It’s been the same drill around here for the past 12 Septembers. A division title is nearly guaranteed. A Super Bowl berth is something close to a birthright.
Most Pats fans have realized at some point since 2002 that they’re spoiled rotten, but as each September rolls around there’s subtle reminders that “it won’t always be like this.”
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Tom Brady has been asked 5,000 different ways since his ACL injury in the 2008 season opener against the Chiefs as to how long he’ll play the sport of football. At first he said, “40.” Then he said “into his 40s.” On WEEI sports radio Tuesday he said, “until I suck.”
Brady turned 37 one month ago and there’s absolutely no reason to believe he’ll “suck” in 2014. But while the first decade of his career was reserved for “best quarterback ever” chatter, the second decade talk has been mostly about “closing windows.”
The NFL has truly never seen anything like the Brady/Bill Belichick Patriots. They have averaged 11.3 wins per season since September 2002 (seven months after they won their first Super Bowl), and have not entered a season where they weren’t among the handful of Vegas favorites to win the Super Bowl since. Perhaps the Pats’ best accomplishment has been their ability to stay consistently great. Consider that the run in which the 1990s Dallas Cowboys were legit Super Bowl contenders lasted just six years. The run for the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers lasted eight years. The most comparable run to the one the Pats are currently on came from the 1980s/early ’90s 49ers as they were Super Bowl contenders from 1981-1998. But even as great as those Niners teams were, there were six seasons sprinkled in during that time period in which they won just 10 games in a season (not including a 3-6 record in the strike-shortened season of 1982).
While a 10-win season is fine for most franchises, this is an elite-of-the-elite discussion and the Patriots have had just three seasons (2002, 2005, 2009) in which they won 10 games or less in their era of contention. Are they slowing down? Not by a longshot. The Pats won 14 games in 2010, 13 games in 2011, 12 in 2012 and another 12 last season. Another 12, 13, or 14 win season is nearly a lock.
There’s as much optimism about the 2014 Patriots as there has been about any Pats team since the one that beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Feb. 6, 2005. If they’re going to break this championship “drought,” this season is as good a bet as any to do so.
Here are three storylines for 2014 to keep tabs on:
No secondary issues
Finally, a secondary to be proud of.
There was a loud cry last season about how the Patriots need to give Brady more weapons. Well, the best weapon for most championship-obsessed quarterbacks comes via a great defense.
Former arch-enemy Darrelle Revis is arguably the best defensive player on a Patriots roster in the Brady/Belichick era and the Pats are expected to rank among the top five defenses in the league.
Pats fans are well aware how much a healthy, great cornerback can change the outlook of a defense. A healthy Aqib Talib was prominent in big early season victories over the Falcons and Saints last year. In fact, in the first six games of last season when Talib was healthy, Patriots opponents scored an average of just 16.1 points per game.
Revis is believed by most to be a more talented player than Talib and once fellow cornerback Brandon Browner returns in Week 5 against the Bengals, the Pats could feature one of the top secondaries in the league.
It was touch and go there with Vince Wilfork last March as the big nose tackle had asked for his release from the team. But Wilfork and the Pats eventually found a number they were seemingly comfortable with (a restructured deal worth three years, $22.5 million), and No. 75 is slated to go for 2014 and possibly beyond.
You haven’t heard a peep about Wilfork all summer long, but reports have indicated that he’s fully recovered from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered against the Falcons in late September last year.
Rob Gronkowski suffered his 2013 season-ending injury months later against the Browns, but the guess is that he’ll see some game action this Sunday against Miami. More important is that the game-changing tight end is at full strength the second half of the season and into the playoffs. Gronkowski hasn’t played something close to a full playoff game since the 2011 Super Bowl loss to the Giants, and even in that game he was hobbled.
Brady had 2006-like talent to work with last season, as yearning for the days Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel become commonplace among fans. Julian Edelman did take his game to another level, catching 105 balls for 1,056 yards, but fellow slot receiver Danny Amendola was seen as something of a bust. If Amendola can remain healthy (a HUGE if) and turn in games like he did last season against Buffalo (10 catches, 104 yards) and Miami (10 catches, 131 yards), it will open things up on the outside for Brandon LaFell, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter: @BurkeMetroBOS