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Sky-high expectations remain for Pats
Rex Ryan threw down the gauntlet.
"We have to find somebody out there to beat New England besides us," the boisterous Jets head coach said last week during a news conference. "Anybody out there that wants to sign up for it? Are you good enough? I'm challenging the league."
Of course, the challenge will be accepted. But successfully completing it?
Ryan and his Jets have earned bragging rights. They upset New England, 28-21, in the second round of last season's playoffs. That road victory avenged the 45-3 whooping the Patriots gave New York in the regular season six weeks earlier.
Almost all of New England's other 2010 foes suffered the same fate. The Patriots steamrolled through the regular season with an NFL-best 14-2 record. They outscored opponents by an average of 13 points a game and set a league record for fewest turnovers with 10.
In the process, New England further entrenched itself as the team the NFL loves to hate.
Wide receiver Wes Welker told FOXSports.com after last Friday's training camp practice that he knows first-hand how opponents treated an upcoming game against New England like it was something special.
"You did have that feeling," said Welker, who played three seasons in Miami before being traded to New England in 2007. "That's because the Patriots were always playing at the end (of the season)."
But it's more than 10 consecutive years with a winning record and three Super Bowl titles that breed contempt. It's the manner in which the Patriots have established themselves as the standard by which every other NFL franchise is judged.
The cold and robotic demeanor displayed in media settings carries onto the field with mistake-free play. Rarely do the Patriots beat themselves like most of their sloppier contemporaries.
New England starters continue to play deep into blowout victories that wouldn't otherwise be so lopsided. There's the stain from the 2007 Spygate filming scandal that will never get completely cleansed. Let's also not forget the scorn and envy some have toward the golden-armed quarterback (Tom Brady) with the supermodel wife — and his tendency to whine at the officials whenever a borderline roughing-the-passer penalty isn't called.
The Patriots aren't overt bullies like the Jets or the Pittsburgh Steelers. Label them sneakier, phonier or smugger perhaps.
But don't forget to call New England winners — a status that seems highly unlikely to change in 2011.
Excluding the acquisition of two controversial players (wide receiver Chad Ochocinco and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth), the Patriots were relatively quiet on the personnel front during the recent free-agent frenzy. New England didn't add an outside pass-rushing threat — considered one of its few weaknesses in 2010 — or bell-cow running back. The Patriots also didn't suffer any major personnel losses.
This reflects Bill Belichick's confidence in:
- The core roster he has assembled.
- The ongoing development of young talent annually acquired through the draft.
- His ability to help Ochocinco and Haynesworth salvage their NFL careers a la two prior Patriots reconstruction projects who found new life in wide receiver Randy Moss and running back Corey Dillon.
- The X-and-O schemes that have led to this decade of prosperity.
- Brady's continued excellence.
Even so, Belichick was unsurprisingly reticent to offer an insightful prognosis on the 2011 Patriots when speaking to FOXSports.com after Friday's session. Such is his way even during a normal preseason, but the unique nature of this year's campaign has legitimately left Belichick wondering how the four-and-a-half month NFL lockout will affect his club. The lack of an offseason program and new rules limiting the on-field time and amount of contact during practices literally has Belichick adjusting his training camp schedule on a daily basis to best prepare for the regular season.
"The time we have on the field is so valuable," Brady said during a post-practice Friday news conference. "We can't afford to make mistakes and get behind because we're already behind. There's a lot of ground to make up."
But if history repeats itself — and there's scant reason to think it won't — the true measure of this squad won't come until the postseason. That's where New England has fallen short ever since the 2004 Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX.
Six seasons have passed since arguably the greatest quarterback/head-coach combination last held the Lombardi Trophy aloft. Compared to the Mt. Everest-high standard set between 2001 and 2004 with three Super Bowl victories, it can be argued the Patriots have actually underachieved.
The Jets loss was especially painful — and not just because it came at the hands of New England's archrival. The aura of invincibility the Patriots had re-established was dispelled. Just like in Super Bowl XLII when a heavily favored Patriots squad was upset by the New York Giants, New England was out-coached and outplayed when it mattered most.
"We have to grow from that game," Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo said.
Ryan and the rest of the league won't be crying if they don't.