The Patriots head into 2012 much like they did four years ago, with a chip on their shoulder from losing a Super Bowl to the New York Giants on an improbable late-game comeback.
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By spending six of their seven draft picks on defense, New England focused on rebuilding its major weakness from 2011. If Tom Brady's record-breaking performance of 5,235 passing yards last season is any indication, the former league MVP still has plenty of gas left in the tank to make the offense one of the most dangerous in the league. New England has again retooled its roster to remain competitive in the conference, and could sport yet another twist in the offense this season -- a power running game.
New England was busy adding veteran help in free agency. Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and tight end Daniel Fells will be key role players on offense, while defensive end Jonathan Fanene, safety Steve Gregory and defensive line Trevor Scott should help plug some holes in the defense. The departures of defensive end Mark Anderson (Bills), running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Bengals) and offensive tackle Matt Light (retirement) appear to have been mitigated.
Vince Wilfork continues to provide a reliable force in the middle for the Patriots.
First-round picks Chandler Jones (defensive end) and Don't'a Hightower (linebacker) should have an immediate impact in 2012, and both could compete for playing time right away. Defensive back Tavon Wilson and defensive end Jake Bequette are under-the-radar pickups who will add depth.
Late rounder Alfonzo Dennard has a chance to showcase his top-tier talent if he can handle his off-field issues. Special teamer Nate Ebner is a classic Patriots pickup -- he just loves football. Wide receiver Jeremy Ebert could catch on as a practice squad player.
New England has arguably the easiest schedule in the league (.453 winning percentage), facing just four teams with nine wins or more last year. That may be deceiving as New England faces the 2-14 Rams and 2-14 Colts in a six-game stretch that sandwiches a trip to England in with four division games and the bye week. The Week 9 bye is perfectly set up to allow time to recover from the Rams game, a Wembley Stadium match-up.
Four night games highlight the schedule, starting Week 3 at Baltimore. The other three come in the final six games of the season, at the Jets (Week 12) and home vs. the Texans (Week 14) and 49ers (Week 15). Two games against the rebuilding Dolphins in December should help cement the division race.
A strong start is important, but there are winnable games at the end if the Patriots need them.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Tom Brady, quarterback. Without Brady there is no offense, no 1,000-yard receiver, no 30-point games, and no miracle comebacks.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Vince Wilfork, defensive lineman. The big man in the middle centers a defense that has taken criticism, except in the middle.