If Bill Belichick had a heart, it would have sunk as he watched the Jets advance deep into the playoffs last year.
The Jets' run, coupled with New York's early-season win over New England, legitimized Rex Ryan's claims that he wasn't going to "kiss Bill Belichick's rings".
The worst part of all this for Belichick has to be that it's his strategy that Ryan is voicing - it's just Belichick goes about it, as he does most everything else, in a more tight-lipped fashion.
No one has left the Patriots' past successes in the past more than the team's head coach.
And now Belichick is hoping his actions speak louder than his words - he has removed all pictures of past Patriots success from Gillette Stadium to remind the team that the here and now is all that matters.
There are signs that the Patriots can be returning to recent glory - Tom Brady and Randy Moss might be even better than normal because they are looking for contracts, and Wes Welker is back healthy ahead of schedule. That trio alone could make for an explosive offense, and when you add in the presence of last year's breakout star Julian Edelman and a possible major role for one of the zillion tight ends the Patriots have employed the past five years or so (most likely 2nd round pick, 6' 6'' Rob Gronkowski), that passing game will be tough to stop. The defense is better than it has been in years, and at first glance the Patriots look better than the team that went 16-0 three seasons ago.
But this edition of the Patriots has a serious flaw, one which may prevent an offensive rhythm from developing. The offensive line, which gave up just 18 sacks a year ago, is in flux. Logan Mankins is holding out, and Nick Kaczur, who shifted to his spot, suffered a back injury during training camp that will keep him out the entire season. This all may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as the offensive line will get younger, mostly by necessity, but that doesn't mean it will get better...at least not right away.
The line could have a negative impact on Laurence Maroney's promises to become a more straight ahead (and more effective) running back. It could instead spell the end of his Patriots tenure. Personally, I thought BenJarvus Green-Ellis would take away some of his carries a year ago - maybe this is the year Green-Ellis takes on a major rushing role.
As an aside, I was watching a special on Jerry Rice last month as he got ready for his induction into the Hall of Fame, and it brought to mind a cautionary tale. Rice came back a bit too soon from a knee injury about 15 years ago, and in his first game back, he caught a touchdown pass and took a shot right to his knee. He missed the rest of that season. It brought to mind Welker's situation. He's a driven player - I'm sure he is itching to get back into regular season game action. (In his first preseason series he caught a pass.) But the Patriots should be cautious with him - they know better than any team how serious knee injuries are, and how tough it can be for players to come back from them 100% right away (see: Tom Brady), especially if they return early. It would be a shame for Welker to miss more time than he needs to.
The Patriots will be back in the playoffs this year. They may not get the chance, though, to host a playoff game, where they were last seen being blown out by the Baltimore Ravens.
The Patriots as underdogs? I'm sure Bill Belichick will be fine with that. It'll be just another motivational ploy for Belichick, who'll hope to get some pictures of the 2010 Patriots' success to hang in the Gillette Stadium hallways.
2010 Prediction: 11-5, 2nd Place in AFC East (2nd AFC Wild Card)