Patriots face obstacles in chase for fourth title

The 2005 season confronts a lot of history, starting with the Patriots.

What if the Patriots win their fourth Super Bowl?

Where does that put them in comparison to the "Steel Curtain" Steelers or the Joe Montana 49ers or the Vince Lombardi Packers? Four Super Bowls is the benchmark, and the Patriots are knocking on the door of greatness. The three Super Bowls they have already creates a great discussion point, four would just add to it. Plus it would give them three consecutive Super bowl titles, something that has never been done

At a young age, Tom Brady has put his name among the Hall of Fame greats with his ability to lead his offense to three Super Bowl victories. Bill Belichick ranks among the great coaches, having turned around his career and outcoached everyone during this run. Too bad Corey Dillon got such a late start, or he'd be right there with them. In Cincinnati, Dillon consistently put up 1,000-yard seasons on bad teams. Now, he's that running back that the great teams need -- one who consistently can gain 100 yards in games in November, December and January.

The Patriots have it all, but the fourth title might be their toughest challenge yet. Age is creeping into the roster, especially on defense. Ty Law left after being cut. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi had a stroke and is sitting out the season. Ted Johnson retired.

In addition to the players who are gone, the biggest test is to see how the Patriots bounce back from the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Sure, it's nice to say Belichick had been grooming Eric Mangini for years to take over the defense, but Crennel was a master of making the right defensive calls and coming up with imaginative packages. Mangini has never had to do that.

Watching Weis show the same type of play-calling mastery in Notre Dame's 42-21 victory over Pittsburgh on Saturday makes you wonder how the Patriots can replace that magic on offense. Weis is brilliant. Sure, it helps to have a quarterback such as Brady. But Weis and Brady had a special relationship that was a big part of Brady's success.

Their ability to seamlessly find ways to frustrate defenses with play calls was unmatched. Belichick also is brilliant and deserves credit for the success of the Patriots, but matching those play calls might be impossible. The Patriots will be good, but can they be as great without those calls from the coaching booth?

Thursday night against the Raiders, we'll start to find out.

Here are 10 other things to watch during the 2005 season:

1. Peace in Philly?

Eagles management was able to get T.O. to call a time out on his efforts to sabotage team chemistry. They threatened him with suspension and the loss of millions of dollars if he continued his calculated way of trying to draw attention to himself. They sent him home for a week during training camp, and he's been on good behavior since coming back, even though his relationship with Donovan McNabb is forever strained. But can Terrell Owens stop being T.O.? Let the distractions begin.

Heading into the Monday night opener against the Falcons, get ready for potential controversies. You know they are coming. Owens has lined up a radio show in Miami with columnist Dan LeBatard, and it is almost inevitable he will say something controversial. Owens didn't want to have a Philadelphia show because of how magnified everything would be if he said something bad about management or somebody on the team. Owens is too honest. He will say what's on his mind, and since he's never going to be happy about his current contract, you can be pretty sure he'll say something that Andy Reid, Joe Banner or McNabb aren't going to like. The Owens situation remains a ticking time bomb for the Eagles.

2. More from Manning

It will be difficult for Peyton Manning to repeat his 49-touchdown season of a year ago, but he can come close. The offense may be fatigued from traveling to Japan to play a preseason game, but it's still as efficient and as talented as ever. Plus, there is an extra incentive for Manning.

The hurricane damage in Louisiana gives the veteran QB a cause to rally around during the season. Manning won't forget what happened to the homes and people he grew up with in the New Orleans area. The man is a champion. Now, he has a cause. Already, Manning has been among the NFL leaders in getting involved with charity and relief work for the victims of the hurricane. The great ones -- and Manning is a great one -- seem to be able to find ways of making history with a flair. Having a Super Bowl year when he has such a forum to do good for struggling people would only be fitting.

Everyone knows how good the Colts' offense is. Only mistakes and the Patriots tend to stop them. What's great for Colts fans is what general manager Bill Polian has been doing in the last week to fix up the defense, adding defensive tackle Corey Simon and linebacker Rocky Calmus. This could be a special year for the Colts.

3. What's next for Saints?

The Saints season could go in any dirction. Hurricane Katrina knocked the team out of New Orleans. Many of the players and coaches and front office executives will find out this week whether they lost their homes. It's so hard to predict how the Saints will play on the field. Jim Haslett is a good coach, and he has one of the most talented teams in the NFC South. This team will either rally around the tragedy or fall apart. Don't bet against the rally.

The odds are truly against the Saints, though. They won't play a game in the Superdome. The league already made it tough on them by moving their first home game against the Giants to the Meadowlands. Many Saints players are in San Antonio with just the clothes they took for their trip to Oakland to play the Raiders last week in a preseason game. Football is the only diversion from the reality of the tragedy that struck the Gulf Coast while they were away. This is obviously going to be an extremelly difficult season for the Saints, but don't bet against them coming together as a team under these circumstances.

4. Instant impact

The headline trade of 2004 was the deal that sent Clinton Portis to Washington and Champ Bailey to Denver. As great as Champ is -- he's still the most talented cover guy in football -- his arrival didn't really change things in Denver. Mike Shanahan still won his 10 games, and the Broncos still were pummeled through the air in the playoffs (by the Colts). In Washington, Portis lived up to his billing as a running back, but the Redskins still finished 6-10. Great trade, but in the end it didn't do much.

