By: Christopher Price
September 07, 2005

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The primary opponents for the 2005 Patriots won't be the Raiders, the Dolphins or the Bills. Instead, they'll be going against the Packers of the 1960s and the Steelers of the 1970s. They'll do battle with the 49ers of the 1980s and the Cowboys of the 1990s.

Winners of three of the last four Super Bowls, they'll be aiming to take their place alongside the great NFL teams of the past. And if they end up winning Super Bowl XL February in Detroit, they would be the first team in NFL history to bring home three straight Super Bowl titles.

But on the eve of their regular-season opener against Oakland, if ask the Patriots about the idea of winning another title you would think they were struggling to field a complete roster, let alone trying to make league history.

"We're not defending anything. We're not repeating anything," said Head Coach Bill Belichick. "We're just trying to put together some good practices and get a competitive football team out there to compete in a 16-game regular season schedule and to be ready for the opener against Oakland.

"I'm respectful of what this organization has accomplished, what the previous Patriot teams have done and what that means in terms of the league and league history and all of that. But as we stand here right now, for our team downstairs, none of that really has any bearing on anything we do."

What does have bearing on New England is all the change the Patriots have undergone over the last couple of years. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is gone, as well as defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. In addition, a healthy number of players who were in place last February are also gone, including linebackers Ted Johnson and Tedy Bruschi. But after more than 30 years in pro football, Belichick knows the only thing in the NFL that's constant is change.

"I think every year is its own year, and you have to deal with [change]," Belichick said. "I've been in the NFL for over 30 years, and it has been like that every single year in one way or another."

Quarterback Tom Brady feels the same way.

"There's a different identity this year than there has been in year's past, and we have to continue to find that identity and continue to improve on our weaknesses while maintaining our strengths," Brady said.

Offensively, those strengths look better than ever. New England is well-stocked at wide receiver, with Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch leading a talented and veteran group. At running back, Corey Dillon is back for his second season with the Patriots. Their offensive line is one of the most underrated in the league -- they had just 13 false start penalties last year, the fewest in the league. And Brady remains the trump card, the best big game quarterback of his generation -- his 9-0 postseason record is unmatched.

On the defensive side of the ball, their front is unparalleled. Linemen Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork are at the top of their game, while defensive backs like Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson are some of the best hitters in the league.

The linebacking is a question, as newcomers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown have been asked to replace Bruschi and Johnson. But their secondary is stronger after a season in which injuries to starters Ty Law and Tyrone Poole forced them to use wide receiver Troy Brown at nickel back. In addition, newcomers Chad Scott, Duane Starks and rookie Ellis Hobbs all provide a depth that was missing last season.

The schedule will do them no favors. They have the second toughest schedule in the league -- after opening with the Raiders and Panthers, the Patriots will face three straight division champs (Pittsburgh, San Diego and Atlanta) who had a combined record of 38-11 last season.

But that's life for the Super Bowl champs, who remain focused on the week-to-week climb with the Zen approach of a Buddhist.

"There's nothing easy about winning a game in the National Football League, let alone winning a championship, things that we've done in the past," said Harrison. "However, that's in the past."

"I don't care about three years ago," Brady said. "I don't care about two years ago. I don't care about last year. The only thing I care about is this week."

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro and BostonSportsReview.com. He can be reached at capeleaguer@hotmail.com.


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