By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 11, 2011

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MIAMI -- Ten years ago we were all Patriots, and any relation to football was still five months in the future.

Bob Kraft's victory speech in New Orleans the following February after arguably the worst day in our nation's history made you truly proud to be a Patriot fan, never mind this big game your team just won. On September 11, 2001, when Al-Qaida terrorists attacked our country, the USA became a nation of patriots. Emergency workers in New York, men and women of our military, political leaders like George W. Bush and Rudolph Giulani, all flew into action and set about making things right after a day when everything was wrong.

Well, not everything was wrong. Ten years later, the USA is better safeguarded against terrorism, the war in Iraq is just about over, Public Enemy Number One has been killed by USA troops, and the spirit of this nation is alive and well. In the end, we really are patriots.

Now, the football Patriots need to become world champions again to bring it all together.

It's been six and a half years since the Patriots last won the Super Bowl. Back in June when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, it was pointed out that the Patriots are now the Boston area team that has gone the longest without winning a league championship. That factoid is true, and for the Patriots to hand that title over to the Red Sox (or the Celtics, depending upon how badly the Sons of Yawkey Way want to scuttle what was supposed to be the greatest season in Red Sox history), the season will ultimately come down to whether or not the Patriots remember, or learn, how to play better football in January.

You can predict how many games the Patriots will win this season all you want, but in the end it means nothing without wins in January. In 2007 the Patriots won all 16 regular season games but came up a game short in the end. In 2010, the Patriots captured the top seed in the AFC with 14 regular season wins, then cut a stinker at home in a playoff loss to the Jets. Despite being armed with the best quarterback in the league who also happened to win the MVP in 2010, and despite having the best coach in the league and maybe one of the five best in league history, the Patriots have completely forgotten how to win in the playoffs. It might be assumed that the Patriots will play well enough this season and likely win the division at best and make the playoffs at worst, but unless the team grows up and figures out how to snap their three-game playoff losing streak, predicting this season won't be much fun.

You can look at the Red Sox and see how inexact predictions can be. Everyone on the planet penciled in the Sox for 100 wins, something they haven't done since 1946. Then their season got thrown all out of whack by beginning with a six-game losing streak, and now injuries and generally bad baseball are helping to threaten them to not only blow the division, but also perhaps blowing the Wild Card. You might not be able to find anyone out there who predicted that the 2011 Red Sox would fail to make the playoffs. Now the Red Sox find themselves on the verge of being overtaken in the Wild Card by Tampa Bay, and no one outside of New York can believe how well the Yankees are playing.

The Patriots are also drawing lofty preseason predictions as well. Many observers, including a major publication, foresee a Patriots-Packers Super Bowl, for example. Tom Brady might be poised to win his second straight league MVP. The Patriots brought in some high profile high maintenance guys who are bucking to be the next Corey Dillon or the next Randy Moss. Some big name players have been cut, and maybe others will follow. In any case, another playoff berth is expected here in New England.

The goal is to win the Super Bowl, not just to get to the playoffs. So, to bring that lofty goal about, here is what the Patriots need to do in order to go deep in the playoffs.


All eyes will be on Chad Ochocinco in 2011 as strives to earn the first ring of his career.(FILE:Icon/SMI)
Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth either have to produce or be sent packing. They cannot be allowed to stick around and become a clubhouse cancer. There is no sentimentality with either man. They have to bring something good to the table or leave the table. Haynesworth has a shorter leash than Ochocinco. This typewriter says that Ochocinco will be like his former Bengal Bud Dillon and produce well. He might not produce like Dillon did (setting a Patriot record for most rushing yards in a season in 2004), but should produce well enough for everyone to notice.

The rebuilt offensive line must play well. This is the ultimate in understatements, but it bears stating nonetheless. Brady must be protected at all costs, but the running game has to succeed to take more pressure off Brady. It would be a reach to predict that BenJarvus Green-Ellis will have a second straight 1,000-yard season. With draftees Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen in the mix, the Patriots will be well stocked at the running back position, with or without Kevin Faulk. But the offensive line must jell and do their jobs well. Depending too much on top draft pick Nate Solder is not the smartest thing to do, as he needs to learn right tackle and add some muscle to his frame.

If the Patriots do indeed convert to a base 4-3, they absolutely must get more pressure on the opposing quarterback. Andre Carter does provide some insurance if Haynesworth doesn't pan out, but Jermaine Cunningham has to step up and have a great second season. Vince Wilfork will still occupy two blockers, but more things have to happen around him. Without two linebackers behind him, the outside pressure becomes more important in the overall scheme of things.

The secondary is really going to be a crapshoot. James Sanders is gone, and we have not yet seen second round draft pick Ras-I Dowling. Sergio Brown and Patrick Chung will begin the season at the safety positions, and Leigh Bodden will come back from last season's injury to team up with Devin McCourty at the corners. This bunch will not inspire memories of secondaries in the days of Ty Law, Raymond Clayborn or Mike Haynes. What they will have to do is to at least play smart and steady if not spectacular, and hope that the front seven don't give the quarterback a lot of time to throw.

And then there's the playoffs. In baseball, it's more about luck, in basketball it's more about home court, and in hockey it's more about the hot goalie. But in football, it's more about the better prepared team and not so much the more talented team. In short, the Patriots need to prepare to win in January better than they have since Super Bowl XLII, and understand that it is not enough to merely be good or great.

And that starts with the franchise player. Saying that Brady doesn't know how to win in January is ludicrous, but he picked a horrid time to break a long streak of consecutive passes without a pick. The interception he threw early in the playoff loss to the Jets seemed to set the tone for the whole game and literally foretold the final outcome. Winning in January begins with Brady, and it will permeate itself to the rest of the team if he is absolutely on top of his game. When he is, there is no finer player in the league, plain and simple.

Ten years ago, our nation was attacked, the Patriots won the Super Bowl, and Kraft made his iconic pontification. Now in 2011, we need more patriotism from this country, more Patriotism in Super Bowl XLVI, and another chance for Kraft to offer up a new victory homily.


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