After losing Super Bowl VI to the Dallas Cowboys, the Miami Dolphins came back in the 1972 season and went undefeated on their way to winning Super Bowl VII. They remain the only team in the history of the NFL to lose a Super Bowl and then win the Super Bowl the following season.
That is the challenge facing the New England Patriots as they open training camp today. Losers of Super Bowl XLVI to the New York Giants, the Patriots have loaded up their roster on both sides of the ball in an attempt to buck the trends of football history and take home the fourth Lombardi Trophy of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era.
The road to becoming champions will not be easy. The losing team in the Super Bowl has not even returned to the game the following season since the Buffalo Bills did it following their losses in Super Bowls XXV, XXVI, and XXVII in the early 1990's. The AFC has many potential tough opponents, including the Ravens, Steelers, Bills, Broncos, Texans, and Jets and if the Patriots do win their sixth AFC title of the 21st Century, they would be likely facing a tough challenger such as the Giants, Packers, 49ers, Eagles, or Falcons.
It will be nice for the Patriots to be associated with the 1972 Dolphins for something other than chasing their perfect season, a feat that the 2007 Patriots nearly accomplished. As good as this Patriots team looks on paper, they have likely learned from the experiences of 2007 that the undefeated season is not as important as the Lombardi Trophy. Not that I believe that Belichick ever emphasized that going 19-0 was of the upmost importance in '07 - he is the classic "one game at a time" coach - but the players had to get caught up in the hype. This team will approach each game as an opportunity to win and improve the team with the ultimate goal of being in position to win the Super Bowl.
To follow in the foot steps of the '72 Dolphins - and, again, I mean winning the Super Bowl the year following the Super Bowl, not the chase of a perfect record - Belichick reinforced what was already one of the deepest and most talented teams in the league through the draft and free agency. He built up his defense, added to his defense, and now has what looks to be the deepest roster on both sides of the ball in the entire NFL.
That said, there are questions facing the Patriots.
Is their offensive line good enough to protect Brady? Matt Light has retired, Logan Mankins starts camp on the physically un-able to perform (PUP) list, and Brian Waters has yet to surface in Foxboro. The offensive line is definitely a unit to keep an eye on the next several weeks and throughout the season.
Can they run the ball? As of now, the three top running backs on the roster, after the team cut veteran Joseph Addai yesterday, are second-year guys Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen as well as third-down specialist Danny Woodhead. The Pats let BenJarvus Green-Ellis depart as a free agent this offseason and now there is not a proven player in the group. We know the Patriots are a passing team but there will be times when the offense needs to pound out a few yards in a key situation and it's unsettling to not know who - if anyone - will get those yards.
Can they stop anyone? Belichick made his name as a defensive genius and the three Patriot teams that won the Super Bowl under his leadership were among the best defensive teams in the league. Belichick has drafted and signed several players to try and make this year's defense a unit capable of winning a championship but until the new guys prove they can get it done on the field when it counts - and really, for this team, that means in the Super Bowl, the questions about the defense will remain.
Despite the questions facing the Patriots, almost every other franchise in the league would trade places with them in a second. They have a great tandem of owners, coaches, and players and will likely be in the race for the Super Bowl come January. This is truly one of the dominant franchises in the game and one usually doesn't go wrong by placing their trust in Belichick finding a way to answer the questions facing his team.