Patriots preview: Main story

Eric McHugh

Editor's note: This content is embargoed for Friday release.

The sun was going down and the shadows were growing long on the practice fields out behind Gillette Stadium on Aug. 15. The final public session of training camp was wrapping up and to one fan, at least, the moment cried out for a send-off of some sort.

Giddy on adult beverages and/or anticipation, he turned toward the media tent perched on the hillside and announced, to no one in particular, "I'm thinking about one thing - Glendale, Arizona!" Hey, buddy, join the club.

The last regularly scheduled Patriots game for the 2007 season is a Dec. 29 road trip to the Meadowlands to face the New York Giants. But even with the Richard Seymour/Rodney Harrison double whammy, how many people don't think the actual final act will come on Feb. 3 when Super Bowl XLII parks its big butt at the University of Phoenix Stadium in - yes - good old Glendale? Coach Bill Belichick opened up one of his media sessions early in camp by cracking, "Just another day in paradise " He was joking, of course - training camp is more like that other, hotter place - but a good portion of Football America might have taken him seriously.

Belichick and Tom Brady. Ty Warren and Mike Vrabel. A year-wiser Laurence Maroney. A signed-sealed-and-delivered Asante Samuel.

Now add in Adalius Thomas, the human Swiss Army knife. Sic Randy Moss (when his hammy stops barking), Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker onto opposing secondaries. Cue up the tape of last year's AFC championship game loss to the Colts for motivation.

Now check the tire pressure on the bandwagon because it's surely straining under the load.

"I think fans are getting sick of it because everybody's picking the Patriots," former Pats backup quarterback Jim Miller, now a Sirius NFL Radio personality, said with a laugh. "A lot of the callers will call in and rip us as hosts because we're so (pro-Pats)."

The Patriots, of course, pooh-pooh all the talk, as they should. On the first day of camp, Harrison declared, "I'm telling you, most guys in our locker room - the Bruschis, the Seymours, the Bradys - we don't give a damn about what you (media) guys say as far as where you guys think we should be."

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi said the Patriots practice "selective hearing" when it comes to tuning out the preseason talk.

Still, you would had to have been duct-taped to a goalpost wearing ear plugs and a helmet on backward not to notice the buzz that surrounds the 2007 edition of the Patriots.

"The modern game is affected, I think, so much by the media because it's such a huge machine, much more so than it ever used to be," new tight end Kyle Brady said. "There are so many talking heads. I think Coach realizes that guys hear those things, and the more you get exposed to that kind of talk, the more likely you'll be affected by it. The talk this off-season has been nothing but good, the highest of praise."

The owner won't lie. He's heard it, too.

"I think the whole community it excited about this upcoming season," Robert Kraft noted at last week's Kickoff Gala dinner, "and I think maybe expectations have gotten a little bit beyond where it's reasonable.

Everybody is going to be gunning for us this year. I've already gotten that kind of feedback. I have people coming up to me all the time telling me that they've made plans for certain things. (Like, say, the Super Bowl?) And we haven't played a game yet."

But even Kraft won't begrudge his customers their joy.

"I understand why they're excited," he said. "I'm excited."

Nothing is guaranteed, certainly. Miller found that in 2002. The Patriots were the biggest NFL story in 2001, but Miller's Bears were a nice surprise, too, fashioning a 13-3 record. Big things, no doubt, were expected the following year, but Chicago crashed and burned at 4-12. No one's saying the Pats are headed down that road, but it's a collapse that Miller keeps in mind when making predictions.

"For us, it was playing 16 games on the road. If you remember, we played down in Champaign" that season while Soldier Field was refurbished, he said. "That was a challenge in itself. Injuries became a factor. I tore my rotator cuff and we had 14 or 15 starters on IR. All those variables play in."  So, what could scuttle the Patriots' Super Bowl master plan? Injuries and suspensions, obviously. But remember the Patriots have endured just about every calamity imaginable over the past six seasons - yes, even losing Tom Brady in the AFC title game after the 2001 season - and have always found a way to rise above adversity.

Brady could struggle to get on the same page with all his new targets, particularly Moss, who sat out all four preseason games. But he faced that same problem last year, with a much less talented receiving corps, and the Patriots had a 15-point lead at halftime in the conference final.

The schedule is a monster - Chargers, Bengals, Cowboys, Colts, Eagles,  Ravens, Steelers, Jets (twice, naturally). But the Patriots get three straight home games in December, which should be a nice crunch-time boost.

The AFC competition will be fierce. Peyton Manning is in his prime and has shed the monkey from his back, and LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers would have beaten the Patriots in the divisional round last year if they had played smarter. But San Diego has a new coaching staff and Indy has been pummeled by free agent losses, the surprise retirement of left tackle Tarik Glenn and the season-ending injury to defensive tackle Anthony McFarland.

"Talk about chinks in the armor," Miller said of the Colts. "I think it's too much to overcome. They've lost too much."  The Patriots, in contrast, have gained a lot. New players, first of all. And another giant bull's-eye on their back.

The hype, they say, is so much smoke - nothingness that means, well, nothing.

"That's an easy trap - to start looking ahead toward the future," Stallworth said. "If you continue to work hard and you continue to do the things that you're supposed to, day in and day out, then the future will be here sooner than later."

Guess Glendale Guy will have to cool his heels for a few months while the Patriots methodically plod on to the Promised Land.