Driving back from MetLife Stadium in the dead of night after the Patriots' preseason finale on Wednesday, a dismal 6-3 loss to the Giants, I realized several things: The George Washington Bridge is beautiful at 1:30 in the morning. NFL coaches might strike the league if these replacement officials last into October. And never has an offseason meant so much and a preseason meant so little.
The Patriots have been down this road before. They went 1-3 in the 2004 preseason, losing their final three games, and wound up rolling to 14 wins and a second straight Super Bowl title. They went 0-4 in 2008 and won 11 games.
Bill Belichick and his staff use the games to look at how certain players handle one-on-one battles within the scheme they run. The Patriots finished 1-3, with Tom Brady sitting out two of the games.
This much we know about the 2012 New England Patriots -- they are the prohibitive favorites to come out of the AFC and make it to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
And they should be. They spent the offseason locking up Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They drafted linebacker Dont’a Hightower and pass-rusher Chandler Jones in April, and both have shown they can handle the pressure of playing first-team defense.
They easily have more answers on offense and defense than anyone else in the division. The defense that won the AFC championship game against the Ravens has been fortified with youth and key additions such as Steve Gregory in the secondary.
We know that this defense has the kind of swagger that’s been missing since the days of Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. Anyone watching the defense consistently handing it to the offense throughout camp and jawing with the offensive players saw that.
If form holds, the Patriots again will cruise to the AFC East title and wind up with a win total north of 12. We didn’t need four preseason games filled with Ryan Mallett battling Brian Hoyer for Brady’s backup job to know that. We didn’t need four games filled with embarrassing gaffes by replacement officials to know that.
Vegas has the Patriots as 11-2 favorites to get back to the Super Bowl and become the first team since the undefeated 1972 Dolphins to win the Super Bowl one year after losing it.
Belichick stepped to the podium Wednesday night following a loss that came after Brady played wide receiver in a pickup game with Hernandez and Deion Branch 90 minutes before kickoff.
“It was a competitive game,” Belichick said. “We have to look at a lot of people. So now we have to turn the page and start playing them for real.”
Something else we know: Brady won’t be running fade routes to the corner of the end zone. He’s the quarterback of an offense that’s expected to again put up video game numbers on the scoreboard.
What we know is that the Patriots, with Brady, Gronkowski, Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker and Stevan Ridley, have more than enough firepower. We know the Patriots are younger, faster and arguably deeper on both sides of the ball than they’ve ever been.
We know that Stephen Gostkowski and Zoltan Mesko lead a very, very reliable if not explosive kicking game.
So, that’s what we know about the Patriots. What about the unknown?
What we don’t know about Brady is just how ready he is to take punishment should the offensive line continue to struggle like it did in the preseason.
We don’t know exactly who will be on the offensive line come Sept. 9 in Nashville.
We don’t know if Nate Solder is ready to be the full-time replacement for Matt Light at left tackle.
We don’t know if Logan Mankins, six months removed from right knee ACL reconstruction, can perform better at 80 percent than most other left guards at full strength.
We don’t know if Pro Bowl right guard Brian Waters will be walking through the doors of Gillette Stadium next week, ready to report for duty after spending the last several months with his family in Texas.
We don’t know who will be the starting center on Sept. 9. Belichick and O-line coach Dante Scarnecchia rotated four candidates in the first quarter against the Giants.
After a few more generic phrases about game film following the preseason finale against the Giants, Belichick said, “I think we made some improvement.”
Of course, Belichick and staff know full well who they intend to have at center, and they have gone over every potential scenario involving the uncertainties of Mankins, Waters, Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon.
One other reason to throw out the preseason is the offensive line issue might be moot if the Patriots employ the no-huddle and hurry-up look they have in years past. It’s one reason why Belichick has stressed conditioning so much in camp. He knows that in order to keep defenses on their heels, the offensive line must be able to run an up-tempo offense with little time to rest.
We don’t know if Ridley -- in his second season out of LSU -- can handle the load of being the feature running back on the best offense in the NFL.
We don’t know how Brady plans to keep all of his receivers happy.
We don’t know the state of mind of Welker -- who missed three preseason games reportedly due to the death of a family member in Oklahoma. We don’t know if he’s privately miffed that Hernandez -- represented by the same agency -- got his long-term deal while the team played hardball with him in the offseason.
We don’t know how defenses will adjust to Gronkowski after he terrorized them a season ago. Hernandez is certain to play a role in the Patriots’ response.
Defensively, we don’t know if defensive back Devin McCourty can bounce back from a serious case of sophomore slump. We don’t know if Ras-I Dowling is ready to be on the island of corner coverage in the secondary.
We don’t know how Jones and Hightower will respond when offensive protection schemes adjust to them.
One more thing: Forget most of what you saw in the last three weeks. The only people who will get anything out those game films are the coaches who already have watched them and stored them away.
“Everybody that played had an opportunity to show us what he can do,” Belichick said. “Whoever is out there, it’s an opportunity for them and an opportunity for us to evaluate them and also to evaluate our team in those areas. There is nothing wrong with that.”
But Belichick knows the last three weeks have little or no relevance on regular-season game planning.
“I think right now we are just trying to take care of the Patriots,” he said. “We know we have a lot of tough opponents. We know Tennessee will be tough on opening day, but right now we have to do what is best for the New England Patriots, and that is where our focus is.”
What path will the 2012 Patriots take? That’s another question altogether and it’s one that can only be answered by playing games that actually count starting Sept. 9.
What impressions did the Patriots make on you in the preseason? Let’s go to the Trags Bag and find out.
@TrentSouth That I should be weary of drafting Brady in fantasy because the o-line is AWFUL.
@RaQuanO They showed absolutely nothing in how they will attack teams and we will see a completely different team come Week 1
@mrronhutchins Has Hoyer gotten worse or is he just surrounded by less talent when he's on the field this preseason?
@jdooleyiv [Jermaine Cunningham] must have known he was on the bubble.. Looks like he will make 53 man [roster.]