FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Normally, when Bill Belichick says he doesn’t know something, it’s because he doesn’t want someone else to know something.

Trade secrets and such.

But when Belichick said last week he wasn’t sure what to expect from his New England Patriots this Sunday against the Tennessee Titans in the season opener, he was being quite candid.

“I don’t think you know anything right now,” he said in his Wednesday press conference. “This hasn’t been tested under fire. Things you think are going to be good might not be that great and things that you’re worried about might be OK.”

So, given that, should we be worried about the 2012 Patriots?


Tom Brady is healthy and the offense should still put up a lot of yards and points. The defense, fortified by some good young talent, should be improved.

Most media outlets pick the Patriots to win the AFC East (yawn) and go deep into the playoffs (yawn). Most Patriots fans (big yawn) expect such things.

But as you prepare to gather around the big screen today, we present, for your consideration, five keys to another Super Bowl run.

1. Let’s start with the revamped offensive line.

A lot has changed since last Feb. 5, when the Patriots lost 21-17 to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. Left tackle Matt Light, Brady’s blind-side protector, retired. Right guard Brian Waters never showed up at training camp. Right guard Logan Mankins, perhaps the best in the NFL, had knee surgery.

So the Patriots go into the season with a relatively untested offensive line. Mankins is back at his spot. Sebastian Vollmer will be the right tackle if he’s healthy (which has always been a problem). If Vollmer isn’t healthy, second-year tackle Marcus Cannon showed in the preseason he’s not quite ready to step in there.

Nate Solder, the 2011 first-round pick, will replace Light at left tackle. He didn’t look too secure in the preseason, but maybe that’s because Mankins wasn’t lined up next to him.

The center is likely to be Ryan Wendell, who was once cut from the Pats’ practice squad but has improved significantly. Dan Connolly, last year’s center after the now-departed Dan Koppen was injured, will be the right guard. At least for now. He might be the center if Wendell can’t cut it.

The Pats like to rotate linemen at every position, so it is conceivable someone we haven’t named will eventually become a starter.

Dante Scarnecchia is regarded as perhaps the best offensive line coach in the NFL. He might earn that title this year.

2. Defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower are not your average rookies. That’s why Belichick is starting both of them.

They are frightening to look at, in a good sense. Physically imposing. Menacing. Athletic.

They are everything the Patriots want this new defense to be.

They aren’t the only rookies to make the defense — five others will line up at some point — but the spotlight is shining most brightly on them.

Jones is a pass rusher and showed great skills in the preseason. He’s being compared to the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul, which is saying something, since everyone agrees that Pierre-Paul is one of a kind.

Hightower? Stood next to him once. Felt very, very, very small. I would not want to be tackled by him.

If these two play half as well as they look, the defense will take a huge step forward.

3. What can you say about Gronk?

Is Rob Gronkowski the best tight end in the NFL? Maybe unless Aaron Hernandez is.

The fact that both are on the Patriots — and signed for several more years — bodes well for the offense. There are few defenses that can cope with both.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski is a fun-loving beast. Fun-loving because off the field, he’s just a young man having fun. Beast because on the field, no one can tame him. He set NFL records last year for receiving yards and touchdowns by a tight end.

Hernandez is much quieter. There are no YouTube videos of him dancing (or worse) at parties. He didn’t grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated NFL preview issue.

But he’s equally dangerous. No one slips more tackles than he does after a catch.

He is a hybrid, equal parts wide receiver and tight end, which is why you will see him lined up on the outside much of the time.

That’s also why the Patriots kept only four wide receivers.

The Patriots have two other tight ends — Daniel Fells and the recently signed Michael Hoomanawanui — and another on injured reserve, with the new designation that he can return later in the season when healthy. That would be Visanthe Shiancoe.

4. Tom Brady is not a kid any more. He’s 35, and he seems to realize the clock is ticking on his career. Brady has said he wants to play until he’s 40. Maybe he will, but for now he needs to take advantage of the weapons he’s been given.

Right now, in the few times I’ve actually had a chance to listen to him this year, he seems more thoughtful in his responses, more cognizant of how hard it is to play in the NFL.

When you’re young and talented, football is a fun game. Hard, but fun.

When you’ve been around for a while, when you’ve seen good friends like Deion Branch, Dan Koppen and Brian Hoyer cut, well, some of the fun goes away.

Asked about those cuts the other day, Brady said it’s all part of the game and that as a player, you desensitize yourself to them.

“It’s not my decision,” he said. “So I can’t really think about it too much other than supporting your friends and what they’re going through.”

If he stays healthy, Brady is going to have another big year.

5. Based on last year’s records, the Patriots have the weakest schedule in the NFL.

The teams they play had a 2011 winning percentage of .453. Only four teams had nine wins or more.

The AFC East is really weak again. Figure the Pats to go 5-1 in the division.

The toughest stretch is in December, with back-to-back home games against Houston and San Francisco. Both are at night, when it promises to be plenty cold, and neither of those opponents are in cold-weather cities.

I figure the Pats will go 13-3. At worse 12-4. Another AFC East title. Another AFC championship game.


Tune in later. We’ll talk then.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH