2013 New England Patriots Preview (By A Guest Blogger Who’s A Real Life Journalist!)

[Editor’s Note: As I mentioned in my “What To Expect” blog post yesterday, I’ve commissioned the services of a real life journalist (read: someone who doesn’t just sit at home and blog in his undies) to preview the New England Patriots for us. Matt Blanchette is a Sports Anchor at ABC in Providence, Rhode Island. And unlike me, Matt has actually been attending Patriots training camp all summer so he’s a much better resource to update us on what’s actually taken place up to this point. Take it away, Matt.]

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I volunteered to be a guest blogger for Ross to provide a less biased opinion of the Patriots as we head into the 2013 season. I’ll do my best.

I am hardly the first to say it, but despite losing Rob Gronkowski to frailty, Aaron Hernandez to murdering, Wes Welker to Peyton Manning, Danny Woodhead to the Chargers and Brandon Lloyd to a local car wash, the Patriots offense will be fine. It is very simple. As long as Tom Brady is taking snaps, this offense will put up points. Sure, they won’t break records like the 2007 team, but the idea here is to win a championship, and you do that with a balanced offense and defense. Here is a position by position breakdown.

Quarterback

Tom Brady has only thrown one incompletion in two preseason games and seems to be “clicking” just fine with his new weapons. Despite the twitter meltdown last week after he left practice with a knee injury, TB12 looks as good as ever, and will be counted on perhaps more than ever. Ryan Mallet is developing and proving to be a worthy backup, though maybe not the trade bait some want him to be. And for anyone who thought Tim Tebow would elevate himself to #2, you are mistaken. Tebow has looked awful in camp and in the two preseason games. The Pats have actually changed the offense for him, and when he does run their typical offense, he continues to look lost. I still think he makes the team, but he will never be the starter.

Running Back

The Patriots deepest position on offense. I could see them keeping six players here. Steven Ridley is a beast, and if he cures his fumbling woes could be a top five back in the league. Shane Vereen is Kevin Faulk 2.0 and will be ideal on third downs. He has also proven he can run the ball in addition to catching it out of the backfield. Meanwhile, LeGarrette Blount has been one of the biggest surprises of camp. The former 1,000-yard rusher looks like he did when he was the starter for Tampa Bay. He is huge, and will be used on 3rd and short and goal line situations, but showed with his 51 yard touchdown run against Philly he can still bust the long one and is capable of finishing off runs. His emergence could cost Brandon Bolden a spot, but the second year player has also impressed in the limited time he has seen the field. Leon Washington hasn’t shown much as a RB, but with Welker gone, he will play a pivotal role as a return man, and his roster spot should be safe. Which leaves fullback James Develin. The college linebacker seemed like a long shot to make the team, but performed well in the second preseason game, and could take the spot of a tight end. 

Tight End

Which leads me to the TE position. There is no indication Rob Gronkowski is going to be healthy anytime soon, and will likely miss the first 6 weeks of the season, or more. Currently I would put undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld at the top of the depth chart. He stands out in practice almost every day, and proved he can make a catch in traffic when he hauled in a TD against the Bucs. He is like a mini Gronk, has the 6-7 height and could grow into a great player. This leaves Jake Ballard to be primarily the blocking tight end on the two TE sets. He is proven, though his pass catching ability has been suspect at camp. Daniel Fells has dropped, and Michael Hoomanawanui could be a roster casualty in lieu of the aforementioned Develin.

[Editor’s Note: “Studfeld” is suddenly the cool nickname for undrafted rookie TE Zach Sudfeld, but I’ve got a pending copyright on Gronk Jr. and Baby Gronk. Based on the catches he’s made in preseason, get ready to hear a lot about Baby Gronk during the regular season.]

 Offensive Line

Brady will have his most solid unit in years. Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Dan Connolly are all mainstays. Ryan Wendell, Marcus Cannon and Will Svitek provide depth. This unit should not be an issue.

Wide Receiver

This is the most talked about unit on the team. Who is going to replace the production of the departed? Danny Amendola has shown an immediate chemistry with Tom Brady and the comparisons to Welker are accurate and just. If he stays healthy, Amendola will be a Pro Bowler. The rookies have all looked good, but not consistent. At this point undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins is leading the pack. He’s shown the ability to be in the right place at the right time and has already earned Brady’s trust. Aaron Dobson is the best deep threat the Patriots have had since Randy Moss. He has the size, speed and hands to be a big time player in time. Julian Edelman and Josh Boyce are also in the mix.

