Our 2015 NFL preview series ranks every team, from worst to first. Today: the No. 2 Patriots.
2014 Record: 12-4
Head coach: Bill Belichick
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Key arrivals: Jabaal Sheard (linebacker), Matt Flynn (quarterback), *Malcom Brown (defensive line), Dane Fletcher (linebacker), Bradley Fletcher (cornerback), Brandon Gibson (wide receiver), Scott Chandler (tight end), Jonathan Freeny (linebacker)
Key departures: Darrelle Revis (cornerback), Vince Wilfork (defensive tackle), Stevan Ridley (running back), Shane Vereen (running back), Kyle Arrington (cornerback), Brandon Browner (cornerback), Jonathan Casillas (linebacker), Dan Connolly (offensive guard), Akeem Ayers (linebacker)
Sept. 10: Pittsburgh, 8:30 pm
Sept. 20: at Buffalo, 1:00 pm
Sept. 27: Jacksonville 1:00 pm
Oct. 4: BYE
Oct. 11: at Dallas 4:25 pm
Oct. 18: at Indianapolis 8:30 pm
Oct. 25: New York Jets 1:00 pm
Oct. 29: Miami 8:25 pm
Nov. 8: Washington 1:00 pm
Nov. 15: at New York Giants 4:25 pm
Nov. 23: Buffalo 5:30 pm
Nov. 29: at Denver 8:30 pm
Dec. 6: Philadelphia 4:25 pm
Dec. 13: at Houston 1:00 pm
Dec. 20: Tennessee 1:00 pm
Dec. 27: at New York Jets 1:00 pm
Jan. 3: at Miami 1:00 pm
TRAINING CAMP QUESTION: How will Brady and Garoppolo split snaps?
Regardless of whether Tom Brady's legal battle gets his four-game suspension reduced, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is expecting noticeable improvement in Jimmy Garoppolo no matter how many preseason reps he receives with the starters. "It helps all rookies to get that first year under your belt," Belichick told Patriots media during OTA practices. "That's usually where you see the biggest jump generally in most players is from year one to year two. They understand the system. They've been through it [and] they've been through the league for a year. Hopefully, we'll see that from our group." He was cagier about reps as training camp started, even going so far as to having the quarterbacks wear red jerseys with no names on them.
IF EVERYTHING GOES RIGHT:
The Patriots pick up right where they left off and find ways to win football games. The defending champs may have experienced some turnover during the offseason, but Belichick knows how to re-tool a roster with the best of them. Finding players who fit specific roles is an art that has been mastered in New England.
IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG:
Three other teams in the divisions made massive strides in the right direction this offseason. Is this the year they finally match the pace of the Patriots? Brady's suspension could be the difference between hosting home playoff games or going on the road in January.
BREAKOUT PLAYER: Cornerback Logan Ryan
The Patriots will need someone to fill the void following the offseason departures of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis (New York Jets) and Brandon Browner (New Orleans). Entering his third NFL season, Ryan has the most playing experience of the returning cornerbacks. His skills also are well-suited for the increased amount of zone coverage the Patriots are expected to use in defense of their Super Bowl title.
CIRCLE THIS DATE ON THE CALENDAR GAME: at Dallas in Week 5 (4:25 pm ET/October 11): Even if Tom Brady is suspended for this game, it doesn't diminish the magnitude of two powerhouse franchises meeting for the first time since 2011. This potential Super Bowl 50 preview also will mark New England's first trip to AT&T Stadium.
ALEX MARVEZ'S PREDICTION: 11-5, first place
New England's early-season fortunes are difficult to predict with Brady still appealing his four-game suspension in federal court for allegedly ordering the illegal deflation of footballs. Garoppolo, the second-year quarterback who is Brady's likely replacement, has never started an NFL game. But even if Garoppolo stumbles and the Patriots lose early, recent history shows that slow starts in New England are usually overcome.
The Patriots opened 2-2 last season and 1-2 in 2012 before finishing with 12-4 records. The last star quarterback who began the year serving a four-game suspension was Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger in 2010. Despite not being allowed to practice with his teammates during that stretch, Roethlisberger quickly shook off rust and ultimately led the Steelers to the Super Bowl. There's no reason to think Brady couldn't do the same.
However, the Patriots must prove a revamped secondary that lost cornerbacks Revis and Browner in free agency is up to snuff. Expect more zone coverage with the hope that the front seven can affect quarterbacks with pressure. Because of the ongoing Brady saga and all its fallout, following Belichick's credo of "Do your job" and ignoring potential distractions outside the team framework has never been more important for Patriots players if New England is to stick it to the NFL and repeat as Super Bowl champions.