds of the game, but there will be an adjustment at the top this season that will be new to the NFL's reigning kings.
He finished the 2004 regular season ninth in the league in passing efficiency, behind such names as Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb. Then Tom Brady methodically sent all three home in the playoffs.
Brady enters his fifth season as a starter for the Patriots, and he has gradually improved each season. His numbers changed a bit in 2004 with the presence of Corey Dillon in the backfield; his yards per attempt increased as the Patriots scaled back the short passing game in favor of pounding Dillon. That figures to continue in 2005, even though there will be a new voice in Brady's head.
Belichick never officially named a new offensive coordinator, and it appears that he will be calling the plays in 2005. What effect this will have on Brady remains to be seen, but one thing is certain -- he is the franchise's most valuable and irreplaceable player and one of the most clutch quarterbacks ever to play the game.
Since becoming the starter early in 2001, Brady has not missed a start, leaving the back-up role insignificant to date. Just in case, however, the Patriots signed veteran Doug Flutie to a one-year deal. Flutie, Rohan Davey and former Ravens quarterback Chris Redman will battle for No. 2.
Dillon fulfilled all expectations when he put on a Patriots uniform for the first time last year after seven tumultuous years in Cincinnati, gaining a career-high 1,635 yards and scoring 12 touchdowns. Dillon has been a good citizen on and off the field and gives the Patriots the running game they need to take the pressure off Brady. The one game Dillon missed in 2004 proved disastrous, as the Steelers routed the Patriots 34-20 on Oct. 31. Dillon is right behind Brady in the indispensable department.
Kevin Faulk has been a capable backup in his six years in New England, especially as a third-down back. He was particularly productive in the Super Bowl with 65 yards on 10 touches.
The Patriots are deep at wide receiver, even with the decision not to pick up the option of popular Troy Brown at season's end and the loss of David Patten to free agency. Joining Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch and David Givens are veterans David Terrell and Tim Dwight. Branch will be the No. 1 target as long as he is healthy, and his 20 catches in the past two Super Bowls are an NFL record. Givens has fought his way from being the fifth or sixth receiver as a rookie seventh-round pick all the way to the starting lineup.
Terrell has underperformed since being picked in the first round out of Michigan, but the Patriots believe his career can be rejuvenated by playing with Brady, his former college teammate. Dwight will help the return game, especially if Brown is not re-signed. Speedster Bethel Johnson, entering his third year out of Texas A&M, is in a make-or-break season.
At tight end, expect 2004 first-round pick Ben Watson to get right back right into the mix after missing most of the 2004 season with a knee injury. Veterans Daniel Graham and Christian Fauria give Brady two more dependable targets.
The Patriots have made a living off free-agent signings along the offensive line, so it was a surprise to see Belichick draft Logan Mankins in the first round and Nick Kaczur in the third. Both players were tackles in college but project primarily as guards. Four Super Bowl starters return for the Patriots -- center Dan Koppen, left tackle Matt Light, right tackle Brandon Gorin and right guard Stephen Neal -- leaving only the spot vacated by Joe Andruzzi to be filled. Russ Hochstein and Gene Mruczkowski will likely battle the two rookies for the spot.
Three-time Pro Bowler Richard Seymour anchors a productive and versatile group. Seymour is one of the most disruptive players on defense, and his return from a late-season knee injury was one of the keys to the Patriots' Super Bowl victory. Ty Warren will start at the other end. Rodney Bailey, who missed 2004 with an injury, will also be in the rotation, along with former LSU Tigers Jarvis Green and Marquise Hill. Second-year man Vince Wilfork, a 325-pounder out of Miami, will take over the nosetackle duties inside. He will be backed up by untested Ethan Kelley.
The biggest loss on defense is middle linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a mild stroke the week after his first Pro Bowl appearance. Bruschi is the heart and soul of the Belichick defense, but he's doubtful for 2005 and may never resume his playing career. Fellow inside linebacker Roman Phifer was not re-signed, leaving the Patriots some holes to fill in the middle.
Veteran run-stopper Ted Johnson returns, and he will be joined by free agent signees Chad Brown and Monty Beisel. Brown, 34, is a three-time Pro Bowler who has been slowed by injuries in recent seasons, while Beisel enters his fifth year in the league after earning a starting assignment in his fourth year in Kansas City. On the outside, Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin are a solid trio who should keep the defense ranked near the top of the league. The team is also high on Tully Banta-Cain, a third-year pro out of California.
For the first time in a decade, Ty Law will not be starting at cornerback for the Patriots. Fortunately for New England, they experienced life without Law in 2004, and recorded an 11-1 record (including the postseason) after he injured his foot.
Steady Asante Samuel will likely start at one corner slot, while newcomers Duane Starks and Chad Scott will battle Tyrone Poole and Super Bowl starter Randall Gay for the other starting slot and the nickel position.
At safety, Rodney Harrison will assume an even larger leadership role if Bruschi does not return, and hard-hitting Eugene Wilson will start alongside. Keep an eye on Guss Scott, a third-round pick in 2004 who missed all of last year with an injury.
Adam Vinatieri had the best season of his career in 2004 and will be back for his 10th year with the Patriots. Vinatieri made 29 of his last 30 field goals including the playoffs, led the NFL in points and even threw a touchdown pass on his way to his second Pro Bowl. Josh Miller returns at punter. He was below average in his first year with the team as the Patriots ranked 29th in the league in net punting. To his credit, 34 percent of Miller's kicks landed inside the 20, and he fought his share of poor kicking conditions.
With Brady and Dillon on offense, Seymour and Harrison on defense and Vinatieri rock-solid at kicker, the Patriots have cornerstones in place for their fourth title in five years. These Patriots have made history before - posting the longest all-time NFL winning streak, scoring first in 20 straight games, winning eight straight overtime games - but this piece of history may just be a hair out of their reach. The change in coordinators, the probable loss of Bruschi and the giant bull's-eye on their back may be too much for this Super team to conquer. Then again, you aren't going to find any better mountain-climbers in today's NFL than Belichick and Brady, are you?