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Sports Illustrated’s NFL preview issue is on newsstands, and senior writer Peter King has made his annual predictions, which include a fourth Super Bowl win for the New England Patriots. King also thinks Tom Brady will win his third MVP award in 2013, ultimately leading the Patriots to a 30-23 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. In King’s forecast, the Pats will cruise to the AFC East title and secure the best record in the AFC at 12-4. In the playoffs, they’ll first get their revenge by eliminating the Ravens in the Divisional Round, then edge out the Broncos for the conference championship.
Other interesting predictions include Cincinnati and Indianapolis both winning their divisions and the Redskins missing the playoffs; a return to form for Offensive Player of the Year Chris Johnson and a Defensive Rookie award for Tyrann Mathieu of the Cardinals.
While it didn’t take long for the “Patriots are officially screwed” jokes to light up Twitter, the fact is that King has been spot on as recently as the 2010 season, when he correctly predicted the Packers and Steelers would meet in Super Bowl XLV. This time, he attributes his prediction to “Brady’s mastery of the up-tempo game and his team’s ability to seamlessly incorporate new skill players.”
The Pats haven’t won the big game since the 2004 season, with two heartbreaking losses to the New York Giants since then. The Seahawks’ sole appearance came the following year, when they lost 21-10 to the Steelers in Super Bowl XL.
King’s main point is well taken: the Pats have a history of successfully integrating new offensive weapons into their system, whether it be veterans, like Randy Moss in the historic 2007 season, or rookies like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who made an immediate impact after being drafted in 2010. Now Hernandez and Wes Welker are gone and Gronkowski is injured, with an uncertain return date, and Brady will have to find new targets.
Danny Amendola is the biggest name New England acquired through free agency, and he could become the most important piece of a receiving corps that features four rookies: second-rounder Aaron Dobson, fourth-rounder Josh Boyce and undrafted free agents Zach Sudfeld and Kenbrell Thompkins.
While Chad Johnson in 2011 and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Lloyd last year failed to live up to expectations, the Patriots switched things up this offseason and didn’t sign a deep threat, choosing instead to replace Welker with Amendola in the slot and use the draft to rebuild the receiving unit. Presumably, Bill Belichick has learned his lesson after the Ochocinco and Lloyd experiments, and is taking a more farsighted approach to the passing game.
But the defense is also improving, after a few years where the team was successful in spite of the D and not because of it. For the first time in a while, there will be some continuity on a defensive unit that has seen very little turnover from the 2012 season, and that should translate into fewer yards allowed and a very easy time in one of the league’s weakest divisions.
Lastly, intangibles always play a big part in any NFL season, and few teams can overcome turmoil better than the Patriots. This has been one of the wildest offseasons in recent memory due to the Hernandez murder investigation, and the usually attention-averse Belichick attracted plenty of it by signing, then releasing Tim Tebow, which may or may not have been a convoluted way of drawing the focus away from the Hernandez situation. The last time the Patriots made headlines during the offseason? That’s right, 2007, when the Spygate scandal preceded the only 16-0 regular season in NFL history, with the Pats winning every game by an average of 19.7 points.
This year, as mentioned above, the AFC East should be a cakewalk for the Pats: the week 1 starters at quarterback for the Bills, Dolphins and Jets have a combined total of one year’s experience in the pros, after it was announced on Wednesday that rookies E. J. Manuel and Geno Smith will both be under center on Sunday. The rest of the AFC has plenty of question marks as well: both the Broncos and Ravens have lost important pieces, especially on defense; the Texans have yet to prove that they can hold their own against elite teams in the playoffs after the Patriots crushed them in the Divisional Round last year; and the up-and-comers like the Bengals and Colts look like they could be threats down the road, but probably not this season.
A lot of things need to go right for a team to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, and each of the Patriots’ last eight seasons has ended in disappointment, but for 2013 they’re as good a bet as any. Here’s hoping King is right, and February 2nd sees the Pats prevail over the Seahawks in freezing MetLife Stadium, Belichick and Brady cementing their place among the all-time greats. Revenge, after all, is a dish best served cold, and few things would give Pats fans more pleasure than to see Brady beat Richard Sherman on the biggest stage, a celebratory ”You mad, bro?” ringing throughout New England.