The New England Patriots enter the 2011 season with unfinished business, a team on a mission to reverse a shocking trend of playoff failures that have shattered the franchise's past aura of invincibility.
The Patriots were once nearly unbeatable in the postseason, winning 12 of 14 playoff tests and three Super Bowl titles over a six-year span from 2001-06. That reign of dominance is now a thing of the past, however, thanks to early exits in each of the last two years.
New England has actually lost its last three postseason matchups, a downward spiral that started when its famed and then-unbeaten 2007 outfit was upset by the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. A humbling 33-14 home defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 AFC Wild Card Playoffs continued the sequence, and a bitter setback to the rival New York Jets in last season's Divisional Round extended it.
While the Patriots' dynasty may be no more, they've still remained incredibly successful in regular-season play under crafty head coach Bill Belichick. New England has registered double-digit victory totals in eight consecutive years, and its 14-2 mark in 2010 was the best in the NFL heading into the playoffs.
And with reigning league Most Valuable Player Tom Brady still directing what was the game's highest scoring offense last season, there seems be a great chance that streak will continue in 2011.
Brady put forth a historic season, highlighted by an NFL-record string of 335 straight passes without an interception, in becoming the first-ever unanimous MVP recipient. The superstar signal-caller figures to be in line for another prolific campaign as the architect of a fearsome aerial attack that added another dangerous cog to the arsenal with the Pats' trade for six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Ochocinco in late July.
New England wasn't as proficient on the defensive side of the ball last season, primarily due to the absence of a consistent pass rush. That problem area triggered the acquisition of several veteran rejects over the summer, with troublesome tackle Albert Haynesworth the most notable -- and controversial -- of the bunch.
The enigmatic Haynesworth was one of the league's most dominant defenders before a disastrous and drama-filled two-year stint in Washington. The Patriots bought low on the talented two-time All-Pro, shipping a future fifth- round draft pick to the Redskins, in hopes he'll rediscover that prior form on the inside of a remodified unit that's switching over to more of a 4-3 look.
Haynesworth is looking forward to the fresh start.
"It's a great chance to be on a great team," he remarked. "It's a chance to restore my name or whatever you want to say. It's a great chance to get back on the field and play football."
Redemption will likely be on the minds of Haynesworth's new teammates as well, considering New England's recent January flameouts.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2011 edition of the New England Patriots, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2010 RECORD: 14-2 (1st, AFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2010, lost to N.Y. Jets in AFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Bill Belichick (126-50 in 11 seasons with Patriots, 162-94 in 16 seasons overall)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill O'Brien (fifth season with Patriots, first as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Belichick
OFFENSIVE STAR: Tom Brady, QB (3900 passing yards, 36 TD, 4 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Jerod Mayo, ILB (175 tackles, 2 sacks)
2010 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 8th overall (9th rushing, 11th passing), 1st scoring (32.4 ppg)
2010 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 25th overall (11th rushing, 30th overall), 8th scoring (19.6 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Chad Ochocinco (from Bengals), DE Shaun Ellis (from Jets), DT Albert Haynesworth (from Redskins), RB Shane Vereen (2nd Round, California), RB Stevan Ridley (3rd Round, LSU), TE Garrett Mills (from Bengals), DE Andre Carter (from Redskins), DE Mark Anderson (from Texans), OLB Ricky Brown (from Raiders), ILB Niko Koutouvides (from Buccaneers), CB Ras-I Dowling (2nd Round, Virginia), S James Ihedigbo (from Jets)
KEY DEPARTURES: TE Alge Crumpler (released), OG Stephen Neal (retired), DE Ty Warren (to Broncos), RB Fred Taylor (not tendered), OT Nick Kaczur (released), OT Quinn Ojinnaka (to Rams), OT Mark LeVoir (to Ravens), OLB Tully Banta-Cain (released), S Brandon McGowan (released), S Jarrad Page (to Eagles), K Shayne Graham (to Cowboys)
QB: Voted by his peers as the league's best player in a recent survey, Brady (3900 passing yards, 36 TD, 4 INT in 2010) backed up that honor with a sensational 2010 season. The future Hall of Famer deftly oversaw an offense that eclipsed the 30-point mark 11 times en route to a second career MVP award, while his 9-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio was the best in NFL history for a single season. He's also won 28 straight regular-season starts at home, a record as well. Backup Brian Hoyer (122 passing yards, 1 TD, 1 INT) doesn't own much significant game experience, usually taking the field in either blowouts or meaningless situations, but the undrafted third-year pro has earned the trust of the coaching staff for his professionalism and grasp of the system. New England's offseason run on character concerns actually began with the team's selection of Arkansas prospect Ryan Mallett in the third round of April's draft, with the 22-year old slipping to the 74th overall pick mainly because of maturity issues. With a rocket arm and a solid showing during the preseason, he may have been worth the risk.
