If you talk to most Patriots fans it’s amazing how many have already forgotten that last year’s bunch nearly won a championship.

Oddly enough, when you compare this year’s group to last year’s, it’s hard not to imagine that they’ll have just as good of a shot as anyone at potentially making a return trip.

That being said, there are several things that really need to go right in order for that to happen. ¬†Considering the amount of bad luck this team has seen personnel and injury-wise over the past several seasons, one would have to believe they’re due for things to go their way. ¬†However, here are a few that need to work out in order for them to have an easier road when things start over once again in September:

1) Devin McCourty needs to return to form – Give head coach Bill Belichick credit last season for moving the 2nd-year defensive back around when it was clear he was struggling. ¬†Moving McCourty to safety ended up being a terrific move and unfortunately it was a combination of his difficulties in coverage along with injuries that put him there. ¬†The good news is they nearly won a title that way and his better play down the stretch hopefully gave him back a little confidence. ¬†All indications appear to be he’ll be back at corner this season and if all goes well, he’ll get back to being the guy we saw two seasons ago.

2) Brandon Lloyd needs to live up to the expectations - Last season only one receiver had any real production for New England, and that was Wes Welker who accounted for 30% of ¬†Tom Brady’s completions with 122. ¬†From there Deion Branch was the next closest with just 51, while Chad Ochocinco, Matthew Slater, and Tiquan Underwood all combined for 23 catches – 15 of which belonged to the now departed Ochocinco. ¬†From there it was all Rob Gronkowski (90 catches for 1327 yds & 17 TD’s) and Aaron Hernandez (79 catches for 910yds & 7 TD’s) carrying the offense, with both tight ends becoming the focus.

Needless to say it’s going to be tough to ask Gronkowski have a repeat of a record breaking year, especially coming off of the ankle injury he suffered in February’s loss to New York in the Super Bowl. ¬†As a result Lloyd could potentially be the dynamic receiver they needed last year that kept them from really opening up the offense and creating even more opportunities for each of the other receivers to make plays. ¬†If Lloyd works out as advertised, we could really see something special this season. The good news is so far Lloyd and Tom Brady appear to be on the same page and it’s going to be interesting to see that dynamic up close as training camp begins.

3 ) Ras-I Dowling needs to pick up where he left off – Dowling is the X-Factor in the secondary and could be an interesting piece of this season’s puzzle in the defense. ¬†The second year defensive back played surprisingly well early on last season before getting injured, but he’s been off to a tough start so far as most reports during minicamps said he looked a little stiff. ¬†However, should Dowling be able to bounce back after undergoing offseason hip surgery and step back in at cornerback, it would give them the dynamic of having McCourty and Dowling at left and right corner respectively and move Kyle Arrington back to covering slot receivers. ¬†If all three can stay healthy we could be in for quite a season.


With BenJarvus Green-Ellis gone, Stevan Ridley needs to step up this season. (FILE:USPresswire)

4) The health of Vince Wilfork – If ever there was a guy who gets taken for granted because he’s always on the field and ready to go, it’s Wilfork. ¬†The 30 year old has missed just six games over the past seven seasons and¬†he’s been the heart and soul of the defensive line. ¬†The interesting thing about Wilfork is the fact that you’d almost have to believe he’s one of the big reasons they’ve been able to work with so many different players over the past several seasons. ¬†We’ve heard plenty of stories over the years of how much new players appreciate his insight as they try and pick up the defense, as well as how great he’s been in moments of adversity in keeping everyone focused. ¬†We’ve seen plenty of other teams melt down in those situations, and that’s one attribute that really can’t be overlooked and it just emphasizes how important Wilfork is to this football team.

5) Stevan Ridley needs to live up to the hype – Say what you want about BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but his loss is going to be a big one if Ridley can’t build off his rookie season. ¬†Green-Ellis was never a flashy guy by any means, but for the most part he did just enough to get the job done. ¬†More importantly is the fact he’s never fumbled the football, and for the most part he also wasn’t really injury prone. ¬†Obviously he had the toe injury last season, but he never missed a lot of time and was consistently in the line-up. ¬†It’s going to be interesting to see how Ridley handles what will likely be an increased workload this season, and hopefully he can meet the expectations the team appears to have for him.

With camp finally set to begin, we’ll finally get to see first hand how the story lines begin to play out. ¬†They did a terrific job of loading up with what should be a better group during the offseason, and it should definitely be a competitive preseason. ¬†It will be tough to improve on what ended up being a solid performance in 2011, but hopefully if nothing else we’ll see a bit more consistency on both sides of the football during the 2012 campaign.