After that meltdown against the Bills, the Pats went on to win to 17 of 18 on their way to their second Super Bowl championship in three years.
The Patriots are led by a no-nonsense, defensive guru in head coach Bill Belichick. Belichick has handed over the reigns of his offense to Tom Brady who leads by example and makes very few mistakes. The Pats’ defense lacks star-power, aside from standout CB Ty Law, but they still finished seventh in the league in total defense giving up only 90 yards per game on the ground and 202 through the air.
New England lost few standouts during the offseason, but OL Damien Woody and DT Ted Washington will need to be replaced.
Offense: Brady is the leader of this team and in four seasons as a pro, he has led the Patriots to two championships. He did not allow the team to get down on itself after the opening week loss to the Bills and he carried the team on his shoulders most of the season. For the year, he completed 60.2% of his passes for 3,620 yards, with 23 TD’s and 12 INT’s. Brady is able to move around and avoid the rush, but he very rarely looks to run. His forte is finding his wideouts down the field and letting them make plays. Brady still has a tendency to hold the ball a little too long in order to allow his WR’s time to get open. This led to 32 sacks in 2003 and he can ill afford to keep getting knocked around like that and survive.
Last year the Patriots lacked any semblance of a consistent running game. Belichick and offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss went with a tailback by committee approach using RB’s Antowain Smith (642 yards rushing and 3 TD’s) and Kevin Faulk (638 yards and 48 receptions for another 440 yards) interchangeably. Smith’s contract-option was not picked up by the team in February so he will not be back. In his place will be star RB Corey Dillon who comes over from Cincinnati. Dillon was unhappy in Cincy and eventually lost his starting job to third-year back Rudi Johnson. Dillon is explosive and an adequate receiver out of the backfield. His main job, however, will be to keep the chains moving and to get the tough yards on third and short. He can do this and do it well. Faulk was re-signed in the offseason to be the third down back and to spell Dillon for a few snaps during games.
The Patriots present a paradox of sorts in their WR corps. While most teams in the NFL have gone the way of bigger receivers who are well over six feet tall and weigh sometimes 220 lbs. or more, the Patriots’ top six receivers feature only two players over six feet and none that weigh over 220 lbs. It hasn’t affected their production however, with Weiss using multiple sets and quick players to get open.
The only big-name among the group is WR Troy Brown. Brown was hurt for most of the season and his numbers suffered. He still was able to amass 40 catches, 472 yards and 4 TD’s. At the age of 32, he still has some gas left in the tank but in the Pats’ offense he doesn’t need to be “the man”. Brady spreads the ball around and he has good group to throw to. WR David Givens was the big-play guy for New England in 2003. He averaged 15 yards on 30 receptions and led the team with 6 TD’s. Deion Branch avoided the sophomore slump and led the team with 57 receptions for 803 yards, while adding 3 TD’s as well. Bethell Johnson is the fourth wideout, but he is better at special teams. During the draft the Patriots added super-smooth WR PK Sam out of Florida State in the fifth round. He is bigger than all but two of the WR’s on the Pats’ roster and he will most likely beat out Johnson as the fourth receiver.
TE is a strength position for the Patriots and they feature three who have different strengths. Christian Fauria is the better blocker and he has great hands, while Daniel Graham is bigger, the more gifted athlete and he can stretch the field with his speed. Rookie Ben Watson was an intriguing pickup at the end of the first round of the draft and he is probably the best athlete of the three. The Patriots utilize a lot of two TE sets so three good TEs are a must.
The line lost a good one in Woody, but the team feels C Dan Koppen can fill the void. Fourth-year LT Matt Light continued to improve in 2003, and while he played well, he needs to get even better. The rest of the line spots are manned by Russ Hochstein at LG, Joe Andruzzi at RG and Tom Ashworth at RT. Woody was the anchor of this line; this is a young line with Andruzzi being the only player with more than 5 years of experience. They must open holes for Dillon so that the opposing defense cannot “tee off” on Brady.
Defense: This is the strength of the Patriots. They play solid, fundamental defense and they are very opportunistic. The defense finished tied for second in the league with 41 takeaways and fans can expect that trend to continue.
In addition to being opportunistic, the Patriot defense led the league in points allowed with 14.9 points per game.
