By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 09, 2006

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Vince may have coached somewhere in Wisconsin, but his home is in Massachusetts.

Patriots/Bills
Close-Up
Where: Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
When: Sunday 9/10/06
1:00 PM EDT
TV National:
TV Local:
CBS
WBZ-TV 4
DSS: DirecTV
Channel 709, 724, 930
2006 Team
Records:
Patriots 0-0
Bills 0-0
Latest Line: Patriots by 9
The Super Bowl trophy is currently on loan to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even with the mess that is the Deion Branch saga gnawing at the team, the Patriots, who can still say they have won three of the last five Super Bowls, are poised to resume their current dynasty and add another Lombardi Trophy to Bob Kraft's case. After a preseason which saw no significant injuries and which showcased some new stars of the future, the Patriots are set to go and have lots of factors working in their favor in 2006, some of which weren't there in 2005.

The schedule maker was very kind to the 2006 Patriots. Unlike the brutal first six weeks of 2005, the Patriots have a much softer beginning this year and could begin as good as 9-0 if things break right. The first nine games features only one very losable game (at Cincinnati). If the Patriots do protect their house, they could likely do as well as 13-3, losing probably at Cincinnati, Green Bay (the Patriots against Brett Favre is about equal to how lousy they play in the city of Denver) and either Miami or Jacksonville (though both Florida games are in December, giving the Patriots a good chance in either game). Running the table would be a possibility if Branch and linebacker depth were not a problem; 12 to 13 wins is a more likely prospect if injuries don't kill the team like last year.

That said, here is how the positions figure to shake down in 2006.

Quarterback As long as Tom Brady stays healthy, the Patriots must always be considered Super Bowl contenders. Matt Cassel had a generally good preseason with some good moments and some stretches of inconsistency. By putting Troy Brown under center in the final preseason game, Bill Belichick will carry only Brady and Cassel, saving a roster spot. Anyone who tells you that Brady is not the best quarterback in the league is probably a Colt fan. Otherwise, it seems that the rest of the league is wising up to the obvious.

Running back Here is a position where everyone will have their eyes on in 2006. Look for Laurence Maroney to get the lion's share of the carries in the first half and perhaps into the third quarter. Look for Corey Dillon to run clock late in the game when the defense is tired and regain his nickname of "Clock Killin'". Between these two guys, defenses will have to adjust and re-learn how to cover the Patriots. Kevin Faulk returns as the change of pace back and remains effective as long as he doesn't drop the rock. Heath Evans will stick around for more depth.

Wide receiver Maybe the Patriots will reinvent football. In Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell and former Raider Doug Gabriel, they at least have something. No, it's not Branch and David Givens, but it is something Brady can work with. If Brady can find a way to maximize what these guys can do, all this position will need to do is to keep defenses a little off balance. Besides, never underestimate the real value of Brown, the most unique and distinctive Patriot in team history.

Tight end If you have not yet drafted for your fantasy league, consider Ben Watson. If this guy stays healthy, he will become Brady's new go-to guy, and might possibly knock another guy named Ben off his pedestal in the long history of Patriot tight ends. Daniel Graham will block, David Thomas will get his feet wet, and Garrett Mills will learn the fullback position. But Watson will make those of you who remember Mr. Coates forget about him if he has the kind of season he is capable of.

Offensive line Many people are calling this line the best in team history, and Dante Scarnecchia is finally getting the props he so richly deserves. The only non-front office man common to all five Patriot Super Bowls, he has built some terrific lines in the Bill Belichick era. This one, with Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Stephen Neal and rookie Ryan O'Callaghan is drawing praise from all corners of the league. And with Nick Kaczur and Russ Hochstein in the background, the line has good depth.

Defensive line This might be the league's best. All first round picks, all great, all signed. With Richard Seymour staying put for another several more years, this ensures that this line will continue to develop and flourish. Depth is okay with Jarvis Green, Mike Wright and Johnathan Sullivan, but the front liners may one day soon inspire a nickname that will be right up there with "Fearsome Foursome", "Sack Exchange" and "Purple People Eaters".

Linebacker This is the one true area of concern on the team, and it will come into play if the Patriots show that they cannot stop the run. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees had been this position coach for the last two years before taking over for Eric Mangini. This experience will help if patchwork is needed. What Pees would like to see is Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin man the outside, with Tedy Bruschi and Junior Seau on the inside. Tully Banta-Cain is poised to step in and show everyone what he can do if he is needed, and he most likely will be. Beyond these guys, there is not much out there, with more headlines paid to who is not there (Monty Beisel, Chad Brown) versus who is there.

Secondary Rodney Harrison is back, and the defense looks like it has its old swagger back. His reaction to Giant backup quarterback Jarrod Lorenzen after clipping Wright in the final preseason game showed the world what Harrison really brings to the team. Along with Eugene Wilson in the deep backfield, and with Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and Randall Gay at the corners, and with James Sanders, Artrell Hawkins and Chad Scott in reserve, this unit should not suffer the thrashing it got last year if it stays healthy.

Special teams New kicker Stephen Gostkowski will be under the microscope probably during his entire Patriot career. He looked great in the preseason (all kicks made), and his kickoffs were more powerful than his legendary predecessor. Josh Miller should once again provide solid punting. Lonie Paxton remains a terrific long snapper. One area the Patriots need to upgrade in is kick returners, and rookie Willie Andrews may have won the job for both punt and kickoff returns.

Add this up and it just might come out to at least a dozen wins. Toss in the best head coach in the business, along with a championship hunger that will be there in full force this year, and a bet against the Patriots in any game might be ill advised.

But they still do play the games. Chapter One is Sunday at home with Buffalo in town. It is a game the Patriots are solidly favored to win. Anything could happen, but the Patriots should begin 2006 with smiles on their faces.


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