Sunday, March 18, 2012

Patriots Still the Favorites in AFC

To be perfectly honest, I could have gone with that headline if the Patriots had not made their usual under-the-radar but highly effective run in free agency. 

You know where I'm going with this - a team with Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick calling the shots always has to be taken into consideration when talking about the contenders in the AFC.  Don't agree?  I guess eleven consecutive winning seasons doesn't mean as much to you as it does to the rest of the civilized world.

Coming off another tough Super Bowl loss to the Giants, Belichick added some significant pieces to his team over the last few days that keep the Patriots on top of the AFC and make them a favorite to win a fifth Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era.

Let's start with receiver Brandon Lloyd.  He is the perfect complement to slot receiver Wes Welker and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  Lloyd is a deep threat who is also known as an excellent route runner and his best years in the NFL came when he was working in Josh McDaniels offensive system.  Unlike the failed experiments with bringing in veteran receivers Joey Galloway and Chad Ochocinco the last few years, Lloyd knows this offense and will be able to contribute immediately.

The Patriots also signed receiver Anthony Gonzalez away from the Colts.  The Ohio State alum played well with Peyton Manning before injuries slowed him down.  If healthy, he could be a nice pickup in the slot and his arrival could mean the end of Deion Branch's career with the team.

On defense the Pats added defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene (6.5 sacks in 2011) from the Bengals and safety Steve Gregory (4 interceptions and an average of 47 tackles per season since 2009) from the Chargers.

Belichick also quietly re-signed four of his own players.  Receiver Wes Welker, offensive lineman Dan Connolly, receiver/special teams star Matthew Slater, and linebacker/special teamer Tracy White all agreed to terms with the team and allow the team to keep its core intact.  Welker is Brady's go-to guy and keeping him in New England should make sure that #12 continues to play at an All-Pro level well into his late 30's.

While these moves may not have constituted the "big splash" some fans wanted with names like Mario Williams and Mike Wallace available, they do make the Patriots one of the deepest teams in the NFL on both sides of the ball and allow Belichick the flexibility of being aggressive in April's draft.

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