Great expectations await Patriots

New England Patriots players will arrive on the fields behind Gillette Stadium shortly after 1 p.m. on Thursday for the opening practice of training camp, the first sign that football season is, indeed, right around the corner.

And with it, for the Patriots, come some of the highest expectations of Bill Belichick's 13 seasons as the team's head coach. They are viewed by many as a top Super Bowl contender, with good reason.

They look loaded on offense, and after Bill Belichick approached the draft and free agency with 3-D vision -- defense, depth, and more defense -- there is hope for a much-needed turnaround on that side of the ball (arguably the key to the entire season).

Take a glance around the rest of the not-as-strong-as-it-once-was American Football Conference, and it's no wonder many point to the Patriots as the team to make a return trip to the Super Bowl. Should it happen, they'd be looking to become the first team in 39 years to win a championship the year after losing the Super Bowl, avoiding the so-called "Curse of the Super Bowl loser."

Such expectations and anticipation are nothing new to the franchise at this time of year, as Belichick has set the bar high since leading the Patriots to three Super Bowl titles in his first five years as coach. These are arguably some of the highest, maybe just below the much-hyped 2007 preseason, when Randy Moss, Wes Welker and then-marquee free-agent signing Adalius Thomas were making their Patriots debuts. It didn't take long that summer to realize something special might be happening.

Maybe 2012 will be similar, which is why the bleachers and hillside surrounding the team's two practice fields at Gillette Stadium will almost surely be packed for Thursday afternoon's opening workout. There is almost always hope with a fresh start, and for Patriots followers, Thursday marks an official turning of the page from the heartbreak of Super Bowl XLVI, just as 2007 training camp offered the same from the previous season's crushing AFC Championship Game loss to Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

It's a fresh start for players as well, which was evidenced in spring camps when Belichick had them practice without jersey numbers. The idea was that because there was such roster turnover -- 31 of the 89 players on the training-camp roster are in their first year with the club, a total that doesn't include those returning from other teams such as Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth -- so Belichick wanted them all to get to know one another and communicate better on the field.

While the numberless practices made it difficult to identify most players, it wasn't hard to spot quarterback Tom Brady, who will undoubtedly get the loudest cheer Thursday and whose presence is at the heart of the high expectations hovering above. Those can be a curse for some teams, but Belichick's Patriots don't seem to have that problem.

"I think the more mature you are, from the top down, those situations don't have a factor on the season," former Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin opined in an interview with ESPNBoston.com. "My years there [2003-08], we were certainly a mature team, an older team. You know Bill always has things on an even keel, and when it's the same with ownership and management, it trickles down to the team and locker room."

Colvin recalled a sign on the door at Gillette Stadium about ignoring the outside noise, and also how Belichick stresses the simple mantra, "Do your job."

"That's the one quote I'll always remember, the one I teach my kids, and tell my employees," said Colvin, who is happy in retirement in Indianapolis, where he owns a UPS Store and does media work on the side. "I just feel like those expectations were always addressed and that quote sums it up, and that's what makes Bill who he is, on the cutting edge, making sure things are done the proper way."

The Patriots' journey officially begins Thursday. Unlike past years, there are no potential contract issues that could present a distraction (Welker ensured that), so it's all football.

The music will be blaring, the crowds should be overflowing, and the high expectations, as always, will be there as well.