FOXBORO — So how do the New England Patriots go from the August embarrassment at the hands of the St. Louis Rams' second-stringers to Super Bowl XLV in February?
Tom Brady & Co. will bid to make that trek, which begins at Gillette Stadium seven days from today against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Can it happen? After eight seasons with Brady under center together with Bill Belichick calling the shots — and oh-so many spectacular memories — why is there a shred of doubt?
There are too many questions not to have some doubt.
But another Super Bowl ride surely can happen. Here are 10 pieces that have to fall into place to make it a reality.
1. Best of Brady
Brady has been razor sharp in the preseason. He is driven, playing in what is shaping up as a contract season. Chances are, he'll never statistically match 2007 when the Pats were a perfect 16-0. He has to at least threaten those numbers.
2. Logan's heroes
Refusing to pay a Pro Bowl offensive lineman sends an ugly message to the other 52 athletes in the locker room. End the standoff. Get Logan Mankins back in the fold, solidify the offensive line and prove to the players that putting the best 11 on the field is the only thing that matters at Patriots Place.
3. Shoot 75 on defense
Forget about points allowed and yards allowed. Think about sacks and turnovers. Sacks and turnovers. In 2007, they caused 31 turnovers with 47 sacks (78); in 2004 it was 36 and 45 (81); in 2003, 41 and 41 (82) and in 2001, 31 and 45 (76). Where did all those years end? At the Super Bowl, of course. Turnovers and sacks equal big-game victories.
4. Cover story
Belichick has burned three top draft picks in the likes of Devin McCourty (27th), Darius Butler (41st) and Patrick Chung (34th) in the last two seasons. One of these three has to step up and show he can play pass defense at a championship level. One has to be the next Ty Law or Rodney Harrison, a point that emphasized even more with the loss of Leigh Bodden for the year.
5. Focus on the negative
You can count the impact negative plays in the preseason on one hand. Football is a battlefield, and this defense back-pedals much too much. It's time to step up, move forward and make a play.
6. Five in a line, four to go
This team needs to play 16 games - well at least the last 13 or 14 - with Sebastian Vollmer, Stephen Neal, Dan Koppen, Mankins and Matt Light together on the offensive line with McCourty, Butler, Chung and Brandon Meriweather working as a cohesive unit in the secondary. Injuries in either of these areas would be devastating.
7. A Jet implosion
There is talent and there are time bombs in New York. Be it Darrelle Revis' contract squabble, Mark Sanchez' inconsistency or Santonio Holmes' immaturity, the Pats need nature to take its course in the Big Apple. New England's success is anchored in New York's failure.
8. Henne hits skids
Come on, are you really expecting Miami's Chad Henne to play like the guy who burned the Pats for 335 passing yards and stuck the Jets with a 130.4 QB rating last year? Or like the rest of us sensible human beings, do you see a severe regression? This step is easy. Henne throws for as many picks as TDs in 2010 and the Fins tumble back to the middle of the pack.
9. Home-field heroics
An 8-0 run at Foxboro won't be easy with this schedule, but the key numbers to meet are seven wins at Gillette and a 4-2 mark in the division.
10. Vintage Tom
Mr. Brady won his first 10 playoff starts, looking like Joe Montana. He's a pedestrian 4-5 since. As the old Budweiser commercial reads, New England football fans everywhere are begging for Brady to "Bring out your best."