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1 New England Patriots
Peter King
January 10, 2011
Them again? Yep—thanks to familiar names like Green-Ellis, McCourty and Gronkowksi
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January 10, 2011

1 New England Patriots

Them again? Yep—thanks to familiar names like Green-Ellis, McCourty and Gronkowksi

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Think back to March. The Patriots had no running game, no tight end, no receiver depth (with Wes Welker rehabbing his torn-up knee), a poor pass rush and iffy cornerback play. It didn't exactly fill Patriot Nation with confidence when Bill Belichick declined to draft a running back high or get one in free agency, chose to rely on two rookies to rebuild the tight end position, endured Randy Moss's contract-moping through the off-season and passed on two premier free agents, defensive end Julius Peppers and receiver Anquan Boldin. This looked like a 10-win team, maybe 11—if Tom Brady could carry it on his shoulders.

Well, surefire MVP Brady (36 touchdowns, four interceptions) has done just that, but help has come from all over the roster, and completely unexpectedly. In going a league-best 14--2, the Patriots had the kind of season that confirms the fans' motto: In Bill We Trust.

No running game? Unheralded third-year back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Jets castoff Danny Woodhead combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards. Help needed at wideout? After the stunning trade of Randy Moss in October the Pats brought in a low-cost replacement in Deion Branch, and he and those two athletic rookie tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, totaled 21 touchdown catches. Defensive worries? They were well-founded early, but first-round cornerback Devin McCourty showed he has the makings of a shutdown corner. New England held Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Fitzpatrick to zero touchdown passes in December, and McCourty was chosen as the third AFC Pro Bowl corner, behind Nnamdi Asomugha and Darrelle Revis.

Like the 49ers circa 1986, the Patriots have rebuilt through a strong draft and smart personnel moves, setting themselves up for a run of greatness like that from 2001 through 2007. Only at receiver (Welker is 29, Branch 31) and quarterback (Brady is 33) is the roster advanced in years. Brady must stay healthy and interested, of course, but he says he wants to play into his 40s.

To win a fourth Super Bowl, and they are the clear favorites, the Pats cannot have a game like the one they suffered against the Giants in Arizona three years ago. In other words, they can't let some smart pass-rushing team come in and beat up Brady. And the offensive line could well be New England's weak point, with longtime starting right guard Steve Neal out for the year and fill-in Dan Connolly (he of the 71-yard kickoff return against the Packers in Week 15) questionable with postconcussion syndrome.

The Patriots must learn from history. The pressure's coming. Defenses are going to attack the line. But Belichick wouldn't be Belichick if he hasn't already figured out the response.

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