Last season, DT Ted Washington was the anchor against double-teams that clogged the middle of the line and allowed other defenders to flow to the ball. Washington left via free agency and the Patriots appeared to be in trouble along their defensive front. Then the Pats got lucky, DT Vince Wilfork inexplicably fell to the 21st selection and the Pats had their man in the middle for years to come. Wilfork is huge, quick, and very strong. Some teams had worried about his conditioning, but at the team’s recent mini-camp for rookies, he displayed little of the excess baggage around the middle. If Wilfork can maintain his focus he will more than adequately replace Washington. Wilfork will rotate with newly signed Keith Traylor, another behemoth who specializes in stuffing the run, to man the NT position along the defensive line.
Long and lanky fourth-year DE Richard Seymour has really impressed with the pressure he creates from his RDE position. He registered 8 sacks and used his 6’6” frame to bat down 10 balls. He plays the run very well and overall has been worth the high first round pick the Pats spent on him in 2001. Second-year man Ty Warren is expected to man the LDE spot, but look for LB/DE Willie McGinest to continue his role as the third-down pass rushing specialist. McGinest still runs well and has enough left to get the job done on the outside. In 2003, he had six sacks with two forced fumbles and one interception.
At LB, the Patriots are looking forward to having OLB Roosevelt Colvin for the entire year. Colvin played a total of five quarters for the world champs and, while they didn’t struggle without him, the team is excited about the prospects of his pass-rush ability when healthy. Colvin has a plethora of moves and he is tenacious when rushing the passer. Roman Phifer and super-intense Tedy Bruschi man the middle. Bruschi is one of the emotional leaders of the defense and he registered 128 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT’s and 2 TD’s. Phifer was solid with 100 tackles while making the defensive calls.
At CB, the Patriots have one of the best in 10-year vet Ty Law. Law continually locks down the opposing teams’ best WR and he accounted for 6 INT’s and 23 passes defensed. He is not happy with his contract situation and while he is expected to return, his situation remains in flux.
The other CB spot is manned by Tyrone Poole. Poole played bigger than his 5’8” frame and used his quickness to register 6 INT’s and 21 pass breakups. The third CB spot will be a battle between grey-beard Otis Smith, who will be 38 when the season starts, and second-year CB Asante Samuel.
At the safeties, SS Rodney Harrison continues to be the enforcer of the defense, who scares WR’s when they head across the middle. The FS spot is manned by second-year S Eugene Wilson. Wilson is a converted corner and it will be interesting to see how he plays reading the QB instead of being matched up with a particular receiver.
Special Teams: The Patriots are in possession of the best pressure kicker in the NFL. K Adam Vinatieri continues to impress with his clutch kicking. Vinatieri’s accuracy took a hit in 2003, connecting on 25 of 34 for a 73.5 percent accuracy rating. He was injured during the middle of the season and that injury affected his kicking motion. Very few outside of the organization knew of the injury and he is expected to be back to 100% by the time training camp kicks off. P Josh Miller was signed away from Pittsburgh in the offseason and he is a major upgrade over last season’s punter Ken Walter.
Last Time The Seahawks and Patriots Met: The year was 1993 and the Hawks were facing off against head coach Bill Parcells, rookie QB Drew Bledsoe, and a club struggling just as much as they were.
Rookie QB Rick Mirer led the Hawks from behind on a 5-yard pass play to veteran WR Brian Blades that lifted the Seahawks to a 10-9 victory.
Head coach Tom Flores was in year two of his three-year stint as the Hawks’ head coach and while it wasn’t the laughable 2-14 they went in 1992, 6-10 and last place in the AFC West was where they finished.
In 1992, the Seahawks faced off against the hapless Patriots in Foxboro and got their first of only two wins that year. Ex-Husky Hugh Millen was the QB for the Patriots that day. If the Hawks had not won that game, they would have selected first and likely would have taken then-WSU QB Drew Bledsoe instead Rick Mirer, who they selected at number two.
The football gods spoke mightily that day…and each team’s destiny for the next decade was sealed.
2004 Projection: The Patriots have added more than they have lost this offseason and they look to continue their winning ways. It is doubtful that fans can expect another 14-2 regular season record in 2004, but the Patriots should be good enough to win the AFC East and go deep into the playoffs.
At this point, the biggest questions for the Pats are: Will Dillon be able to take pressure off Brady and the passing game and make this offense even more diverse? Can Wilfork and Traylor stuff the run like Washington? Will Colvin stay healthy and will he be at 100%?
If the answer is yes to all of these questions, then don’t be surprised to see New England in Jacksonville for the Super Bowl come February 6th, 2005.
.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.