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Tuesday Huddle: Things may only get tougher for Belichick, Patriots

Suddenly, the New England Patriots don't seem quite like, well, the New England Patriots.

Missing the playoffs for the first time in six years has put the decade's top NFL team in a different light.

But that isn't the only reason the Pats' three Super Bowl victories and four appearances in the big game since 2001 have taken on the feel of a fading memory.

The first bit of discouraging news about the team's future comes from multiple media reports that Tom Brady is behind in his rehabilitation from the major reconstructive knee surgery that caused him to miss virtually all of the 2008 season.

Any thoughts of the Patriots returning to their dominant form next season have been mostly based on Brady returning to the form that earned him NFL MVP honors in 2007. If that isn't the case, it's hard to be nearly as optimistic. As well as Matt Cassel performed, a healthy Brady still represents one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history, and there is no denying the Patriots are significantly better with him under center.

Cassel did prove to be a more-than-adequate replacement. With his surprisingly talented passing arm and impressive scrambling, he did a remarkable job of keeping the Patriots' offense functioning at a high level for most of the season, leading New England to an 11-5 record. Yet, it seems unlikely that the Patriots will be able to keep him. Cassel is due to become a free agent, and the cost to re-sign him, on top of the enormous salary the team is already paying Brady, figures to be prohibitive. Plus, it stands to reason that Cassel would prefer to establish his own identity as a starter elsewhere.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who had plenty to do with Cassel's success and Brady's record-breaking season in '07, also could be headed out the door. He is widely viewed as one of the league's brightest young coaching prospects, and he could end up filling one of the three head-coaching jobs that opened up Monday, or any that may open in the coming days.

Yet another potential blow to the Pats' reign of excellence could land at the very top of their organization. Scott Pioli, the team's vice president of player personnel for nine seasons and a two-time NFL Executive of the Year, is being courted by the Cleveland Browns to become their new general manager. The Patriots granted Browns owner Randy Lerner permission to interview Pioli to fill the vacancy created by Sunday's firing of Phil Savage.

AFC wild-card breakdown

The AFC playoff field, and perhaps those teams in the NFC playoff field as well, should be wary of the playoff-tested Colts, a team very capable of making the long march to Super Bowl XLIII, writes Vic Carucci.

Bill Belichick deserves all of the credit he gets for establishing and maintaining the Patriots' elite status. He ranks among the greatest coaches in NFL history. But Belichick has needed every bit of Pioli's considerable contribution in identifying and acquiring college and pro talent. Pioli had a huge role in the Patriots' ability to land Brady and Cassel with sixth- and seventh-round draft picks, respectively.

The thought of the team not having Brady ready to play next season -- and potentially being without Cassel, McDaniels and Pioli -- seems like even more than Belichick could overcome.

Who will surprise in '09?

Perhaps the Patriots will have a hard time turning their 4-0 finish in '08 into, at the very least, a strong start to the 2009 season -- and at the very most, a return to the playoffs.

However, there are several other teams with cause for encouragement and the potential to surprise in '09.

One is the Houston Texans, who won five of their final six games to finish at 8-8. Granted, they were 8-8 in 2007, but there were definite signs of improvement. For one thing, the Texans rebounded from a 0-4 start. Despite beginning the season with the league's second-youngest roster, they managed to grow up fast enough to pull themselves together for a stunning win over the Titans, arguably the best team in the NFL. Then they finished off their schedule with a triumph over the Bears, who were still fighting for a postseason berth.

The Texans have a dominant defensive end in Mario Williams, a game-changing receiver in Andre Johnson, a dynamic running back in Steve Slaton, a solid quarterback in Matt Schaub and enough other pieces for coach Gary Kubiak to develop the Texans into a contender. They also figure to get a break from a schedule in which opponents (including members of the soft NFC West) had a combined regular-season record of 99-108-1 in 2008.

Other teams that could fall into the surprise category in '09 include the San Francisco 49ers, who won four of their last five games; the Jacksonville Jaguars, who also have the NFC West on their schedule; the Washington Redskins, who take on the weak AFC West; and the Green Bay Packers, whose opponents' winning percentage is .428 compared to .504 in '08.

There's a temptation to include the Cincinnati Bengals, who finished 3-0, but we'll fight it, at least until we see what they do to fix their many problems in the offseason.