The Randy Moss trade was the headliner in 2005. Moss should add a touchdown a game to a Raiders offense that scored 20 point per contest last season. Kerry Collins has a great deep arm, and no receiver in recent memory can consistently catch deep passes and make great plays as well as Moss. But will the Moss trade make the Raiders a winner? Probably not.

Their defense gave up 27 points a game last year, and it's still shaky. Oakland switched back to a 4-3 from a 3-4 and that seems to be a more comfortable fit on the field. The Raiders finished 5-11 last season and have a tough opening schedule. Team chemistry might not be able to handle a bad start against the Patriots, Chiefs, Eagles and Cowboys. Credit Al Davis and Mike Lombardi with a great trade, acquiring Moss for a cheap price. But it may only mean a two-game improvement in the standings if the defense isn't better.

5. Feeling Minnesota

The Vikings are actually better without Moss. No, they can't replace him. But the Mariners and Rangers couldn't replace Alex Rodriguez, either, and both teams ended up being better. The Vikings are better because they worked at it, and that work could put them over the top and get them to a Super Bowl. They got better on defense with the money they didn't pay Moss. In 10 of the 11 defensive starting spots, the Vikings have first- and second-round picks. Daunte Culpepper now has an offensive unit that responds to his every play call. Nate Burleson is a Chad Johnson-like receiver who could be ready to explode. Mike Tice knows how to coach these guys, and they will be better without Moss.

6. Ground attack

Going to training camps this summer, it's clear that the NFL is loaded with great running backs. Just about every team has a back who can produce 100-yard games on a weekly basis. Some have more than one. This might have been the best running back draft in a decade or so. Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams and Cedric Benson each have 1,600-yard potential in future seasons. The NFL is coming off a season in which Curtis Martin, Shaun Alexander, Dillon, Edgerrin James, Tiki Barber, Rudi Johnson, LaDainian Tomlinson and Portis each gained more than 1,300 yards.

Jamal Lewis is back with the Ravens and is playing for a contract. He's a free agent after the season and isn't happy the team is thinking of franchising him. Kevin Jones finished the last eight games with 906 yards and could be a 1,600-yard back this year for the Lions. Willis McGahee of the Bills is ready to claim his spot among the league's best. Watch for Julius Jones in Dallas and Steven Jackson in St. Louis to have big seasons as second-year players. And let's not forget Priest Holmes of the Chiefs, Deuce McAllister of the Saints, and Ahman Green of the Packers.

7. Safety first

Player safety is going to be a big issue this year. That's probably bad news for the Broncos and Falcons. More flags and fines may be enforced if their offensive lines cause more injuries with cut and chop blocks. There will be no more horse collar tackles by Cowboys safety Roy Williams. Injuries have been increasing for years. For the past couple of years, the league took the position that the number of injuries had been the same. Finally, last year they recognized that injuries were increasing.

8. On the defensive

Perhaps the most fascinating transition is how many teams are trying to incorporate elements of the 3-4 defense. The Cowboys, 49ers and Browns are switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4. The Ravens are going back to the 4-3. And you wonder, after watching the Patriots struggle with run defense in their 3-4 without Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson during the first two preseason games, if Bill Belichick might switch back to a 4-3 because he has better defensive linemen than linebackers? Just a thought.

Not every team can go 3-4. It's costly against the salary cap, because more defensive players have to get bigger paychecks. Still, it's interesting to watch the transition. Because they have a great nose tackle in Jamal Williams, the Chargers won 12 games thanks to their move to a 3-4 last year. Good 3-4 defenses shut down the run, and they have linebackers who can drop into zones to cover for deficiencies at cornerback.

9. Sophomore slump?

Will Ben Roethlisberger have a sophomore slump? The Steelers don't think so, but you can see he has hit a little bit of a wall. The book on Roethlisberger is to force him out of the pocket to his left. Roethlisberger is at his best when he's throwing on his run to the right, but he tends to throw high when he's throwing to his left. Here's the bad news for the league. What if Roethlisberger figures out how to do well against defenses pushing him to the left? He won 15 games as a rookie and didn't know what he was doing. He has Culpepper-like talent. He's a winner, and he's talented. That's a deadly combination.

10. Mixed signals

It's hard to put pressure on one player to carry a team, but that's the NFL. When you saw the Bears in camp, it was easy to see they would go as far as Rex Grossman would lead them. Lovie Smith has assembled a top-10 defense, and the offensive line and overall offensive talent was better than a year ago. But Grossman went down with a broken leg, and there went the Bears season.

Three other teams also are totally dependent on the successes of their quarterbacks -- the Ravens, the Redskins and the Bills. In some ways, they are all the same teams. Each is great -- not just good, but great -- on defense. Each has an excellent ground attack. Each has a great offensive-minded head coach. But QBs J.P. Losman of the Bills, Kyle Boller of the Ravens and Patrick Ramsey of the Redskins look as though they will be inconsistent. If they are too inconsistent, they will hold back playoff-caliber teams. Maybe they will all come on this year. They are all former first-round choices. But decision-making has been difficult at times for all three, with too many bad throws and bad reads during the preseason.

You notice I didn't mention Joey Harrington. That wasn't an oversight. While it's totally up to Harrington to lead the team, the Lions don't have the defensive talent to compare to the Bills, Ravens and Redskins. But Harrington is under a lot of pressure just the same.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.