RB: While there's rarely ever a clear-cut choice for carries out of the New England backfield, the team will have several worthwhile options to choose when running the ball. The Patriots got very good production out of a pair of undrafted players a year ago, with the powerful BenJarvus Green-Ellis (1008 rushing yards, 13 TD, 12 receptions) serving as a bruiser between the tackles and sparkplug Danny Woodhead (547 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 6 total TD), an astute waiver-wire pickup from the Jets, excelling in the passing-down role that had been manned for years by Kevin Faulk. Both will have competition this year from a pair of rookie draft choices, however. Third-rounder Stevan Ridley, a pounder in the mold of Green-Ellis, has put together a very good preseason, while second-round pick Shane Vereen offers versatility as both a big-play running threat and a capable receiver. Faulk's still around, having signed a one-year deal in July, but the 35-year-old appears destined to begin the season on the PUP list while recovering from a torn ACL. Fellow veteran Sammy Morris also returns to help out as a lead-blocking fullback and on special teams.
WR/TE: Though Belichick was wise to deal away a declining Randy Moss a few weeks into last season, the Patriots still encountered some difficulty finding a reliable deep threat to stretch the field. That helps explain the decision to add the ever-entertaining Ochocinco (67 receptions, 4 TD with Bengals), still a viable weapon at age 33, to a loaded group of quality targets. Three-time All- Pro Wes Welker (86 receptions, 7 TD) had a string of three straight years with at least 111 catches come to an end in 2010, but still remains Brady's go-to guy out of the slot, while Super Bowl XXXIX MVP Deion Branch (61 receptions, 6 TD) enjoyed a career resurgence in a second tour of duty with the Pats after coming over in a midseason trade with Seattle. New England is also stacked at tight end, with the outstanding young duo of Rob Gronkowski (42 tackles, 10 TD) and Aaron Hernandez (45 receptions, 6 TD) combining for 16 touchdowns and over 1,100 yards as rookies. With second-year pro Taylor Price coming on in the preseason after what was essentially a redshirt first year and valued reserve Julian Edelman and core special-teamer Matt Slater both still around, 2009 third-round pick Brandon Tate's (24 receptions, 3 TD) roster spot could be in jeopardy if he can't show more consistency.
OL: Experienced and technically sound, the offensive line has been an unsung essential part to the Patriots' success over the past decade, and nearly every member of last year's five-man crew is back in place for 2011 after the team locked up stalwart left guard Logan Mankins and re-signed steady veteran tackle Matt Light during camp. Mankins, a Pro Bowl honoree in three of the last four seasons, resolved a contract dispute that prompted him to hold out the first seven games of 2010 by signing a six-year deal in August, and he'll return to his customary post in between Light and center Dan Koppen, a rock- solid starter for the team since breaking into the league in 2003. Light will be entering his 11th season as the regular left tackle, though the three-time Pro Bowler may not be around for a 12th after New England brought in an heir apparent with the first-round selection of athletic University of Colorado lineman Nate Solder in April's draft. The team should be set on the right side for years to come, with third-year man Sebastian Vollmer quickly developing into an anchor during his brief career. Longtime right guard Stephen Neal retired in March, but replacement Dan Connolly wasn't a liability in 13 starts while subbing for his injured predecessor and an absent Mankins last year.
