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Ready for some football? New England Patriots are

Sports

Ready for some football? New England Patriots are

“So much for my happy ending” goes the song written by pop star Avril Lavigne. The same thing goes for the New England Patriots of recent vintage.

Since winning Super Bowl XXXIV in February, 2005, their seasons have ended as follows:

2005 (10-6) Lost to Denver, 27-13, in AFC Divisional playoffs.

2006 (12-4) Lost to Indianapolis in AFC Final, 38-34, after leading most of the way.

2007 (16-0) Lost to New York Giants, 17-14, in the Super Bowl after going undefeated to that point.

2008 (11-5) Reigning Most Valuable Player quarterback Tom Brady injured in the first game of the regular season. Did not make playoffs.

2009 (10-6) Lost to Baltimore in AFC Wild Card Round at home, 33-14, after falling behind 24-0 in the first quarter.

The previous five years had better endings:

2000 (5-11) Coach Bill Belichick's first year.

2001 (11-5) Won Super Bowl, 20-17, over St. Louis.

2002 (9-7) Did not make playoffs.

2003 (14-2) Won Super Bowl, 32-29, over Carolina.

2004 (14-2) Won Super Bowl, 24-21, over Philadelphia.

The Patriots, who are hoping to win the AFC East for the seventh time in eight years, opened their exhibition season Thursday with a solid 27-24 victory over the defending champion New Orleans Saints.

Here is how the team stacks up at this point.

Offense

Overview (with Levinsky letter grades)

Only three players, all on the offensive side of the ball, Brady, Kevin Faulk and Matt Light, remain from all three championship teams (in fact, only 17 players remain from the team that lost the 2008 Super Bowl.) Last year, the Patriots' offense was third in both total yards and passing yards, sixth in points and a middle of the pack 12th in rushing yards.

Quarterback (A)

Brady has had a full season to regain his form and says his knee feels “great." In 2009, he completed 65.7 percent of his passes, throwing for 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His 4,348 passing yards (fifth in the NFL) was close behind leaders Matt Schaub of Houston (4,770) and Peyton Manning of conference champion Indianapolis (4,500) and second best in team history to the 4,807 yards he threw in 2007.

Brady, who turned 33 on August 3, played the first two series in the exhibition opener and was 5-of-8 for 67 yards.

His backup, second-year player Brian Hoyer, also was sharp against the Saints.

Wide receivers (A)

Wes Welker is beginning his seventh year as a pro and his fourth with the Patriots. He had knee surgery in February, having injured it early in the regular season finale, after making his NFL-leading 123rd catch of the season.(he was second in the league with 111 receptions in 2008). Welker’s recovery has been remarkable. Although Belichick held him out from the New Orleans game, he is expected to play in the regular season opener on Sept. 12 at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Welker led all NFL receivers last year with 71 catches resulting in first downs. He has caught at least 100 passes in each of the last three seasons, something only four other players have ever done. In addition to receiving duties, he was the team’s primary punt returner last season, with 27 returns and 16 fair catches.

Last year, Randy Moss had an average reception of 15.2 yards and 13 touchdown catches to lead the league. His 83 catches were 12th-best. Moss, entering his fourth year with the Patriots, has had nine seasons with 10 or more touchdown receptions, tied with Jerry Rice for the NFL record.

Julian Edelman did a bit of everything last year during his rookie season. The converted quarterback tied for third on the team with 37 pass receptions, shared kickoff return duty with Laurence Maroney and Matt Slater, returned six punts and even ran the ball twice from scrimmage. Edelman is looking forward to even bigger things in 2010. Last offseason, he had to spend his time working on skills that would help him show well at the draft combine. This offseason, he focused on work relating directly to his position. So far, so good. He has looked sharp in training camp and in the preseason game, Edelman returned a punt for 40 yards and caught all six of the passes thrown to him, including one for a touchdown.

Tight end Ben Watson, whose production never quite matched his talent, is now in Cleveland. Chris Baker was released. Rookies Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronlowski and 10-year pro Alge Crumpler, a good blocker who played for Tennessee last year, are competing for the starting spot. Hernandez, a fourth round pick from Florida, has had a great training camp, with several spectacular receptions.

Veteran free agent Torry Holt had hoped to be a factor, but he was placed on injured reserve and will miss the season.

