Last year the New England Patriots turned from a 3-11 club into an 11-3 wild-card team and came within a referee's whistle of knocking off Super Bowl winner Oakland in the opening round of the playoffs. So complete, convincing and continuing is the Patriot turnaround that New England now rates as the principal threat to Oakland's hopes for another Super Bowl championship.
The Patriots could hand the ball to Granny Goose, run to the left on every play and go unbeaten in 1977. Guard John Hannah, Tackle Leon Gray and Tight End Russ Francis, all Pro Bowl-ers, make up the best left side in the NFL—if, that is, Hannah and Gray, who walked out on the Patriots before the team's final preseason game, settle their renegotiation disputes with the club—while Fullback Sam (Bam) Cunningham is a crushing blocker. The Patriots are also loaded with good runners. Cunningham is a bruiser who busts tackles. His backup, Don Calhoun, is bucking for a starting job; last year Calhoun replaced the injured Cunningham and put together four straight 100-yard games. Halfback Andy Johnson had knee surgery this week and is lost for the season.
New England's other running threat is Quarterback Steve Grogan, who led all NFL quarterbacks with 397 yards rushing in 1976. "A lot of people keep asking if I'm going to run the ball this year," says the 6'4", 205-pound Grogan. "The answer is yes—if the defense lets me. Hey, I'm as big as most of the running backs."
In theory, the Patriots should never have to pass, and when they do go to the air, they should catch defenses napping. But their passing attack hardly resembles Oakland's bomb squad, and if Grogan is forced to throw, the Patriots' dream season could crumble. His top three receivers last year were Johnson, Cunningham and Francis, in that order. Enough said about New England's deep passing game. Darryl Stingley and rookie Stanley Morgan both can go deep, but Grogan has never shown accuracy at long range.
Typical of the Patriot turnabout is the improvement in their defensive secondary. Two years ago New England was inept against the pass. Now the Patriots are so solid that top draft pick Raymond Clayborn of Texas can't even break into the unit led by two 1976 first-round choices, Rookie-of-the-Year Cornerback Mike Haynes and Safety Tim Fox. Last season Haynes became the first Patriot ever to return a punt for a touchdown—and he did it twice. But now Haynes has turned the kickoff and punt-return duties over to Clayborn and Morgan, both of whom returned punts for touchdowns in an exhibition against Green Bay.
The Patriots again will use a 3-4 alignment up front. The linebacking is exceptional inside with Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt, but the line could be stronger.
Exploiting the Patriot weaknesses will be difficult, for New England has what appears to be the NFL's easiest schedule. The Patriots play only two teams that had winning records last season—Baltimore (twice) and Cleveland (once). Their other rivals had a combined record of 43-111. Even if New England falls on its face in its tough games, it should finish 11-3—and win the division.
"I don't understand why no one's picking us to win," says Baltimore Colt Coach Ted Marchibroda. "We've won for two years and people still don't believe we're for real."
It's the Colts' linebacking and secondary that people don't believe in. Tom MacLeod (out all last season after Achilles-tendon surgery) and Stan White are fine outside linebackers, but Marchibroda still is searching for a replacement in the middle for Jim Cheyunski, whose ailing knee forced him to retire. The Colts' Sack Pack front four last season led the AFC with 56 quarterback dumpings, but as Marchibroda says, "If we didn't get the big play from our front four we didn't get it at all."
To seal his leaky secondary, Marchibroda signed free-agent Cornerback Norm Thompson, formerly of St. Louis. Thompson has never shone against the sweep, but he is a good, if gambling, pass defender.