FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The New England Patriots don’t think they’re done hoisting Lombardi trophies.
The proof they believe that more are on the way is literally on display at Gillette Stadium.
Seven months have passed since Tom Brady capped a 2016 season that began in the shadow of his four-game ”Deflategate” suspension with a dramatic Super Bowl comeback win over the Atlanta Falcons and his fourth Super Bowl MVP trophy.
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In the months since, owner Robert Kraft put crews to work to raise the home stadium’s signage in order to make room for his franchise’s fifth championship banner. It will be unveiled prior to the season opener against Kansas City.
”We have a surprise for our fans,” Kraft said recently.
The new facade has space for not only the newest banner, but several more. It’s a bold gesture by any team, particularly one that will begin the 2017 season with a 40-year-old quarterback .
But for a franchise that already has the most successful coach and quarterback in Super Bowl history, nothing seems impossible as long as the tandem of Bill Belichick and Brady remains intact.
New England’s roster underwent tweaks this offseason and was dealt a blow late in the preseason when veteran receiver Julian Edelman was lost for the year to a right knee injury. Still, it will begin the season as the AFC’s favorite with star tight end Rob Gronkowski healthy again after having last season cut short by back surgery. The Patriots also added receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore.
It positions the Patriots to become the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles since they did it during the 2003 and 2004 seasons. A sixth Lombardi Trophy would also put them in a tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers for most in NFL history.
But that doesn’t mean anyone in the locker room is taking anything for granted. That includes their seemingly ageless quarterback who is as motivated as ever to continue the championship chase.
”When it all pays off for us with winning and Super Bowls, it makes it very magical,” Brady said. ”We have a chance to celebrate that for the rest of our lives. You think about that in the big picture, and then you keep it focused on the short term and the obligations that you have to this team and what they’re asking me to do, and for the new players, what they expect of me. You’ve got to start that commitment fresh every year.”
Here are some things to watch for this season:
WHAT’S BRADY’S CEILING? Brady is already in rare company, having averaged 31 touchdowns per season since turning 35 years old. The only question is if he can break new ground at 40? Since 2000, seven quarterbacks have thrown a pass over the age of 40 in the NFL: Warren Moon, Brett Favre, Vinny Testaverde, Matt Hasselbeck, Doug Flutie, Mark Brunell and Brad Johnson. Of that group, only Moon (1997, age 41) and Favre (2009, age 40) have earned Pro Bowl selections after crossing into their fifth decade.
GRONK RETURNS: Gronkowski didn’t enjoy being a spectator for the second half of 2016. Part of his rehabilitation included adopting Brady’s strict diet regimen and working with his health coach, Alex Guerrero. Now entering his eighth season, Gronk said longevity is on his mind.
”It just felt like it was that time in my career where I just really needed to focus on it and go to the next level or else I could’ve possibly been out of the door,” he said. ”So I just wanted to take it to the next level and keep on going.”
INJURY TRACKER: In addition to Edelman, the Patriots will also be without cornerback/punt returner Cyrus Jones, who suffered his own knee injury during the preseason finale. Joining both of them on injured reserve is rookie defensive end Derek Rivers. New England is loaded at receiver after adding Cooks to a group that also features Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Malcolm Mitchell. And the Patriots should be OK filling Jones’ spot on special teams. But Rivers’ absence on the edge will make it a position to monitor.
NEW ADDITIONS: Mike Gillislee was the other notable offseason signing on offense after the Patriots decided not to re-sign LeGarrette Blount, the NFL’s regular-season touchdown leader in 2016. Tight end Dwayne Allen also arrived in a trade with Indianapolis to fill the spot of Martellus Bennett, who signed with Green Bay. The coaching staff hopes Gilmore and Malcolm Butler can be an imposing duo. It is equally excited about defensive end Cassius Marsh, picked up in a trade with Seattle.
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