Running backs (B-)

Laurence Maroney, entering his fifth NFL season, led the team with 757 rushing yards on 194 carries. Last year was his first season without missing any games because of injuries. Veterans Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor and Kevin Faulk were bunched together with 73, 63 and 62 carries a piece. The team gained 1,921 yards (4.1 per carry) in 2009. Their opponents' total was 1,768 (4.4 per carry). By comparison, the New York Jets led the league last year with 2,756 yards. Faulk, the most efficient runner at 5.4 yards a carry, also was tied for third on the team with Edelman (behind Welker and Moss) with 37 pass receptions.

The Line (C+)

All-Pro guard Logan Mankins is holding out after refusing to sign a contract. Mankins, a two-time Pro Bowl player, was the youngest starter on the line. His replacement is fifth-year pro Dan Connolly. The other guard is returning starter Stephen Neal.

The starting tackles are Matt Light and Nick Kaczur, but Kaczur is out with a back injury for an undetermined period. Second-year man Sebastian Vollmer, the tallest Patriot at 6-foot-8-inches, got the start against the Saints.

The center is Dan Koppen.

Kickers (B+)

Field goal kicker Stephen Gostkowski was perfect last year from 29-yards in, missed only one of 13 kicks between 30 and 39 yards and hit half of his eight kicks over 40 yards, the longest from 53 yards. The fifth-year Patriot had a career best 21 touchbacks and a 67.8 yard average on kickoffs.

Punter Chris Hanson (39.7 yard per kick, lowest in the NFL) has been replaced with rookie Zoltan Mesko, a 6”5” rookie from Michigan. Mesko, a fifth-round pick, was the first punter selected in this year’s draft

Defense

While the starting offense has many veterans, the defense has a more youthful look. Before last season, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and safety Rodney Harrison retired, and linebacker Mike Vrabel and defensive end Richard Seymour were traded. Following those changes, the Patriots' defense was fifth in points allowed, 11th in total yards allowed, 12th in passing yards allowed and 13th in rushing yards allowed.

The Line (B-)

Ty Warren ,who played on the last two Patriots' championship teams, will miss the entire season with a hip injury and Jarvis Green, who took Seymour’s starting slot, left for the Denver Broncos as a free agent. The only returning starter is Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork, back for this seventh year. The Patriots will look to free agent veterans Damione Lewis and Gerard Warren, and Mike Wright to fill the void.

Linebackers (B)

Jerod Mayo led the team in tackles last year. The first-round selection was defensive rookie of the year in 2008.

Gary Guyton, 24, started all 16 games last season

Tully Banta-Cain had a breakout season in 2009. He led the team with 10 sacks, a number achieved by only six other players in Patriots history. Banta-Cain, who was originally selected by New England in the seventh round in the 2003 draft, returned to the team last year, after being released by the 49ers. He is a media favorite thanks to his work ethic, humility and articulation.

Derrick Burgess, who was mulling retirement, finally made it to camp last Friday. He had 5 sacks last season, his first with the Patriots, after being traded by Oakland. Burgess had 38 sacks in four seasons with the Raiders.

Secondary (B-)

Safety Brandon Meriweather, a first-round pick in 2007, and Corner back Leigh Bodden, second year with the Pats, each had five interceptions last year.

Cornerback Devin McCourty, this year’s first-round draft pick, is vying for a starting spot with Darius Butler, a second-round pick in 2009. McCourty had kickoff returns of 52- and 50-yards in the New Orleans exhibition.

Solid James Sanders and physical second-year player Brandon McGowan, a 2005 graduate of the University of Maine, split the starting assignment at safety last year. McGowan is the first Maine player on the Patriots since Clay Pickering caught a 10-yard pass in 1987, the only reception of his career. The 6-5 Pickering was a basketball star, who played football during his last semester. The only other Maine graduate to suit up for the Patriots was defensive back Dave Cloutier, who played in 12 games in 1964.

McGowan played four years with the Chicago Bears, starting in 13 of the 25 contests he played in. In 2005, he was the only undrafted Bears rookie to make the active roster, and started the final three games of the season. In 2007, he started nine games and had two interceptions. In 2008, McGowan’s play was limited due to a season ending ankle injury in September.

In his first year with the Patriots, McGowan played in every game and had career highs in starts (11), tackles (59), assists (20) and forced fumbles (three). In the November 8 win over Miami, he had eight tackles, three assists and a forced fumble.

NFL teams may carry 80 players in training camp until August 31 when the squad must be cut to 75 players.

On September 4, just after the final exhibition games, rosters must be reduced to the regular-season limit of 53 players. If all goes well, those making the cut will travel to Dallas for the Super Bowl on February 6.

Now that would be a happy ending.