DL: The Patriots just won't be changing scheme this season, as several new veteran faces have entered the fold on a defensive line that's undergone the most transition on the roster. Haynesworth (16 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is the headliner of the crop, though end Shaun Ellis (36 tackles, 4.5 sacks) made some news as well after signing with New England following an 11-year stint with the rival Jets, a move that triggered an unenthusiastic response from his old head coach Rex Ryan. The 34-year-old is expected to hold down the left side in the revised arrangement, with Haynesworth forming a potentially devastating combo with proven run stuffer Vince Wilfork (57 tackles, 2 sacks) along the interior. 2010 second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham (34 tackles, 1 sack) is coming off a solid debut season and can line up as either a 4-3 end or a standup outside linebacker, and should start at one of those spots depending on the alignment. Look for two more newcomers, seasoned pro Andre Carter (44 tackles, 2.5 sacks with Redskins) and ex-Texan Mark Anderson (29 tackles, 4 sacks), to be deployed as nickel rushers on passing downs, with holdovers Mike Wright (14 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Myron Pryor (12 tackles, 0.5 sacks) both utilized in the tackle rotation. Carter racked up 11 sacks playing in a 4-3 system with Washington just two years ago.
LB: The speculated move to a 4-3 pushes leading tackler and 2010 Pro Bowler Jerod Mayo (175 tackles, 2 sacks) from an inside post to the weakside, a move designed to allow the former NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year more space to roam free and accent his strong coverage skills. Sophomore Brandon Spikes (61 tackles, 1 INT), a thumper in run support, would man the middle in that scenario, with jack-of-all-trades Rob Ninkovich (62 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) getting most of the snaps at the other outside spot. There's enough depth for roles to be interchanged as well, as the versatile Gary Guyton (63 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) has seen extensive playing time in his three seasons and both undrafted find Dane Fletcher (23 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and end/linebacker hybrid Eric Moore (14 tackles, 2 sacks) acquitted themselves well when called upon due to injuries last year.
DB: Though the Patriots allowed the third-most passing yards in the NFL (258.3 ypg) last season, they also snared a league-best 25 interceptions. Seven of those picks were provided by young cornerback Devin McCourty (82 tackles, 1 sack, 17 PD), with the 2010 first-round pick quickly justifying his high draft status and earning a Pro Bowl nod. The spot opposite McCourty was problematic at times, however, but the return of steady vet Leigh Bodden from a shoulder injury that sidelined him all of last year should help shore things up. His comeback will allow special-teams ace Kyle Arrington (71 tackles, 1 INT) to move into a nickel role he's better suited for, while the second-round selection of talented rookie Ras-I Dowling (Virginia) in the most recent draft has put disappointing returnees Darius Butler (23 tackles) and Jonathan Wilhite (20 tackles) both on notice. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather (68 tackles, 3 sacks) also made the Pro Bowl last year, though that may have been based more on reputation, but counterpart Patrick Chung (96 tackles, 3 INT) turned in a good and active season alongside him. James Sanders (58 tackles, 3 INT), entering his seventh year with the team, is a trusty No. 3 safety, while offseason addition James Ihedigbo (22 tackles, 3 sacks) -- another ex-Jet -- is a hard-hitter who can help out on special teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Stephen Gostkowski annually ranks among the league leaders in points as a result of New England's high powered offense, though that wasn't the case in 2010 due to a torn quadriceps that cut short his season after eight games. He made 10-of-13 field goal attempts prior to getting hurt and owns a career success rate of 84.3 percent. Punter Zoltan Mesko, a fifth-round pick in last year's draft, averaged a respectable 43.2 yards per kick as a rookie, though the Romanian-born youngster still needs to refine his accuracy and touch. The return units were very good in 2010, with Edelman leading the AFC with a 15.3 average taking back punts and Tate (25.8 avg.) scoring twice on kickoffs, though the latter is squarely on the roster bubble. If he's not kept, Slater would likely be next in line.
PROGNOSIS: While last January's loss to the Jets was indeed discouraging, it was one of the few low moments of an otherwise brilliant season by the Patriots, who won their final eight games prior to the playoffs by an average of more than 21 points and knocked off both eventual Super Bowl participants during that stretch. And with just about every key contributor from that 14-win team still on the roster, not to mention the game's best player and arguably its top head coach, another postseason berth seems like a virtual lock as long as Brady's on the field. Though the defense needs to improve on last year's results and the offensive line could protect a little better, the overall roster is pretty stacked. New England should be on the short list of Super Bowl contenders, and is a legitimate threat to win it all if it can reverse its recent playoff trend.