Defensive Line/Linebacker

This could be the Pats’ strongest unit. Tommy Kelly has a lot left in the tank and could team with Vince Wilfork to be a force in the middle of the 4-3 defense. Chandler Jones is healthy again on one end, and is poised to have the breakout season everyone predicted during his rookie campaign. On the other end is Rob Ninkovich, who continues to make plays and is one of the leaders of the D. The linebackers are solid with Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Donta Hightower. Rookie Jamie Collins is in the mix and is an athletic freak, but part of me doubts he has that natural football instinct to ever be a star in the league.

Defensive Back

This unit has the most question marks. Alfonso Dennard has missed most of camp and has pending legal troubles. If healthy, he is a lock to start at corner, but that remains a question. Aqib Talib will start at the other corner, and should be motivated as he returns to the Pats on a one-year deal. He will almost always lock up with the opposing team’s number one. If Dennard plays, Devin McCourtry will start at safety. He too is dealing with an injury and has sported the red no-contact jersey for most of camp. Much like last year I expect him to rotate between corner and safety. Kyle Arrington can pick up the slack there, as well as subbing in nickel and dime packages. The other safety position will go to either incumbent Steven Gregory or veteran Adrian Wilson. Two former high-round picks Tavon Wilson and Ras-I Downling have looked shaky and appear to be complete misses.

So back to where we started, and maybe I am biased too, but playing in a weak AFC East, the Patriots should easily get to 12-4 again this year and put themselves in a position to make noise in the playoffs. How far they can go will depend on how quickly the new-look offense gels, and if the defense can keep from giving up as many big plays as they have the past two seasons. But once again Pats fans have plenty of reason for optimism in Foxboro.

Coping With the Latest Boston Sports Loss By Reminiscing About Past Disappointments, and Looking for Silver Linings!

As experienced as Boston fans are at celebrating our teams’ big wins, we’ve also become equally adept at dealing with their catastrophic losses. That gives you an indication of how successful Boston sports have been over the past 12 years. On one side we have three Patriots Super Bowl Titles, two Red Sox World Series Championships, a 17th banner for the Celtics and most recently a Stanley Cup for the Bruins. But on the other side there are two Patriots Super Bowl losses (one while chasing a perfect season), two Patriots AFC Championship Game losses (with the Pats leading both those games at halftime), two Red Sox ALCS losses in seven games (including the 2003 Grady Little/Pedro game), a Celtics NBA Title loss in seven games (after being up in the series three games to two), and a Celtics Conference Championship loss in seven games (ditto).

Side Note: Holy Shit. Can’t we ever just lose a playoff series in five games? Maybe get swept in four games? Why do all our losses come in the most dramatic fashion?

Anyway, the first side of that coin makes it impossible for anyone to empathize with us on the second side of the coin. And that’s fair. But it doesn’t mean that these playoff losses hurt us any less than they hurt fans of other teams.

I don’t have a recap of Sunday’s games for obvious reasons (A full bottle of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey + a mind-boggling Patriots loss). But what I do have is a smorgasbord of disjointed thoughts on coping with tough sports losses.

Until just a couple years ago, I always took my teams’ losses extremely tough. And I always thought it was my god-given right to react as poorly to these losses as I wanted. When I say “extremely tough” I’m talking about drowning my sorrows in whatever cheap booze I could find, holing up in my bedroom for days, refusing to talk to people, and even crying. Yes, crying!

Here’s an incomplete list of some of those poor reactions I’m talking about:

  • After the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS, I walked into my kitchen, lined up four shot glasses and took down half a bottle of shitty Vodka in about three minutes. I proceeded to walk the streets of Boston by myself for hours that night, alternating between looking for a Yankees fan to punch in the face and crying into the sleeve of my sweatshirt.
  • Also after that ’03 disaster, I wouldn’t talk to my oldest brother (one of the bigger Boston sports influences in my life) for three weeks. He didn’t wanna talk to me either. It would just be too painful to have to rehash the details…actually I think we would have set the world record for longest phone call without any words spoken. So for 20 days my poor Mom had to act as a go-between for us whenever we wanted to tell each other something.
  • When the Patriots lost to the Giants in February 2008, me and my other brother had to walk home from my oldest brother’s apartment. On the way (keep in mind it was a one-mile walk), we split eight beers and a bottle of champagne. Apparently this loss was too painful to simply drown our sorrows in alcohol. For this loss, we needed to be destructive. So we went out into the street, threw my Patriots hat on the ground, doused it in lighter fluid and set that thing on fire. Thinking we had proved our point, I turned away from the flames to walk back inside. When I turned around one more time to say “see you in hell” to the hat, I found my brother pissing on the burning hat. It was a perfect exclamation point.
  • After that same Patriots loss, I strolled into work at 11am the next morning with a pounding headache. This awful co-worker (a pompous, conniving, little shit) was waiting at my desk just so he could be the first person to scream “18-1” in my face. Ever since that day, I’ve always hoped he would contract a deadly disease. After Richard Sherman and Terrell Suggs, I think he’s the person I’d most likely kill if I was guaranteed to get away with it (If I knew back then that I didn’t want a career in software sales, I probably would have thrown him out of our office’s third story window).
  • And after last year’s Super Bowl loss I simply walked through the Mission District in San Francisco looking to talk trash to, and possibly get in a fight with. anyone wearing New York Giants gear.

