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The New England Patriots in the Bill Belichick era remind me of quality starting pitchers in baseball. If you don't get to them early, it's tough to get to them at all.

That might be especially true this season. With Rob Gronkowski hurt, Aaron Hernandez gone (but not forgotten), and an entirely rebuilt receivers group, the Patriots' offense could be slow out of the gates. And their opponents know it.

"Three of the quarterback's four best weapons are gone, if you throw (Brandon) Lloyd in there," one NFC personnel executive told's Albert Breer. "The run game is solid, but how much of that was because of how well they throw it? The defense is just OK. ... I think they're average, depending on when Gronk gets back. Teams are gonna be biting at the bit to play them early on."

Pats' regular-season record by month (since 2000)
Win Pct.

There's validity to this theory, and it's not just based on the uncertainty for this year's team. The graphic to the right shows just how dramatically Belichick's Patriots teams improve throughout the season. That trend only has intensified in recent years. The Patriots started last year 3-3 before finishing 12-4. They started 2011 at 5-3 before winning their last eight games. They finished 2010 on an eight-game winning streak, too.

The Patriots open with two AFC East games this season: at the Buffalo Bills and then home for the New York Jets on NFL Network (I'm contractually obligated to mention that.) Out-of-conference games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons finish the September slate.

Belichick traditionally tinkers with his lineup a lot in the first two months, mixing and matching to find out what players he can count on after Thanksgiving, when he says the real season starts. There figures to be more experimenting than ever early this season.

Expect some early bumps along the road.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.