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Shutdown Countdown: New England Patriots maintain their elite status

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.

Even when the Patriots don't look quite like the Patriots, they still win.

For the first six games last season, the Patriots showed some clear weaknesses. Mostly, they didn't have a receiver who Tom Brady could rely on. The offensive line didn't play well either. Brady looked as average in that stretch as he has in years which is why it was strange that he got MVP buzz late, because you'd assume that award takes into account the whole season. New England looked very beatable. Except nobody could beat it.

The Patriots were 5-1 after that stretch, thanks in large part to a coaching tour de force by Bill Belichick. They went on to go 12-4, with their losses coming by seven, three, four and four points.

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Tom Brady and Bill Belichick (Getty Images)

Tom Brady and Bill Belichick (Getty Images)

The biggest reason the Patriots looked a little sluggish in the first six games was that tight end Rob Gronkowski was still recovering from some injuries. New England averaged 32 points in the seven games he played. Then Gronkowski suffered a torn ACL and was done for the season.

All eyes are on Gronkowski's recovery now, because he's one of the most impactful non-quarterbacks in the league. He's truly a great football player, as dominant of a tight end as we've ever seen. We'll see if he can stay healthy enough to provide the longevity Hall of Fame voters want to see, but that's a topic for another day.

Gronkowski isn't the only impact player the Patriots get back. New England also has linebacker Jerod Mayo, defensive linemen Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork, and offensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer back from season-ending injuries. Even without those five fantastic players, New England went 12-4, never losing a regular-season game by more than a touchdown, and made it to the AFC championship game. And Belichick wasn't coach of the year .... why?

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Not only do the Patriots get five key players back, they added a big one: cornerback Darrelle Revis. New England has been up and down at cornerback for the past few years, but just added the best one in the game.

Assuming Gronkowski looks like his normal self, Brady doesn't slip at age 37 (there are some warning signs) and the Patriots get a little more injury luck as a whole, this is one of four superpowers going into this NFL season.

2013 review in less than 25 words: The Patriots went 12-4 but finally met their match in a 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the AFC title game.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same? Revis makes it better. Former Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner was another solid offseason addition. The loss of Aqib Talib is forgotten because of Revis. The loss of LeGarrette Blount might hurt, but the Patriots always have depth at tailback. Receiver Brandon LaFell was added from Carolina, although he has been a disappointment so far in his career. If you count the players coming back off injury the roster is way better, and even without them it has improved because of Revis.

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Darrelle Revis (AP)

Darrelle Revis (AP)

Best offseason acquisition: For all the talk that Revis wasn't quite the same last year with Tampa Bay coming off a knee injury, he ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 cornerback. Not bad for an off year. Revis will be better this season and motivated too, after accepting a one-year deal for $12 million. He has seen Richard Sherman, Joe Haden and Patrick Peterson all get more than $40 million guaranteed this offseason. He knows what a big season means for him. 

Achilles' heel: The receiver position is still a bit tough to read. Julian Edelman had a fantastic season, but when a guy who had 69 receptions in four years suddenly has 105 in his fifth season, it's fair to wonder if he can repeat. Danny Amendola has problems staying healthy, to say the least. Aaron Dobson has problems catching the ball. LaFell has that same problem. Kenbrell Thompkins faded badly as the season went on. If Gronkowski is a step slower, the receivers have to produce, and there are a lot of question marks in this group.

Position in flux: The running back group in New England always has to be on its toes. Belichick seems to change his mind on who will be the featured back from week to week. Stevan Ridley often removes himself from the mix because he's a chronic fumbler. Ridley had a stretch last year in which he totaled 20 carries over four games, including a healthy scratch in one game, because of his fumbling issues. Shane Vereen is a good player but mostly as a receiver out of the backfield; he has just 121 carries in three seasons. With Blount gone, if Ridley fails again, the running game might fall on Brandon Bolden or even rookie James White. That's not something the Patriots want to think about. 

Ready to break out: Linebacker Jamie Collins isn't a risky pick here, because he's everyone's breakout candidate for the Patriots. Collins is an exceptional athlete, a 250-pound outside linebacker who was a safety to start his college career. He has the ability to do whatever the Patriots need from him, and had his breakout moment in the playoffs last year, recording six tackles, a sack and an interception against the Colts. He's going to be a good one for the Patriots.

Stat fact: Brady has declined each of the past two seasons in completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt and quarterback rating. I know it's not cool to wonder this out loud I mean, as mentioned before some people were unbelievably touting Brady as an MVP candidate last year, which shows how some are circling the wagons to protect Brady as he nears the end but when a player shows significant decline at ages 35 and 36, are we sure he is going to bounce back at 37? Brady might, because he's one of the greatest of all time and presumably he'll have better players around him this year. But to totally ignore the possibility that Brady may never have another elite, All-Pro-type season is probably foolish.

Schedule degree of difficulty: The Patriots have the 10th toughest schedule, based on 2013 records. They play six games against the Dolphins, Jets and Bills, all of whom are fairly tough to read for this season, so we'll see how strong the schedule really is. The most important scheduling note is that the Nov. 2 game against the Broncos is in New England, a big edge for the Patriots in the AFC's game of the year.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: The Patriots should feel pretty good about their chances of winning a Super Bowl. Having the game against the Broncos in New England could mean the difference in home field for the AFC championship game. Everyone has kind of glossed over how many great players the Patriots were without by the end of last season. With a little injury luck and a healthy season from Gronkowski in particular, the Patriots obviously could win it all.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Considering in the last 11 seasons the Patriots have finished with double-digit wins all 11 times and won 10 AFC East championships, even the worst-case scenario would be worth a parade in a few NFL cities. They're going to win the East again. They're going to win somewhere between 12 and 14 games again. But at this point, with Brady getting older, any season that passes without another Super Bowl will be a disappointment in New England. 

The crystal ball says: We'll get to the Broncos soon, but suffice it to say that since they haven't shown up on the countdown, we don't think the Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC. But getting the regular-season game against Denver at home is clearly a factor, one the Patriots have to take advantage of. If New England wins that game, and gets the No. 1 seed as a result, it would be hard to bet against them going back to the Super Bowl. The top four teams in the NFL aren't separated by much, and they're clearly the four best heading into the season. The Patriots are as good as any of them. 

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Cincinnati Bengals
9. Green Bay Packers
8. Indianapolis Colts
7. Chicago Bears
6. Philadelphia Eagles
5. New Orleans Saints

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!

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