Football season is officially underway with last night’s Broncos-Ravens lightning-threatened showdown, but pardon me if baseball is still at least a little on the brain with one exciting victory after another. The Red Sox have – in my opinion – all but locked up their first division crown since 2007 and only their second since 1990, so there’s reason around these parts to be pretty excited as October nears.
That being said, I understand that football is America’s pastime. The Patriots, while less of a perceived sure-bet as they enter Bill Belichick’s 14th season as head coach, are still contenders with VegasInsider.com listing them at 10-1 to win the Super Bowl behind Wes Welker’s Broncos, the 49ers, and Pete Carroll’s Seahawks.
So, with football on the table and baseball on my mind, I’ve got a solution! A batting order-themed Patriots season preview looking at their keys to success…
Batting leadoff… Dodge the Infirmary Ward
Whether it’s Tom Brady (who endured a minor preseason knee scare), Danny “If He Stays Healthy” Amendola (already limited on the Week 1 injury report), Rob Gronkowski (fresh off five surgeries but somewhat surprisingly starting the season on the active roster), Vince Wilfork (almost 32 years old), Aqib Talib (victimized by an ill-timed thigh injury in the playoffs last year), Stevan Ridley (fortunately of sound mind and body through two seasons), or a select few other virtually irreplaceable players, the Patriots are going nowhere this season if their key guys aren’t on the field. If any one of them goes down, it may not hamper New England’s chances of making the playoffs in a crummy division, but you can bet it will prevent the club from doing much when it gets there. Think of it like the leadoff guy needing to get on base. It’s a table-setting scenario.
In the two-hole … Run, Ridley, Run
The Patriots ranked first in the NFL last year in total offense with 427.9 yards per game. As good as Brady was, he couldn’t do it alone. The Pats averaged 136.5 yards per contest on the ground, good for seventh in the league. In his first year without BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Ridley tripled his rookie production to finish seventh in the NFL with 1,263 yards and tied for third with 12 touchdowns. He’ll again be the premier option, while Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden will have to build on last year's roles to cover the loss of Danny Woodhead. Adding a former 1,000-yard rusher in LeGarrette Blount will help. The more success this group has and flexibility it provides, the less pressure Brady will put on himself and his receiving corps. Plus, with each additional second that ticks off the clock on the ground, that’s another moment that an unpredictable defense has on the bench.
Batting third… Coaching Reputation Meets Reality
We’ll never really know who has meant more to the Patriots’ reign since 2001, likely Hall of Famers Brady or Belichick, and it frankly doesn’t matter; neither one’s legacy exists without the other. For the Pats to have any level of success this season, even in a division that is theirs to lose, Belichick and his coaching staff will have to push all the right buttons following an offseason of turnover and turmoil that left his squad somewhat inexperienced (14 rookies) and, most concerning, lacking in depth at a number of key positions. Those newbies and youngsters will have to be greatly coached up along the way. In the meantime, as the succinct coach says, “It is what it is,” and he’ll be leaning heavily on his veterans, especially in tough matchups with the Broncos, Falcons, Saints, Texans, Bengals, Steelers, and the defending-champion Ravens. In other words, it’s not an easy schedule.
In the cleanup spot … Brady Being Brady
Baseball’s best lineups are known for their 3-4 combos, and we had a pretty good tandem in those slots over at Fenway for almost a decade. For the Pats, football in Foxborough has never thrived better without Brady complementing Belichick. As documented in the past, I believe the lack of familiarity with his pass-catchers entering the year will make this Brady’s most challenging season yet. The talent is there, no question, but he’ll have to be more patient than ever before as Amendola and a slew of rookies get accustomed to the system. Remember, the two-time quarterback’s top five targets from last season are either gone (Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez, Woodhead) or injured (Gronkowski). Excluding Gronk because he’ll eventually return, that’s 283 receptions and 3,194 yards to make up. A total of 22 QBs reached that number of yards with their entire teams in 2012, let alone four players. Simply put, as Brady goes, so go the Patriots.
