Patriots preview: Still NFL's team to beat

The Patriots have arguably the best team and the easiest schedule in the NFL this season. Put them together and it's difficult to forecast stormy weather for them before the playoff winds begin to howl in January.

Obviously, the offensive line has to keep Tom Brady upright and find some way to handle fire-zone blitzes such as the one the Giants used to sack him five times and harass him all night in their stunning Super Bowl upset of the previously undefeated Pats. Brady had been dropped only 24 times all year, so one could argue it was just an off day. But then again one could point out that the Eagles and Ravens put similar heat on him late last season and perhaps exposed a dangerous weakness the Giants were able to exploit. Time will tell and opponents will certainly be bold enough to try and find out.

Otherwise, New England seems well suited to throw when it wants, run when it has to and stop most opponents with a defense that has some problems with age at linebacker and question marks in the secondary but still looks solid. A year ago that defense finished fourth in the league in yards allowed and was in the top 10 in both pass defense and run defense so it remains a well-rounded unit.

The secondary is the biggest area of concern, as three of New England's top six defensive backs were lost in free agency, including top cover corner Asante Samuel. Samuel will not be easily replaced and apparent starters Ellis Hobbs and oft-injured journeyman Fernando Bryant seem more like a collection of No. 2 corners rather than guys who can consistently handle the opposition's top receiver. Age at safety, in the persons of Rodney Harrison and John Lynch, also gives one pause to wonder about the secondary but there's also youth there in James Sanders and Brandon Merriweather. A front seven that should be able to get to the quarterback will protect a weakened secondary under most circumstances.

One the hot seat

Richard Seymour. At age 29, The five-time Pro Bowl selection is coming off a down year in which he missed six games with knee woes. Seymour is healthy again and still has plenty of upside. Dropping 10 pounds should help and so would a year where his body doesn't desert him.

Difference maker

Adalius Thomas. Now that Rosevelt Colvin is gone, Thomas is back to a full-time presence at outside linebacker. Look for him to be used in enough exotic ways that increase his production over a year ago.

Hard row to hoe

Between Oct. 5 and Nov. 2 the Patriots travel to the West Coast on back-to-back weekends vs. San Francisco and San Diego, host Denver and the Rams and then travel to face Peyton Manning's Colts in Indianapolis. That's a lot of mileage.

Patriots will be better than you think if ...

LaMont Jordan runs the way he did when he rushed for 1,025 yards and caught 70 passes for 563 more than three years ago. If he can repeat that production it will limit the load on oft-injured Laurence Maroney and make them both more effective.

Patriots will be worse than you think if ...

Tom Brady continues to limp as he did at the end of last season and all through training camp. If his right foot remains a problem and he misses significant game time during the season, life will not be as they've come to know it in Foxborough the past seven years.

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