Shutdown Countdown: Despite rough offseason, Patriots should have no trouble winning AFC East

Brian McIntyre

There was a point in the 2012 season where the New England Patriots found themselves with a 3-3 record and in a four-way tie for first place (or four-way tie for last, if you're a fan of The Minutemen, a seminal punk band from the 1980s) in the AFC East. If the Patriots had a sense that didn't belong in that tie, it would be justified by having their three losses come by a total of four points.

First came a 20-18 loss to the lowly Arizona Cardinals, a game the Patriots were in position to win before Stephen Gostkowski's fifth field goal attempt of the game sailed wide from 42 yards out. The following week, the Patriots had a nine-point lead over the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter before Baltimore's offense gained 162 yards on 15 plays over two drives and scored 10 points, including a 27-yard field goal from rookie kicker Justin Tucker as time expired.

[Related: Patriots' Aqib Talib, Brandon Spikes playing for new contracts]

The third loss came in Week 6 to the Seattle Seahawks. Up 23-17 in the final two minutes, Seahawks rookie quarterback Russell Wilson hit Sidney Rice for a 46-yard touchdown to give Seattle the lead. Tom Brady would throw two incomplete passes, take a sack and the swarming Seahawks defense would keep Wes Welker short of the sticks on a 4th-and-17 play to force a turnover on downs. After the game, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would get in Brady's face to ask "U Mad, Bro?".

Yes, Brady was mad.

After the loss in Seattle, the Patriots would win seven straight games, with Brady passing for 1,692 yards with 19 touchdowns and one interception as New England outscored their opponents by an average of 21 points per game. The Patriots nearly ran their win streak to eight, completely erasing a 31-3 second-half deficit to the San Francisco 49ers before allowing 10 fourth-quarter points in a 41-34 loss.

The Patriots would close out their season with back-to-back wins to finish 12-4, the 10th consecutive season the Patriots had won 10 or more games. In the playoffs, the Patriots trounced the Houston Texans to advance to the AFC championship game, but All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his left forearm for the second time in three months and was done for the season. In addition to losing Gronkowski, cornerback Aqib Talib, acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers midway through the season, injured his thigh in the first quarter of the AFC championship game against the Ravens. Without Talib, the Patriots struggled to cover wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whose 60 yards and a pair of touchdowns catapulted the Ravens into Super Bowl XLVII with a 28-13 win in Foxboro.

2013 has been a very eventful offseason for the Patriots. It started out great, as Brady signed a three-year, $57 million contract extension in February that gave the Patriots some cap room to work with in the offseason. Unfortunately, most of the news involving the Patriots has been controversial, bad and downright tragic.

The Patriots were unable to re-sign Welker, who turned down New England's offer to to sign a similar deal with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. To replace Welker, the Patriots had signed Danny Amendola, who has been compared to Welker throughout his career, largely because they're both white wide receivers who entered the NFL as undrafted free agents after playing their college ball at Texas A&M. That's where the comparisons stop as Welker has been far more productive, and far more durable, than the slightly bigger and slightly more athletic Amendola has been during his career. Gronkowski, the best tight end in the NFL, underwent multiple surgeries on his forearm before having back surgery in June, which puts his availability for the first half of the season in jeopardy. While Gronkowski was getting frequent flier miles on the operating table, the Patriots invited the circus to town when they signed free agent Tim Tebow to replace Mike Kafka as the No. 3 quarterback on the roster.

Rock bottom was struck when tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in June, prompting the Patriots to release a player who less than a year earlier had signed a five-year, $37.5 million extension with $16 million in guaranteed money. Around the same time, starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, who slid to the seventh-round of the 2012 NFL draft because of off-field issues (assaulting a police officer), was arrested in Lincoln, Neb. on suspicion of DUI.

The Patriots are turning the page, however, beginning with a "jersey exchange" at their Pro Shop that reportedly cost the team $250,000. In their comments at the start of training camp, owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and Brady have all referred to the team reemphasizing the "Patriot Way" in how they conduct themselves on and off the field.

There are legitimate questions about how the passing offense will fare with so much turnover at wide receiver and tight end, but Josh McDaniels is a very smart offensive coordinator who will adjust and adapt his play-calling to fit the personnel. The defense should be solid and the Patriots should have little trouble winning the AFC East and securing one of the top two seeds in the AFC.