So after the latest edition of “Patriots choke in the playoffs” on Sunday, how did I react? By taking my dog for a long walk with my girlfriend and then drowning my sorrows in chocolate. I’ll admit I had one moment on that walk where I started stomping my feet and whining that “it isn’t fair, why can’t they just win one more Super Bowl while Brady’s around…”

Is my lack of a childish reaction to this latest loss a sign that I’m growing up? Actually, I think it’s just more of a realization I had over the past couple years when it comes to sports: Let’s say you have a favorite team in each of the four major sports. Most people are lucky if they get to see two or three championships among their four teams in a lifetime. Let’s say you live to be 85 years old and the first 10 years of your life don’t count because you were too young to be affected by your teams’ wins and losses. That means 75 years of actually caring about sports, multiplied by four teams per year. You have 300 different sports seasons that have to come to an end at some point. Even the luckiest among us are going to see 290 of those seasons end in bitter disappointment.

That’s where my realization comes in. Can I really spend a lifetime having meltdown after meltdown whenever my teams lose? Because they’re going to lose a lot. And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. I’m not saying you shouldn’t care. I’m just saying we have no choice but to put it behind us and move on with life. Much like a football team does after a regular season win when they say they’re going to celebrate for one night and then move on to the next opponent, it’s OK to spend one night being miserable after a playoff loss, but then the sun comes up the next day and it’s time to get over it.

My advice is to wait two days before reading your local newspapers, watching sports programming on TV or listening to any sort of sports talk radio. Two days is enough time for you to cool off and go to your happy place. And for the people living in Boston, you should feel lucky. You get to go to work this week surrounded by mostly fellow miserable Boston sports fans. There are Boston fans all over the country who had to walk into work yesterday morning and deal with fans of other cities who couldn’t wait to rub this loss in their faces. Trust me, it’s as helpless of a feeling as you can have.

In the spirit of getting over this latest setback, here are some silver linings for New England fans:

  • Having Wes Welker back next year would be huge, of course, but let’s not forget that the chances of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez missing time with injuries in 2013 are very slim.
  • The running backs will only get better. Stevan Ridley is their best pure runner, but Shane Vereen was the surprise in the playoffs, establishing himself as a capable runner and receiver.
  • The offense is as good as it’s ever been, and there’s no reason to think it’ll slow down anytime soon.
  • There’s absolutely no indication that Tom Brady is slowing down. He was still a top-10 quarterback in every important category this year. If you think the Championship window is only open as long as Brady is playing at an elite level, I’d say we have at least three more seasons of opportunity.
  • There’s also no indication that Bill Belichick is regressing as a coach or losing his desire to run the Patriots (if you mention the two times Brady/Belichick screwed up clock management at the end of a half this year, I will stab you. Name a coach or QB who hasn’t made those one or two gaffes this year).
  • The defense improved this year, and it’s young enough that you can expect more improvement next year. They were a top-10 defense in points allowed per game this season, they increased their takeaway-to-giveaway differential from +17 in 2011 to +25 in 2012, and they’re heading in the right direction in terms of yards allowed per game (from 31st-ranked in 2011 to 25th in 2012).
  • Remember how the Patriots thrived as a “no one believes in us” team 10 years ago? Maybe now that they’ve choked away playoff games four years in a row, when next January rolls around, they can play the “no one believes in us in a big game” card.
  • It could be worse, we could be sports fans who have to pretend to enjoy rooting for Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs.

