EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 19, 2013

Pats will go 10-6 against this schedule

But are Pats contenders?

On Pro Football
Hector Longo

---- — I asked this simple question months ago when the Wes Welker fiasco was transpiring.

Are the New England Patriots better now than they were when they were embarrassed again by the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium in January?

Offensively, are they better? Nope. In fact, they are worse. They have lost their two starting receivers – one an All-Pro in Wes Welker – and replaced them with a journeyman in Donald Jones and a porcelain replica of Welker in Danny Amendola.

Tom Brady is a year older. Rob Gronkowski’s forearm is still an issue with infection latching on to the surgical metal plate. And Aaron Hernandez remains as fragile as any.

Defensively, are they better? Well, on the positive side, they’re not any worse.

Aqib Talib re-upped for his part-time job in the secondary. Alfonzo Dennard got a slap on the wrist, a suspended slap on the wrist, from the Nebraska court system. And we won’t have Pat Chung to kick around in these parts any more.

They have held serve on defense anyways.

With all this said, the Pats 2013 schedule was announced last night. And with minutes to survey and study, I can confidently say your club will indeed defend its AFC East title. Unfortunately, I still see a decline. Luckily for New England, the Jets, Dolphins and Bills are so atrocious, that New England can and will go 10-6, but take home the top spot in the division with ease.

Here’s a look at how the season will go down.

Sept. 8, at Buffalo

Kevin Kolb or Tarvaris Jackson top this team’s depth chart at QB. You think Bill Belichick can sleep at night pondering his fate in the opener? Pats 51, Buffalo 6 (and it’s not that close).

Sept. 12, host NY Jets

By now, Darrelle Revis has moved on, never again to be associated with this chump organization. Maybe Rex will play Tebow at corner. Your team is now 2-0, Pats fans. NE 37, David Garrard-led Jets 6

Sept. 22, host Tampa Bay

Trap game, trap game, trap game. Pats get tripped up, looking ahead to a Sunday nighter with Matty Ice. New England sits in stunned silence as the Bucs walk into Foxboro and kick the Pats around. The “Where’s Welker” whining begins. Tampa 22, New England 12.

Sept. 29, at Atlanta

I officially get dubbed “The Joker” because all week, the only thing I can think of is any Patriots defensive back trying to play Julio Jones. Sorry, it ain’t happening. Matt Ryan throws for 450. Tom Brady tries to match, but he’s targeting Donald Jones and Julian Edelman by now. A 10-catch night by Jake Ballard saves the Pats the total embarrassment. Falcons 31, Pats 17.

Oct. 6, at Cincinnati

One of four games that the Pats will be the underdog. Cincinnati poses a major challenge. Any team with a legit pass catcher does. A.J. Green equals real deal. Pats drop tough one, a sign that they belong with the masses, not well above them. Cincinnati 28, New England 21.

Oct. 13, host New Orleans

Sean Payton’s return has to make a difference. The Saints are a much better team than they were in 2012. Still, timing is everything. And New Orleans hits Gillette with the Pats needing a win. Brees plays big. Fantasy players, he is a must play this week. But New England prevails. Pats 34, Saints 31.

Oct. 20, at New York Jets

Rex, the world is no longer laughing with you. We are laughing at you. Really? Mark Sanchez? Again? No thanks. Pats win ugly, but win. New England 13, Jetsies, 3.

Oct. 27, host Miami

Gee, I wonder if Ryan Tannehill is going to make that necessary leap from Year 1 to Year 2 or if the sophomore slump is in the works for the Miami signal-caller. Who coaches this team now? Joe Philbin? I’m not buying. Pats get it done. New England 24, Miami 7

Nov. 3, host Pittsburgh

On the other hand, I see a huge bounce-back year for Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, who’ve dropped some of their overpaid vets and carved out a pretty sweet cadre of weapons around Roethlisberger. Pats secondary gets exploited again, and New England heads to the bye at 5-4. Steelers 31, Patriots 24

Nov. 18, at Carolina

Monday Night Football. Brady vs. Cam Newton. The luster wears off pretty quickly. Newton simply doesn’t have enough around him. He and Brady speak in the pre-game about suing their teams for non-support. Patriots 29, Panthers 22.

Nov. 24, host Denver

Sunday Night Football. The return of Wes Welker. By now, Brady has only Deion Branch left to throw to.

Meanwhile, Welker is looking to make Peyton Manning forget he ever played with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. Tough night for Bill Belichick. Denver 36, New England 12.

Dec. 1, at Houston

Another of the rare, “Patriots are underdogs” games. Still, after watching Matt Schaub repeatedly come up short when it matters, I have no confidence in the Texans either. New England won’t win it, but this opponent will most assuredly keep it close. In a game neither plays good enough to win, it’s Houston 23, Patriots 17.

Dec. 8, host Cleveland

Hmm. 6-6 with four to play. Panic sets in with Pats fans, and then they realize that New England remains atop its division, and the final four games have nothing but wins written all over them. Start with the cellar-dwelling Browns at Gillette. No contest. Patriots 31, Cleveland 10.

Dec. 15, at Miami

The travel and the change in climate are New England’s major foes. But by now, the luster has fallen off the Tannehill crew. Miami again finds itself in disarray. Gut-check time, and the Pats pass with one of their best defensive efforts in years. New England 36, Miami 3.

Dec. 22, at Baltimore

Talk about a team that hasn’t enjoyed its offseason. The Ravens have been broken into bits on both sides.

Think about the heat on $100 million man Joe Flacco with his team at 6-8 right now. Pats sharp again and continue to build playoff momentum. New England 26, Baltimore 10.

Dec. 29, host Buffalo

At this point, you wonder if Buffalo will even bother making the trip. Another pathetic season. No future at QB.

Another horrifyingly blah season from defensive stopper Mario Williams. Pats punch their playoff ticket as AFC East champs. Bills wallow in the mire. New England 37-17.