Is the roster better, worse, or about the same? The roster is about the same, though there are a few very notable exceptions. Welker, the franchise's all-time leader in receptions, left in free agency and will now catch passes from Peyton Manning in Denver. The other huge change is that instead of wearing Patriots gear during training camp this summer, Hernandez is now wearing a green jump suit as the most recognizable inmate in the Bristol County Jail. The Patriots also lost versatile running back Danny Woodhead to the San Diego Chargers, chose to not pick up the option bonus on Brandon Lloyd and have not re-signed Deion Branch. They did, however, pick up Leon Washington, who has good hands out of the backfield and remains one of the more electrifying return men in the game, which should mitigate the loss of Woodhead.

Best offseason acquisition: The strongest move the Patriots this offseason was re-signing Talib. The Patriots' acquisition of Talib at last season's trade deadline helped improve their pass defense in the second half of the season as he shadowed opposing No. 1 receivers and allowed Devin McCourty to move to free safety on a full-time basis. Talib is back on a one-year, $5 million contract and showed increased dedication and accountability by earning a reserved parking spot with his participation in the offseason program.

Biggest hole on the roster: Defensive tackle. Vince Wilfork has gone to four straight Pro Bowls and (finally!) got a first-team All-Pro nod in 2012. Over the last three seasons, the 6-foot-2, 325-pound Wilfork's workload has increased. After playing in 51 percent of the defensive snaps in 2009, Wilfork played in 69.5 percent of the snaps in 2010, 86.1 percent of the snaps in 2011 and had a playing-time percentage of 81.2 percent in 2012. Wilfork is even playing more special teams snaps, going from around 10 percent in 2009 to around 15 percent of the special teams plays over the last three seasons. The Patriots waived Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick this offseason (after previously pulling the plug on 2009 second-round pick Ron Brace) and are expected to start veteran addition Tommy Kelly next to Wilfork this season. The concern is that Wilfork turns 32 in November and Kelly — a solid, but overpaid player in Oakland — turns 33 in December. Beyond these two veterans, the Patriots are waif thin. The Patriots signed CFL star Armond Armstead to a three-year contract in January that included $655,000 in guaranteed money, but the team announced on Monday that he's out after undergoing surgery to clear out an infection. Then there's 2012 undrafted free agent Marcus Foster (eight snaps last season) and rookies Cory Grissom, Joe Vellano and Anthony Rashad White.

Position in flux: Wide receiver. The eight players to play wide receiver for the 2012 New England Patriots played a total of 2,952 offensive snaps. Five receivers who played 2,612 of those snaps (88.5 percent) are no longer on the roster. Gone are Welker (1,074 snaps), Brandon Lloyd (1,038 snaps) and Deion Branch (474 snaps) and in their place are Amendola, rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, and veterans Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins. The one holdover receiver that played a somewhat prominent role in 2012 is Julian Edelman, who is coming off a broken foot and opened training camp on the "physically unable to perform" list.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: Tight end Zach Sudfeld, who could have been the same answer to this question in a preview of the 2012 Nevada Wolfpack football team. Sudfeld red-shirted as a freshman and missed the 2008 season with an injury. From 2009-11, Sudfield appeared in 22 games and caught two passes for 11 yards. Last season, however, Sudfeld broke out, catching 45 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns, but his injury history kept him from being drafted in April. Instead, the 6-foot-6, 253-pound Sudfeld, who is older than Gronkowski (and Aaron Hernandez) signed a three-year contract with the Patriots that included a $12,000 signing bonus and a $5,000 base salary guarantee. Early reports from Patriots training camp have Sudfeld continuing to make plays and showing signs that he could make an impact as a rookie.

Stat fact: According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2013, the Patriots offense last season had a higher DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) and averaged nearly a touchdown more points per game without Hernandez. Without Gronkowski, however, the Patriots offense had a lower DVOA, though they did score at about the same 34-35 points per game clip.

The team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Brady quickly develops chemistry with his new receiving corps, Gronkowski returns early in the season and the pass defense carries over their late season success into the new season as the Patriots win 10 or more games for the 11th consecutive season and the 12th time in Belichick's 14 seasons in Foxboro.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: None of the young receivers step up, Amendola suffers another freak injury and Gronkowski doesn't return to his former self (or worse, suffers a setback and doesn't play at all). The front seven struggles to pressure opposing quarterbacks, Talib and Dennard have more off-field issues and the Patriots are leapfrogged by the Miami Dolphins (or worse, the New York Jets) in the AFC East standings.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Over the last few years, the feeling in New England has been that no matter what happens around or within this team, as long as they have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the Patriots will be fine. That applies to 2013. Brady is not getting any younger, but he remains one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the NFL and this is not the first time in his Hall of Fame career where he's had to adjust to new targets in the passing game. If Brady has a good year, the Patriots will be in the playoffs.

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

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