Through injuries and defections the show always seems to go on in New England.
And if their performance in Saturday night's preseason victory over Arizona was, in fact, a preview of the 2006 season, then Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense still will be worth the price of admission even without co-star Deion Branch, who has yet to report as he holds out for a new contract.
Asked after the game how he thought the situation would play out, leading man Brady said: "I don't know. I didn't think it would go on this long."
Brady had just completed 15 of 20 pass attempts for 149 yards in leading the Patriots to 13 points in two quarters of work. Whoever is out there with him, Brady finds a way to make it work.
Brady recently stood up for his friend and favorite target, telling SI.com that Branch was the most important player on New England's offense. We'll assume Brady was not including himself in that statement. As long as he's at quarterback, the Patriots could run you and me out there and score points.
Pass-catchers are to New England what running backs are to Denver.
Last year New England tied a league record with 12 players catching touchdowns. Four years ago, 11 Patriots had touchdown catches.
When the Patriots' defense struggled last season because of injuries, it proved that not even Bill Belichick could coach just anybody and win a Super Bowl. Great coaches are nothing without good players. But when you've got the best in the league at the game's most important position, it makes up for a lot of deficiencies on offense. New England doesn't have an offensive line of blue-chippers, but it doesn't matter because Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly. Talk to the Patriots' competitors about whether the dynasty is crumbling and they all say some variation of the same thing: As long as they've got Brady they aren't going away.
He makes all the difference. So honestly, it doesn't make a difference whether Branch shows up today or after 10 games. The Patriots' offense will be pretty good.
Think about the cast of characters New England has had at receiver since Brady became the starter in 2001. Branch, Troy Brown, and the departed Davids (Givens and Patten) all were key players during the Patriots' recent run, but New England also has won games, big games, with -- no disrespect -- scrubs: Fred Coleman. Donald Hayes. J.J. Stokes. Dedric Ward. Kevin Kasper. Tim Dwight. Andre Davis. Rod Rutledge. Jermaine Wiggins (he's gotten a lot better since 2001). Christian Fauria.
New England won't hesitate to spend an early-round draft choice on a wide receiver (six receivers or tight ends were selected on the first day since 2002), but never big money. Why? Because they've got a big-time quarterback who makes everyone around him better -- both linemen and receivers -- and a scheme designed to spread the wealth.
Brown made the Pro Bowl after the '01 season. That's it for New England receivers the past five seasons. That's not to say Branch, for one, doesn't have the ability to be a Pro Bowler. It's just that neither he nor anyone else will ever put up Pro Bowl numbers (and thus be paid accordingly) in this offense.