Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Patriots 2004 Season Preview (9/7/2004)

Patriots Preview 2004

The Patriots had a busy off-season, what with the draft, free agency, training camp, the pre-season… and of course, designing their World Championship rings and banner! There have been some significant changes from last year, and here are my thoughts on how the old and new faces will fare in 2004.

The Draft

The Patriots had the best draft this year when they traded a second round pick for Corey Dillon, one of the five best running backs in the NFL. Everything else was gravy. Excepting last season, Dillon has run for 1,250 yards a year (for six years), he blocks well, and has good hands in the passing game. They also drafted two players in the first round (Ben Watson, tight end; and Vince Wilfork, defensive tackle) who were both rated to go higher than the Patriots picked them; so they got good value there.

Wilfork will need some work before he’s ready to step in, but Watson looks like a keeper already. He appears to be a Daniel Graham clone, except he’s got better speed and catches the ball more consistently. It should be interesting to see what Charlie Weis does with all this offensive talent. He must feel like a kid in a candy store right about now.


Hope you said your "good-byes" to Damien Woody. His injury vaulted Dan Koppen to starting center, and Woody never got his job back; so when he got a big contract offer from Detroit, the Pats let him go. The offensive line played well in the one pre-season game they were all healthy for – at Carolina. The other games exposed the backups and showed that good health along the line will be one of the most important factors in their 2004 season.

Antowain Smith went to Tennessee and has been replaced by Corey Dillon, a vastly better running back. If Dillon can block and hold onto the ball as well as Smith, we won’t miss Antowain at all. The wide receiver corps should be improved with another year under their belt and a healthy David Patten. And Tom Brady should be Tom Brady. At 27, there’s no reason to think he shouldn’t be better than last year, and he’s making a conscious effort to have fewer turnovers (both fumbles and interceptions). There is less experience backing him up (Rohan Davey replaced Damon Huard), so the Pats are banking on a healthy Brady for the season.


Two-thirds of the Patriots starting defensive line left the team this off-season when both Ted Washington and Bobby Hamilton went to Oakland. To counter that, the Pats signed Keith Traylor (and two other free agents who are now injured and out for the year, Dana Stubblefield and Rodney Bailey), drafted Wilfork, and moved Ty Warren to start at left end. I don’t think Traylor can replace Washington, so the run defense could be a bit worse; but Warren will be a fine replacement for Hamilton. The team’s depth isn’t what it was last year, but as Wilfork works into the lineup, the defensive line could go from a question mark to a strength.

Rosevelt Colvin has returned from last year’s season-ending injury, and he and the rest of the linebackers (Tedy Bruschi, Roman Phifer, Mike Vrabel, and Ted Johnson) are the heart of this defense. Bruschi, Phifer, and Vrabel can do it all, and Johnson is a proven run stopper. Backups Larry Izzo and Tully Banta-Cain could start for many teams in the NFL.

The secondary looks the same as last year (whew!). Ty Law made peace with Belichick and is a happy camper, Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson will be back at safety to punish receivers over the middle, and Tyrone Poole will be ably backed up at cornerback by Asante Samuel.

The biggest change in the secondary will be a renewed enforcement of the "5-yard contact zone" rule. This means that any contact more than five yards downfield during a pass play will result in a penalty. I think this rule change will help the Patriots offense more than it could possibly hurt the defense – because the Pats have so many great defensive backs that no matter the rules, they will continue to outplay their counterparts on the other teams.

Special Teams

Better in all aspects. Adam Vinatieri nursed a back injury all last year and still kicked the game winner in the Super Bowl, Josh Miller has averaged about ten yards more per punt than Ken Walter did last year, and long snapper Lonnie Paxton is back from an injury. Adam’s kickoffs have been longer, the kick coverage has been good throughout the pre-season, and two key players, returner Bethel Johnson and coverage expert Larry Izzo, are back. If the kick returners could just catch the ball before they start running (something that caused them problems during the pre-season), we will have another year of upper-echelon special teams play.


In the 2003 season preview, I said we should try to win a Super Bowl this year because the other NFL teams couldn’t possibly be stupid enough to let us keep defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis once the season was over. Well, I was wrong. Oakland hired our linebackers coach to be their defensive coordinator, but other than that, the coaching staff remains in place.

And with that, we have the best top-to-bottom coaching staff in the NFL. They make adjustments midgame and from game to game better than any staff I’ve ever watched, and they always seem prepared for any situation. So I’ll repeat myself: we better win another Super Bowl because it JUST ISN’T POSSIBLE that both Weis and Crennel will be back next year. Is it? I mean isn't there an old saying, "Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me."

