FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Check out any football magazine, any sports website, even Sports Illustrated. When you look at the AFC East predictions, the New England Patriots are no longer listed as top dog.

Instead the New York Jets, stars of the HBO show “Hard Knocks,” are considered the team to beat in the division.

“The good thing about it is that I don’t read nothing,” said Laurence Maroney, the Patriots’ running back.

“We’ve just got to go out there and play our football. That’s it.”

The Patriots are paying no heed to those who predict their star is dimming. Even as their roster continues to shift almost daily, they maintain the same trust in each other and their coaches that they’ve always had.

“I don’t think the Patriots, starting with Coach (Bill Belichick), go into the season looking to prove anything to anyone about ourselves,” said fifth-year kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

“We believe we have a good football team, the coaches believe we’ll play like a good football team. If everyone works hard and does the right thing, results will happen.”

The Patriots have weathered worse circumstances than being picked to finish second in a division they have won seven times since 2001, the start of their mini-dynasty. There was Spygate, where the team was accused of cheating. There was Tom Brady’s knee injury in the first game of the 2008 season.

Being picked to finish second? Doesn’t come close to making the players think twice.

“We’re a team that takes it one day at a time, one game at a time,” said Gostkowski. “We don’t look ahead. We don’t think about the playoffs when the season’s just starting. We’re not thinking about the first game of the year when the first day of training camp opens.

“We just focus on things that we can control and whatever anybody else does or says about us or to us is just something that’s distracting us from our task, which is winning.”

Certainly this is a franchise in transition. Only 13 players remain from the team that went 19-1 in the 2007 season, the only loss coming in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.

Only seven players remain from the Patriots’ last title team in the 2004 season, a 24-21 victory against Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.

There are questions, especially on defense, where three expected starters — defensive end Ty Warren, cornerback Leigh Bodden and safety Brandon McGowan — were lost for the season to injuries and another — linebacker Derrick Burgess — was cut last week. The cornerbacks will now be Darius Butler, a second-year player out of Connecticut, and rookie Devin McCourty, the team’s first pick from Rutgers.

Offensively, Tom Brady is back and happy after getting his four-year contract extension, with a reportedly unhappy Randy Moss and seemingly healthy Wes Welker his top targets. But the rest of Brady’s pass targets are inexperienced, including rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and the line is still missing starters Logan Mankins (holdout) and Nick Kaczur (back).

“We’ve got to find a different way to do it than in the past because we don’t have a lot of the same guys here,” said Brady. “It’s a different makeup to the team. We’re still trying to find ways to identify what we’re doing, and we’re going to have that all figured out this week, or next week, or the following week.

“It’s going to take some time to really figure out the young guys who can contribute.”

Marvin Lewis, the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals — New England’s opening opponent today at Gillette Stadium — certainly isn’t looking past this team.

“Tom Brady starts there, they have offensive weapons,” said Lewis. “They have retooled a little bit but they still have them. Defensively they are making the transition into younger guys than some of the older guys last time we faced them (in 2007). This is a well-coached team.”

And that’s why the expectations haven’t changed.

“Guys are always talking about football all the time here and everybody is picking everybody up and making sure we’re on the right track, doing the right thing,” said Gostkowski. “We’re all a team here. We’re all professionals and all pull for each other and listen to what coaches say, and hopefully they’re guiding us in the right direction. Everybody is playing hard and practicing hard.

“That’s all we can ask for.”

Belichick, asked about the preseason predictions, said none of that matters.

“I’m just trying to get the team ready to play against Cincinnati and go out there and play a good football team,” he said. The rest of it doesn’t really mean too much to me.”

Nor to anyone else on the team.

“We’ve just got to try to win,” said right guard Stephen Neal. “Nothing else matters. We’ve just got to try to win each week.”


Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]