When you finally emerge from the dark hole you crawled into after Sunday night’s game, you may be wondering who you should root for in the Super Bowl. That’s the biggest no-brainer in the history of this blog. You root for the 49ers, hard. You do not root for the team that doesn’t know how to be a gracious, respectful winner (Suggs and other Ravens just couldn’t contain themselves after the game. They just had to take more satisfaction in the Patriots losing than in their own team winning). You don’t root for the team that has one of the biggest headhunters in the game (Bernard Pollard). You don’t root for the team who, if they win the Super Bowl, would probably say something like “This one title means more than the Patriots’ three titles because of SpyGate.” That’s not a team that deserves to win anything. But if the Ravens do win, I won’t freak out and throw a tantrum. I’ll just look forward to the regular season meeting between them and the Patriots in 2013.

Laying Out the Blog’s Grand Football Season Plans (And 10 Reasons the Patriots are Guaranteed a Spot in the Super Bowl)

Every August the same thing goes through my head as I get ready for the NFL season to begin: What else can I sign up for to further commit myself—financially and emotionally—to obsessing over football? It was only six or seven years ago that fantasy football was the only game/pool/gambling I was involved in when it came to following football. Then I added a “survivor” pool; then I did weekly picks against one person for $20 a week (somehow he won a car  off me in November 2005 just for winning a single week); then I joined a weekly pick ’em league with about 20 other guys; then I setup an account with an online gambling website to bet on individual games. And because that wasn’t enough, last year I tried to convince four other guys to buy into a $1,500 season-long pick ’em league through the Las Vegas Hilton with me (a pool that includes Las Vegas’s most notorious sports gambling professionals…a good idea for us to join obviously…fortunately my friends didn’t go for it). Two days ago I sent an email out to a couple friends asking if there were any pools or games they knew of that I could get in on.

What is it about football that gets me worked into such an irrational frenzy? I’m actually not going to bother trying to answer that question in this post. Is there even a simple answer as to why football is the greatest form of entertainment that exists in the world? We all have our reasons…and if you’re reading this, shaking your head and saying, “Football? The greatest? I don’t even understand the rules…why do they get four tries every time they get the ball?”…then there’s probably going to be a lot of blog posts over the next six months that just aren’t for you.

But for those of you who are as obsessed with the NFL as me, get ready for lots of WBFF football content over the coming months. Starting next week, I’ll be playing a game with everyone’s favorite guest blogger, Nkilla, where we argue about the total number of wins each NFL team is going to get this year. We’ll split it up into an NFC post and an AFC post, and then right before the regular season opener we’ll go through our projected playoff teams, Super Bowl winner and individual regular season awards winners.

You might wonder why the WBFF blog is trying to tackle (first football-related pun of the year!!) a topic that is exhaustively covered already by actual sports writers. That’s easy: because I’m funnier than them, I’m more knowledgeable about the NFL than them, and I’m more unemployed than them (meaning I’ll gladly waste an entire day scanning through the TV broadcasts of 16 different football games trying to count how many times all the commentators said the word “penetration” that particular week. Those are the type of stats you can expect from me that no one else will be discussing).

On a weekly basis during the NFL season, you can expect me to make predictions for each upcoming game, criticize any broadcaster, analyst or pre-game show host who dares make a mistake, give plenty of fantasy analysis (trying my hardest never to tell you stories about how badly my team got screwed since everyone hates other peoples’ fantasy football stories), and anything else that seems entertaining.

My calendar is clear for every game of the season (my calendar is actually clear from now to eternity as it turns out), and I’ve already bought my girlfriend a dog way sooner than she was expecting to get one so that she’ll have something to occupy her time for 12 hours each Sunday (and for three hours every Monday and Thursday).

In case you’re not convinced yet, just know that nobody on this planet is more committed than me to dissecting the 2012 NFL season.

Having said all that, let’s quickly get some thoughts on the Patriots out of the way now. I promise to give equal amounts of blog space to the other 31 teams over the course of the season (unless the Pats’ offense starts putting up record-breaking 2007-like numbers on offense, then I’m scrapping all other ideas to focus solely on how great they are).

I realize I’m not exactly going out on a limb saying that the Patriots are an absolute lock for getting to the Super Bowl. After all, they’re the odds-on favorite to win the AFC, and they’re tied with Green Bay as the favorite to win it all (according to Bovada’s sports betting website). But something funny happened in April that made me think sports fans outside of New England aren’t respecting this team as much as they should. Even though the Patriots had just come off consecutive years of winning 13 or more games in the regular season (and getting all the way to the Super Bowl in the most recent playoffs), a friend of mine from New York tried to discredit the entire 2011 Patriots season by simply saying, “they didn’t beat a team with a winning record until the AFC Championship Game.” I thought at first this was an isolated incident and chalked it up to jealousy…this guy is a fan of a San Francisco 49ers franchise that hadn’t been relevant in about 14 years prior to their overachieving 2011 season. But as that night wore on, more people started to agree with him that the Patriots weren’t very good in 2011; they were just lucky that they never had to play a decent team.