The Schedule

The Patriots can expect everyone’s best effort this year. That happens to both Super Bowl teams the next season, and especially to the winner. However, I believe the players are better prepared for it than they were two years ago -- and that team only missed the playoffs in a tie-breaker -- and the schedule is easier than last year's. So here goes with a fearless look at this year’s schedule:

I expect the Patriots to beat the Colts in a high-scoring affair to open the season (home field and the Pats offense versus Indy’s smallish defense should be the deciding factors). They then have ten days before playing Arizona on the road, another game they should win, and they follow that up with a bye week. After the bye, they have Buffalo on the road and Miami at home. It’s always tough to win road games within your division, but something tells me that this year will not be a repeat of last year’s Buffalo debacle. With the extra time to see their offensive changes and with Drew Bledsoe having to learn another new offense, and Buffalo’s bruising schedule at that time (three consecutive division games, starting with the Pats), the Patriots should win that third game. Which will bring it to the possibility of breaking the record for consecutive wins against the team that holds that record – the Miami Dolphins. And if the streak is intact, expect it to continue. Like I said, it’s tough to win road games within your division, and this one is a road game for the Dolphins. I expect the Pats to be either 3-1 or 4-0 at this point, with the only question mark being the Colts game.

The second quarter of the season begins with Seattle and the NY Jets coming to Foxboro. Both games are winnable, with the Jets searching for an identity and Seattle vulnerable at linebacker and in the secondary – plus the fact that the Seahawks have a division road game the following week across the country in Arizona. (Note: historically, the Patriots and Jets have often split the season series with the road team being victorious both times. I don’t expect that this year, but if the Jets win this game, count on the Patriots winning the game in NY.) The Pittsburgh and St. Louis games could be tough, with the both games on the road the week after the opponent had a bye. Additionally, the Pats play Buffalo in prime time (Sunday night game) the week after St. Louis, so there could be a bit of a letdown there. Expect the Pats to lose one of these two games, but not both.

The third quarter of the season begins with the aforementioned tilt against Buffalo. The Pats should absolutely win that one – at home against a division rival. The next week, they’re on the road for a Monday night game against Kansas City, a team that hopes their defensive collapse last year was due to ousted coordinator Greg Robinson. I don’t believe it; the chiefs are old and slow on defense, and they will have just finished two games against bruising defenses on the road before coming home for this. Patriots should win with superior balance over a team ranked 2nd in offense and 29th in defense last year. Next up is the Baltimore Ravens and their brutal defense at Foxboro. This will be a tough game, given the traditional Monday night hangover; but if Anthony Wright isn’t the quarterback (he’s due to start playing again in October), the Patriots will be able to load up against the run and force either Kordell Stewart or Kyle Boller to beat them. Stewart has never had success passing against the Patriots, and Boller is in his second year. If Wright doesn’t play or only started playing within the previous two weeks, I expect the Patriots can overcome the Monday night jinx; otherwise, it will be difficult to win against Baltimore because of their ferocious defense and Wright’s return would give them balance on offense. We finish up this quarter with a road trip to Cleveland, and with Cleveland having a division road game the previous week, I expect the Patriots can handle them. An injury-ravaged Patriots team beat them last year and the Browns haven’t improved since then while I think the Pats have.

Cincinnati comes to town to start the all-important final quarter of the regular season. The Bengals will have just finished three consecutive division games, and the Patriots should have revenge on their minds for the 31-0 drubbing the Bengals gave them in the pre-season (it wasn’t as bad as all that; most of the points were scored against our second and third team defense). I’ll pencil in a win. And the Patriots will finish the year with a win over the Dolphins on Monday night in Miami (Dolphins just aren’t that good anymore), a loss to the Jets in NY (Monday night hangover against a division opponent on the road – too much for most any team), and by beating up a bad San Francisco team at home. The only way the I see the Patriots winning the Jets game is if it means the playoffs for them (or as explained in my earlier note); but as you can probably guess, I expect they will have the playoffs in hand by then.


If you count the Baltimore game as a loss, that puts the Patriots at 13-3 (and an opening-day loss to the Colts would make them 12-4). And that just about guarantees them the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The unknown factors, of course, are how the Patriots will react to getting everyone else’s "A" game and whether or not injuries will hurt them this year. Last year, they proved that injuries don’t have to derail your season, but when everyone is gunning for you, injuries happen more frequently and it hurts more to have your starters out.

And remember, they didn’t blow many teams out last year. A bounce here or a penalty there and they could have finished with four more losses than they did. The margin of victory in the NFL seems to get slimmer every year. You just have to trust the evidence you’ve seen that no matter what obstacles come, Belichick and his coaching staff will answer the call as they always have – like champions.

Enjoy the season,

- Scott

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