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Patriots '07 preview

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Now the Colts have done it. They've made the New England Patriots very, very angry.

The Pats fell one minute shy of the Super Bowl when they lost to Indy in the AFC championship game and then devoted the offseason to ensuring it doesn't happen again. Usually wallflowers in the free-agent market, they commandeered the dance floor and signed prized linebacker Adalius Thomas and deep threat Donte' Stallworth. Then, they traded for up-and-coming slot receiver Wes Welker and the coup de grace, Randy Moss.

AFC EAST PREVIEWS
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These newcomers supplement a core of standouts that includes quarterback Tom Brady, the entire defensive line and linebackers Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi. Add in coach Bill Belichick and the Pats have all the pieces in place for another title run.

After blowing an 18-point lead in the conference championship game, the Pats are more determined than ever to win another crown. They've won three of the past six Super Bowls, but there comes a point when that sentence construction no longer carries much impact – though "four of seven" has a nice ring to it.

GAME PLAN

Offense: Coordinator Josh McDaniels is one of the game's rising stars – and perhaps a future head coach. In general, the Patriots have preferred to throw under Belichick, for one obvious reason – Brady. Since the days of Charlie Weis, the Patriots have felt comfortable emptying the backfield, spreading the field and letting their quarterback do the rest.

For all the attention paid to two-tight end sets early last season, the Patriots actually used more three-wideout groupings down the stretch and in the playoffs, with tight end Ben Watson and running back Kevin Faulk giving Brady de facto five-receiver sets.

Defense: Coordinator Dean Pees moved up from linebackers coach last year, maintained Belichick's 3-4 system and added a few wrinkles. Once a showcase for the team's athletic linebackers, the 3-4 now is built around the dominating line of ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren and nose tackle Vince Wilfork. They provide serious pass-rush pressure and a hard-to-penetrate wall against the run. Not surprisingly, the Pats set a franchise record last season for fewest points allowed.

SPOTLIGHT PLAYERS

QB Tom Brady: Brady, simply put, is a winner. Everything revolves around his ability to spread the field, find the open man and hit him in stride. It works because Brady is adept at setting the protection at the line, identifying pressure and getting rid of the ball quickly. How many quarterbacks like to get blitzed? Brady does because it gives him a chance to exploit single coverage.

Brady also is a Dan Marino-like master of escaping pressure with minimal movement in the pocket. Few quarterbacks can match his ability to complete his full throwing motion in the face of onrushing linemen.

WRs Randy Moss, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker: Brady trusted few receivers last year. The Patriots took one look at last year's group and decided it wasn't good enough. So they picked up Stallworth as a free agent, traded for Welker and sent shockwaves through the league with the acquisition of Moss in a draft-weekend trade.

Provided he's healthy and focused, Moss still can be a difference-maker. He has the ability to stretch a field with double moves, go routes and deep comebacks. Defenders will have to honor the sub-4.4 speed of both Moss and Stallworth on the outside by keeping their safeties deep, which will open up things for Welker and tight end Ben Watson underneath in single coverage against linebackers. It wouldn't be a shock if Welker led the squad in receptions as a safety valve and third-down target.

DEs Richard Seymour and Ty Warren: The big three – Seymour, Warren and Wilfork – all have mastered the responsibilities of gap control, and all three are capable of getting into the backfield when single blocked.

Seymour dominates the right side by occupying multiple blockers on every play. He can change games without recording a tackle. He can line up outside in the 3-4 or at tackle in the 4-3, and his versatility has a domino effect on the rest of the defense. Warren clearly was the team's defensive MVP of 2006. He is too fast for most of the bigger right tackles he faces, and he is almost Seymour's equal in the power department.

LBs Adalius Thomas, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin: This group, long the lifeblood of Belichick's 3-4, has collectively lost a step. But experience alone makes it formidable, and Thomas provides a needed injection of talent and relative youth (he turns 30 in August).

The leader of the group is Bruschi, a 12-year veteran who missed only one game in 2006 despite playing the entire season with a broken wrist. A healthy Bruschi gives the Pats a playmaker in the middle as well as a savant at diagnosing plays.

His partner in the middle will be either Vrabel or the versatile Thomas, who played just about everywhere in Baltimore. Vrabel is better suited to the outside, where he might be the team's best pass rusher. But his ability to read and react makes him valuable in the middle. The other outside man is Colvin, a strong pass rusher who occasionally struggles to set the edge in the running game, an absolute must in Belichick's 3-4.

VINNIE IYER'S TAKE

Despite issues at linebacker and wide receiver, the Patriots were a play away from the Super Bowl a year ago. Additions such as Thomas and Moss will get them there this season.
Prediction: 14-2 (1st in the AFC East).

FALL FORECAST

How's that for reloading? During the Belichick era, the Patriots have measured success by Super Bowl victories – and on paper, this may be their best team yet. Brady is at the top of his game and has some serious weapons at his disposal, Thomas provides Willie McGinest-type versatility and the defensive line could be dominant.

Based on their offseason moves, the Patriots will be high on most everyone's list of Super Bowl favorites. Just as important, they're motivated. They didn't like the taste left by last year's conference championship loss – and they're determined to get rid of it.

John Tomase covers the Patriots for the Boston Herald and Sporting News.

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