Whatever. Patriots fans have been dealing with jealous dumbass detractors for 11 years now. But in case you really believe the Patriots were overrated last year and won’t do shit this year, here are the top 10 reasons (out of something like 75 total reasons) the Patriots are a lock for a spot in Super Bowl XLVII:

10). Bill Belichick seems to finally have realized what we all realized three years ago: that Tom Brady isn’t gonna be around forever so stop constantly trading away draft picks for additional future draft picks and just load up on the immediate talent. Instead of trading first round picks for a boatload of future first, second and third round picks, Belichick actually traded up into a better first round position twice this year to get his guys: Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower (both play defense, where clearly the team needs the most help). He knows now is the time for another “three Super Bowls in four years” run.

9). We’ve never gotten to see Tom Brady play in a regular season immediately following a Super Bowl loss. How pissed off is he? How motivated is he? He’s now lost in the Super Bowl twice to Peyton’s dorky little brother. I can’t help but think he’s gonna be on a mission this year (I know, I know, when is he not on a mission?).

8). Another Brady motivator: He won his third Super Bowl in 2005, and only now does he finally have a couple guys nipping at his heels for most Championships among active Quarterbacks (Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger). A fourth Super Bowl victory for Brady would pretty much assure that no current QB ever passes him (and would solidify his spot atop the all-time QB list).

7). As if the Patriots offense, which finished 2011 as the second-ranked passing offense and third-ranked overall offense in the league, needed any more help…they added a legit deep threat in Brandon Lloyd and get an even-more-experienced Tight End tandem that’s unmatched in football. Oh, and Wes Welker is playing for a contract (aka pissed off at the Patriots for not giving him a long term deal), which should mean about 150 catches over the course of 16 games. Is 40 points per game realistic for this team?

6). Have you seen the rest of the AFC this year? The weakest its been in a very long time. Outside of New England, the next best contenders are the Ravens, Texans, Broncos and Steelers, probably in that order. You could make the argument that the Ravens and Steelers are both due for a letdown because of their aging defenses and a brutal AFC North division where they’ll beat up on each other and have to deal with frisky Cincinnati and Cleveland teams. The Texans have Matt Schaub at QB, who’s never won anything significant, and their second-best offensive player, Andre Johnson, is one of the least durable Wide Receivers in the league. And finally, Denver has Peyton Manning, coming off three neck surgeries and no competitive football for about 20 months.

5). Because it’s been 15 months since a Boston team won a professional Championship…way too long in my opinion. And let’s go ahead and assume the Red Sox aren’t pulling off the most miraculous resurrection in sports history this year. We’re dying for that next title.

4). A young, healthy defense means the Patriots could be ranked in the top 10 defensively for the first time since 2008 (compared to 2011 where they were ranked 31st and 2010 where they came in at 25th). We all know about the rookies expected to make an immediate contribution, but the Patriots will also get a healthy Brandon Spikes, Ras I-Dowling, Jerod Mayo and Patrick Chung. Those four, all projected starters last year, missed a combined 32 games. If we never see Julian Edelman lining up on defense this year, it means the Patriots will definitely be a top 15 defense, if not a top 10.

3). Did I already mention the other top contenders in the AFC?

2). Their schedule. If people bitched about the Pats not beating any good teams last year, wait until they see the schedule for 2012. They have the easiest strength of schedule in the entire league, playing only four teams that had a winning record last season. They get six games against the AFC East: they won’t lose to a terrible Dolphins team, they’re gonna be pissed off that Buffalo beat them once last year so they’re not losing to the Bills, and the Jets are gonna be so busy dealing with the Sanchez/Tebow platooning at QB I doubt they even get to seven wins this year. The NFC division the Patriots get to play is the West…the 49ers, Cardinals, Seahawks and Rams. The one “decent” team from that division, San Francisco, plays in Foxboro, where the Patriots don’t lose games.

1). Do you realize that the Belichick-era Patriots are two plays short of having a Quarterback with five Super Bowl wins and a head coach with 7 Super Bowl wins? I realize plenty of teams could say they were “one play away” from some significant achievement, but if the Patriots just make an average defensive play towards the end of each of their last two Championship appearances, there’s no argument that Belichick and Brady are the greatest ever at each of their positions. No other team in the NFL can compete with that resume.