FOXBORO -- Predictions in the NFL come a dime a dozen.
It’s why Vegas loves the NFL. As mentioned here last week, the Patriots are 11-2 to raise the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 2 in New Orleans.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports early on in camp predicted the Patriots would go 16-0 for the second time in six seasons.
Every prognosticator on ESPN has the Patriots winning the AFC East for a fourth straight season and 10th time in 12 seasons.
Most experts have Tom Brady breaking all of the passing records set by Drew Brees and the Saints last year after the Patriots added Brandon Lloyd to a receiving corps that already includes Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker.
And most everyone has the Patriots set to punch a sixth Super Bowl ticket under Brady and Bill Belichick.
Well, if this summer has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Who thought Joseph Addai and Anthony Gonzalez wouldn’t make it to training camp? Who thought receivers Deion Branch, Donte’ Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney all would be cut before the first regular-season game? Who thought Logan Mankins would be back in pads, playing in a preseason game just six months after playing Super Bowl XLVI with a torn ACL in his right knee?
Who thought starting center Dan Koppen would not make it on the opening day roster, leaving just Vince Wilfork and Brady with Super Bowl rings on the current roster?
Who thought Ryan Mallett would beat out Brian Hoyer for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Brady?
The point is, with the Patriots you have to expect the unexpected.
Hanging around Foxboro and Gillette Stadium for the better part of six weeks now, it’s time to go out on a limb and make some fearless predictions you may not see coming, based on all of the practice football I’ve taken in.
Tom Brady will not throw for 5,000 yards. This is probably the biggest limb of all. Brady is coming off the most prolific season of his career, passing for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns. Everyone expects Brady to easily pass the 5,000-yard mark again with more weapons around him. Don’t be surprised if the Patriots go more to a ground attack to protect him while the offensive line finds its rhythm. He’ll still pass for over 4,500 yards and 35 touchdowns, but Josh McDaniels and Belichick would like to save the QB's arm for the playoffs. Don't overlook Brady's forgettable performance in the AFC championship, when the defense bailed him out, and the Super Bowl, when he and the Patriots weren’t so lucky. (An aside -- if Brady misses a game because Gisele gives birth in December, Mallett will step in and make his NFL debut a winner.)
Aaron Hernandez will catch more TD passes than Rob Gronkowski. We’re coming off the “Summer of Gronk,” and Gronk is coming off left ankle surgery. Gronk caught an NFL-record 17 TDs as a tight end and ran for another. Defenses will be designed to throw two and three bodies at him, keeping him from having an easy go of it. Hernandez will be the beneficiary. He is the reason the Patriots felt comfortable going with only four experienced wide receivers on cut-down day. Hernandez caught 79 passes and seven touchdowns in 14 games. That’s 24 TD passes between the two. Hernandez will benefit from more attention to Gronk and beat his fellow tight end, 13-12, in touchdown catches.
Wes Welker will catch fewer than 90 passes for the second time in six seasons. Brady only can throw one ball at a time, and he has Brandon Lloyd, Gronkowski and Hernandez as options. Brady and McDaniels will make it a priority to make the new receiver from St. Louis feel at home -- and no, we’re not talking about Greg Salas. Welker’s reception numbers since joining the Patriots: 112, 111, 123, 86, 122. That’s an average of 111 catches. The ’07 and ’08 Patriots had Randy Moss and not much more. This is the most diverse group of receivers in Welker’s time in New England.
Stevan Ridley will carry the ball 300 times for 1,100 yards. The second-year back out of LSU learned his lesson from his two fumbles at the end of last season. He showed explosiveness between the tackles and the ability to get to the edge. He is the single biggest factor in helping to take some of the workload off Brady’s shoulders.
The offensive line will stabilize and be a non-story by November. As much legitimate worry there was in the preseason for the men protecting Tom Brady, there will be as much confidence after the first two months. The reason: motion. The Patriots will run hurry-up and no-huddle and keep opposing defenses on its toes. Nate Solder will settle down. Ryan Wendell will show he’s dependable. Dan Connolly will fill the shoes of Brian Waters and Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon will rotate smoothly at right tackle. It’s the second biggest limb I’m going out on in this list but one I think that’s worth it.
The Patriots secondary will lead the NFL in interceptions and Nate Ebner will play a key role. The secondary began its transformation from worst to first in terms of reputation around the league with its performance against the Ravens in the AFC championship game, featuring Sterling Moore’s game-saving strip in the final 30 seconds. Moore will not see much of the field as the revamped secondary features Patrick Chung and Steve Gregory as the safeties, along with Ras-I Dowling, Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ebner and Marquice Cole. The front seven figures to pressure the quarterback more and the ball-hawking/rugby skills of Gregory and Ebner will show.
Jermaine Cunningham will help turn the Patriots into a NASCAR front. Bill Belichick knows a good thing when he sees it. Good friend Urban Meyer was surprised Belichick chose Cunningham before Brandon Spikes with the second of three second-round picks in the 2010 draft. But Belichick saw a raw pass-rushing talent. He decided to store him away for the right situation. After watching what the Giants did with their “NASCAR” speed pass rush on their way to the Super Bowl title last season, Belichick now sees the promise in Chandler Jones, Jermaine Cunningham, Trevor Scott and Rob Ninkovich, all of whom have the potential of getting to the quarterback.
Chandler Jones will set the NFL rookie sack record. Jevon “The Freak” Kearse set the record with the Titans, collecting 14 1/2 sacks in 1999. Jones has shown a high motor on the field and a free spirit in the locker room. All roads lead to the quarterback for the rookie out of Syracuse. He’ll become the defensive answer to Gronk, a freak on the defensive side of the ball the Patriots have desperately needed.
Brandon Spikes' knees will allow him stay on the field long enough to make an impact. NFL expert Greg Cosell called the third-year linebacker out of Florida the most physically punishing linebacker he had seen on film. Spikes had 11 combined tackles in the Super Bowl. He will be the biggest impact hitter on defense Patriots fans have seen since Rodney Harrison.
The defense will win four games by protecting late fourth-quarter leads. On the 2007 Patriots -- a team that routinely is compared to this one -- it was the offense that saved the defense several times in the second half of the season. The tables will be turned this year as the defense will step up and win no fewer than four games in which the fourth-quarter lead is seven points or less.
Expect the unexpected.
To the Trags Bag for some random observations about the 2012 Patriots before the season opener.
@KiashBaiby I think this is the year Brandon Spikes plays a full 16 games and will be a force in the middle...
@FramCire Why does anyone ask [Belichick about Brian Waters]? When was last time he commented on a player who hadn't shown up?
@drjefflo Good to see some things never change. If [Belichick] is nervous [for opening day], then all of #Patriots Nation can be confident in another successful season.
We welcome more. Tweet me up at @trags or via e-mail at email@example.com.