Patriots Are Underdogs for First Time in Tom Brady-Bill Belichick Era Since 2006

Patriots Are Underdogs for First Time in Tom Brady-Bill Belichick Era Since 2006It's been a long journey through the league. NESN.com has broken down every NFL team over the last month, and with training camps set to open in the coming hours and days (unless you're in San Antonio), hopefully you've gotten a better grasp of each team around the league. The 32-day tour stops in New England, where we'll take a look at the Patriots, who are in the middle of a transition period.

2009 Record: 10-6, AFC East champions (lost to Ravens in wild card round) 

2010 Schedule Difficulty: Their opponents went a combined 136-120 (.531 winning percentage) in 2009, which makes for the sixth most difficult schedule in the NFL.

Key Additions: Wide receiver Torry Holt, tight end Alge Crumpler, defensive lineman Damione Lewis, defensive lineman Gerard Warren, wide receiver David Patten, cornerback Devin McCourty (draft), tight end Rob Gronkowski (draft), outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (draft), inside linebacker Brandon Spikes (draft), wide receiver Taylor Price (draft), tight end Aaron Hernandez (draft), punter Zoltan Mesko (draft) 

Key Losses: Linebacker Adalius Thomas, defensive back Shawn Springs, tight end Ben Watson, tight end Chris Baker, defensive end Jarvis Green

Burning Question: Are the Patriots underdogs again? For whatever it's worth, this is one of the very few seasons in the last decade that the Patriots aren’t considered on the short list as Super Bowl favorites. Surely, no one will count out Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the organization that has been a perennial contender for years, but it sounds like many outsiders would label the Saints, Chargers, Ravens, Colts and Jets as more talented teams (and maybe even add the Cowboys, Steelers, Packers and Vikings to that list).

It hasn’t happened often, but the Patriots have been in this position before during the Brady/Belichick era. They were underdogs heading into 2003 (when they won the Super Bowl), 2006 (when they lost in the AFC Championship) and possibly 2002 (when they missed the playoffs).

It's no secret that the Patriots are a hated team by the majority of 31 other fan bases, who have always been quick to point to the demise of New England's dynasty. But there's no team in all of sports over the last decade that has done a better job of igniting a fire from bulletin-board material, and the Patriots have plenty of that in 2010.

Obviously, outside expectations — especially months prior to the start of the regular season — are worth a heaping pile of nothing, but the Patriots have handled the underdog role well. Maybe that's a good thing for their upcoming season.

2010 Outlook: There are questions surrounding the pass rush, how the wide receivers will fare if Wes Welker isn’t himself, and the offensive line that will almost certainly be without left guard Logan Mankins. But Tom Brady is a year healthier, and the secondary will be improved with the emergence of left cornerback Darius Butler

The Patriots have a lot of good young players, but youth can be tough to rely upon, especially en masse. New England has a playoff team — and possibly one that is capable of winning the AFC East again — but if they want to achieve something greater, they'll need to discover a way to pressure opposing quarterbacks and hope their promising youngsters continue to pan out.

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