Batting fifth … Replacing Welker & Same Old Gronk
If Amendola is to be “Welker 2.0,” he’ll have to do more than just stay on the field. The 27-year-old slot receiver is younger, faster, and perhaps even more talented than the departed franchise receptions leader, but injuries have prevented him from proving it. The former Ram has suited up for only a dozen games over the last two years after a 2010 campaign in which he caught 85 balls for 689 yards, both personal-bests. The last time Welker had totals that low, he was a member of the Dolphins in 2006. Many folks who frequent Gillette expect Amendola to replicate Welker’s production (roughly 110 catches and 1,200 yards), and he may have to for the Pats’ offense to have another banner year. It won’t help that he and Welker will be compared each and every week throughout the season.
As for Gronkowski, it’s impossible to ask the guy with the NFL’s best-ever single season for a tight end to do that again, but he will probably have to be the pre-injured, football-spiking fan-favorite we’re used to upon his return, which would be too much to ask of all but a few other men who play the position. That means penciling in the noticeably smaller Gronk for about five catches, 75 yards, and one touchdown per game. Not an easy task following four forearm surgeries, a back surgery, no training camp, and an offseason generally absent of standard conditioning. At the very least, no matter when he returns or what he does during the regular season, he’ll have to be that guy in the playoffs because that’s where they’ve missed him of late.
In the six-hole … Rookies Catch On
Building on the pass-catchers theme, drafted rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, along with seemingly superior undrafted freshmen Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld will have to acclimate themselves to the playbook quickly and prove versatile, whether that’s downfield or in short-yardage situations. For the most part, the group as a whole looked good in the preseason, which is a relief given the lack of depth and fragility of Brady’s primary targets. But, for the kids, it’s about more than chipping in; there needs to be consistency and reliability. The mental game is as important as any other aspect for Brady, and that means a belief that a receiver will be where he has to be when he has to be there. Without that confidence, things could get ugly fast, especially if Amendola or Gronkowski encounter any setbacks.
Batting seventh … I’m Gonna Git You Sucka
It’s not unreasonable to think the Patriots could have a middle-of-the-pack defense this season, not the one that ranked 29th in the NFL in pass-defense at 271.4 yards allowed per game. The Pats will face some elite quarterbacks in 2013 in Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Joe Flacco, so the pressure will be on the defensive linemen to step up and help the secondary. Wilfork and new pal Tommy Kelly will have little margin for error in terms of health given the rookies behind them (see a theme here?), and Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones will be relied on to boost their combined 14 sack total from a year ago. Stats aside, they’ve got to get to the quarterback, limit time, reduce space, and hopefully win a game or two without the offense having to put up 25 points.
In the eight-spot … On Second Thought
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Pats’ secondary stunk last year – at least until Talib arrived. To prevent it being another Achilles' heel, Talib will have to a.) stay healthy so that a performance like the one against the Ravens in the playoffs isn’t repeated, and b.) get some help from Devin McCourty, Steve Gregory, Alfonzo Dennard (if he’s not hindered further by his DUI incident), rookie third-rounder Logan Ryan, and others to counteract big plays by marquee receivers like A.J. Green, Julio Jones, and Demaryius Thomas, to name a few. Losing veteran Adrian Wilson to the IR is already a blow. Perhaps Ty Law could take some time away from the television set to hold a clinic?
Rounding out the order … Foot-ball
Stephen Gostkowski and I share a birthday. After that, the comparisons are few and far between. One area he trumps me is kicking a football between the uprights, which is something he’s done to the tune of 135 points per season for each of his six full years. In 2012, he had a career-best 153 points, helped by 15 field goals of at least 40 yards. Adding interest to the equation here will be his new holder, rookie Ryan Allen, who replaced the popular Zoltan Mesko. It could be a fascinating wrinkle since the undrafted Allen has never held on field goal attempts in his life, and the pricier Mesko was also a hell of a punter. Four Pats games were decided by three points or less last year, so it’s important not to ignore Gostkowski’s need to produce to the level he has so far. Every once in a while, that number nine hitter is the difference-maker.
Prediction: 11-5, good for the AFC East title and a fight with the Texans for the second seed in the conference.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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