Bills: Growing pains | Dolphins: Uh-oh offense | Jets: Thinking outside the box | Patriots: Mixing new with old
Those are the heart-and-soul players, the holdovers from past championships. To win it again, to capture their fourth Super Bowl in seven years, it's going to take big seasons from the so-called new stars:
Laurence Maroney. Vince Wilfork. Asante Samuel. Ty Warren. Adalius Thomas. Randy Moss. The Patriots are loaded, especially in the defensive front seven. They have perhaps the best line in the league, and they bolstered an aging linebacking corps by signing Thomas from the Baltimore Ravens.
Thomas will be an ideal fit in Bill Belichick's defense because he can play just about anywhere -- inside, outside, up, down, you name it. He will be a matchup nightmare for opponents, another toy in Belichick's deep chest of goodies.
The defense should carry the Patriots through the early part of the season (although that task got more difficult with the four-game suspension of Harrison), when Brady and his new cast of receivers might have some growing pains.
|Andy Lyons / Getty Images|
|Laurence Maroney's recovery from shoulder surgery bears watching.|
» Patriots photos: 2007 | Best of 2006
Once they make it through that transition period, watch out. They might be the most talented team in the league. This team was devastated after blowing an 18-point lead to the Indianapolis Colts in the conference championship, but that defeat provided instant motivation for 2007.
THREE KEY GAMES
Sept. 9 at New York Jets: It's the Belichick-Mangini Bowl IV. This one's personal, and the outcome also sets the tone for the AFC East.
Sept. 16 vs. San Diego: A preview of the AFC Championship Game? On paper, these might be the two most talented teams in the league. This time, the Pats can't count on Marty Schottenheimer to mess it up for the Chargers.
Nov. 4 at Indianapolis: Anytime Tom Brady and Peyton Manning compete, it's great theater. Throw in the revenge angle and â¦ wow!
The Patriots will be better than you think if ...
Maroney is fully recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. A healthy Maroney will make people forget about Corey Dillon in a hurry. He has 1,500-yard potential.
The Patriots will be worse than you think if ...
Moss lives down to his reputation as a problem child. He's a chronic whiner, with the ability to rip apart a team. It's not likely to happen on a team with so much veteran leadership, but you never know.