Feeling a draft? Here's an early look

Although the complete list won't be determined until after the playoffs, the order of April's draft is beginning to take shape. Here is one man's early projection of the top half of the first round:

1. Detroit (0-16):Matthew Stafford, quarterback, Georgia. He has a strong arm and figures to be the kind of player that a hapless franchise can begin yet another rebuilding project around.

2. St. Louis (2-14):Andre Smith, offensive tackle, Alabama. Smith could be Orlando Pace's eventual replacement.

3. Kansas City (2-14): Chris Wells, running back, Ohio State. Tyler Thigpen has a future as the Chiefs quarterback, but he needs the support of a consistently effective running game.

4. Seattle (4-12):Michael Crabtree, wide receiver, Texas Tech. He has the size and athleticism to be the sort of effective playmaker that Matt Hasselbeck desperately needs.

5. Cleveland (4-12):Knowshon Moreno, running back, Georgia. It's time to find a young replacement for the tough-but-aging Jamal Lewis.

6. Cincinnati (4-11-1):Jason Smith, offensive tackle, Baylor. This team needs a lot of help in a lot of places, but a good place to start is the offensive line.

7. Oakland (5-11):Malcolm Jenkins, cornerback, Ohio State. Although the Raiders have one of the league's best corners in Nnamdi Asomugha, they need someone to fill the spot that DeAngelo Hall failed to nail down after giving him a ton of money.

8. Jacksonville (5-11):Alex Mack, center, California. The Jaguars need help in the middle of their offensive line, and Mack is good enough to provide it immediately.

9. Green Bay (6-10):Gerald McCoy, defensive tackle, Oklahoma. The Packers' run defense has to beef up.

10. San Francisco (7-9):Sam Bradford, quarterback, Oklahoma. Having become the 49ers' full-fledged coach, Mike Singletary is going to want his own quarterback rather than relying on the limited talent he inherited at the position.

11. Buffalo (7-9):Brian Orakpo, defensive end, Texas. The Bills' No. 1 priority has to be a game-changing, dominant pass-rusher.

12. Denver (8-8):Aaron Curry, outside linebacker, Wake Forest. He should be a key component to a defense sorely lacking linebacker talent.

13. Washington (8-8):Everette Brown, defensive end, Florida State. The Redskins never got the high-impact pass rusher they thought they added with Jason Taylor, so they'll have to find one in the draft.

14. New Orleans (8-8):Vontae Davis, cornerback, Illinois. One player won't solve all the problems the Saints have in their secondary, but you have to start somewhere.

15. Houston (8-8):B.J. Raji, defensive tackle, Boston College. A big run-stuffer in the middle would go a long way to helping the Texans get over .500 and into the playoffs.

Quick thoughts

» I'm not sure if Tarvaris Jackson is capable of taking the Vikings very far in the playoffs, but if he does, the starting point could very well have come with two huge completions in the fourth quarter of their season-ending victory over the New York Giants. Jackson shook off a potentially crushing mistake -- an end-zone interception at the end of the third quarter -- to connect with Bernard Berrian for a 54-yard touchdown and hook up on third down with tight end Visanthe Shiancoe to set up the game-winning field goal. Jackson clearly had the trust of Brad Childress, who told reporters after the game that he never considered switching to Gus Frerotte after the interception.

» In the aftermath of the Cowboys' bitterly disappointing season, Wade Phillips convinced owner Jerry Jones not to make a coaching change and has taken it upon himself to make the changes necessary to get the team back in contention. It seems to me that Phillips better start with the offense. Tony Romo and Terrell Owens, who don't always see eye-to-eye, clearly agree there is plenty to be fixed with the approach of offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Romo gave what amounted to an indictment of Garrett's coaching by pointing out to reporters the seemingly fundamental need to adjust to what opposing defenses do rather than sticking with their game plan. Owens reiterated the familiar theme of play-calling to get him and the team's other receivers "more opportunities." As self-serving as Romo and Owens might sound, their criticism is something Phillips can't ignore.

» High on the list of reasons a team's playoff hopes could be spoiled is injuries to the offensive line -- unless, of course, that team happens is the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have been overcoming injuries to their offensive line all year, and their season-ending triumph over New Orleans was no exception. They lost right guard Geoff Hangartner in the second quarter to a sprained ankle, and right tackle Jeff Otah left in the third quarter with an injured toe. Rather than panic, the Panthers simply inserted Jeremy Bridges for Hangartner and slid left tackle Jordan Gross to the right side, while having Frank Omiyale took Gross' spot.

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