If you have tuned into this column looking for bold predictions for the 2013 New England Patriots, I apologize for only having one: Rob Gronkowski will play in the opener against the Buffalo Bills (Editor’s note: Whitehouse is 0-for-1. Gronk was downgraded to out on Saturday night).

Sure, I could forecast yet another AFC East championship, but that is a given. The Jets are such a joke people are starting to feel sorry for Rex Ryan. The Bills have finished above .500 once in the last 13 years. The Dolphins are overrated by the bitter American football fan and media aching for somebody, anybody to take down those arrogant meanies in Foxborough.

The Patriots are second only to the Atlanta Braves in proving the meaninglessness of division titles. Patriots fans know this. Although they are often accused of not appreciating the ride Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have brought them on, they are all too aware that 36-year-old Brady’s elite QB clock is approaching midnight. They are greedy for a fourth Lombardi Trophy because they know it will be a long time before they get a whiff of another one once No. 12 is gone.

A preseason scare reminded everyone just how much those hopes rest with Brady’s health. But as the Patriots have morphed into a facsimile of Peyton Manning’s Colts, we also have proof that Brady cannot carry them to a title. The old guy needs some help.

Gronkowski’s health is almost as vital as Brady’s. Assuming the Patriots aren’t rushing him back, the tight end’s presence will make everything easier for the offense — easier to create mismatches, easier to run the ball, easier to get the young receivers integrated, and infinitely easier in the red zone. Assuming Gronkowski is close to his former self after being opened and reopened and has to be accounted for at every snap by the defense, the Patriots will not miss Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez or Brandon Lloyd.

Admittedly, those are some pretty big assumptions. The Patriots can win the division without Gronkowski, which is why I’m worried bringing him back any time before mid-October is an unnecessary risk. They need him more in January,. But maybe Belichick is willing to take the chance because he thinks he needs defenses to fear a Gronk Spike to help ease the transition for all of the new players.

Injury concerns hover over Aqib Talib, as well. He’s never played a full schedule in his career and he’s started more than 13 games once. We saw the dramatic affect his absence has on the defense, as much psychological as anything, when he injured his foot in the first quarter of the AFC Championship.

The numbers back up why the Patriots should value Talib so much. In 2012, they played nine games without Talib. They gave up 49 passes of 20 yards or more and 15 of 30-or-more in those games. In the seven games he played, they gave up 25 completions of 20-or-more and just seven of 30-or-more. Their success rate in stopping teams on third down pre- and post-Talib reinforce his importance.

Talib’s presence has a ripple effect on the rest of the secondary, especially the roles of Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington. If he is on the field, both are pretty solid playmakers. If he is not, their weaknesses in coverage are more readily exposed. Simply put, Talib makes them an average secondary. Without him, they are one of the worst in the league.

Whether Talib is on the field or not, the secondary could use some help from a more consistent pass rush.  The whole defense could use a disrupting force who makes quarterbacks nervous enough to occasionally rush a pass into coverage or cough up the football on a sack.

In Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, the Patriots have the beef to push the middle of the pocket. They need someone to be a terror on the edge. Now in his second year, Chandler Jones could be poised to become an elite pass rusher.

We saw flashes last year. We probably would have seen more if Jones (warning: fanboy alert) weren’t the victim of so many unflagged holds. Jones’ development into a 12-15 sack/year end would vault the Patriots’ front seven into one of the best in the NFL, and that would cover up a lot of the secondary’s flaws.

Not that these are the only Patriots to watch. Dont’a Hightower needs to start justifying his first-round pick status and not just occasionally tease us with his athleticism like he did his rookie year. Danny Amendola seemed to be developing a good rapport with Brady in preseason, but then he got hurt, and Patriots fans will be holding their breath every time he gets tackled.

Shane Vereen could have a breakout year. Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer can do a lot to assure Brady’s health and accuracy if they continue to develop. At least one of the rookie receivers will have to earn Brady’s trust.

But beyond Brady, the trio of Gronkowski, Talib and Jones will have the most say in how close the Patriots get to Lombardi IV. They are the players that are most likely to help the Patriots stand out in an NFL where, once again, every team has at least one serious flaw.

Of course, it could all be moot if Stephen Gostkowski can’t make a clutch kick in January. Now that’s something Patriots fans should really worry about.

Follow Randy Whitehouse on Twitter @RAWMaterial33


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