Here’s everything you need to know about Sunday’s season opener between the Patriots and Raiders:
Our three favorite matchups on the afternoon:
1. Quarterback Tom Brady against free safety Charles Woodson: At 37, Woodson is no longer the elite-level defensive back he once was, but to paraphrase Darrelle Revis, he’s still able to make plays. (The level of respect for Woodson is so great that Bill Belichick apparently put on film of Woodson’s work in team meetings this week, a reminder that the surefire Hall of Famer is still capable of pulling off some impressive plays.) Brady talked fondly about him on Wednesday, and Revis added to the praise on Thursday. The byplay between Brady and Woodson should be engaging on Sunday; maybe one of the most compelling matchups on what might otherwise be a relatively uneventful afternoon. Woodson has had 57 picks over the course of his 17-year career (he’s had at least one a year dating back to 1998), but has never been able to get one against Brady. While nothing is set in stone, this might be Woodson’s final chance to get one off his old college pal. At the very least, Woodson would love to gain a small level of revenge for the Snow Bowl/Tuck Rule contest.
2. Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork against running back Darren McFadden: In his seventh season, McFadden is no longer the elite multidimensional threat he once was, but he’s still able to do plenty of damage offensively. The 6-foot-1, 218-pounder had a good week last week against the Texans, running well between the tackles. While the numbers weren’t overwhelming — 12 carries, 27 yards and a touchdown — with Maurice Jones-Drew a question mark because of a hand issue, he could be the Raiders best shot on the ground against the Patriots. Wilfork and the rest of the New England defense has been excellent against the pass, but struggled against the run, yielding 122.5 rushing yards per game (tied for 21st in the league). Oakland loves running between the tackles, which means it’ll be Wilfork who will likely handle the bulk of the duties. From this viewpoint, if Derek Carr is going to have a chance, he’s going to need plenty of good complementary football from the rest of the Raiders, and on offense, that starts with a big contribution from McFadden and the rest of the running game.
3. Left tackle Nate Solder against outside linebacker Khalil Mack: Mack is probably the best young defensive prospect the Raiders have had in some time, and over the course of his first two games, has appeared to line up mostly opposite the left tackle. Used both as a linebacker in their regular defense and a defensive end in Oakland’s sub packages, the rookie out of Buffalo has flashed very positively on occasion, working as a disruptive force off the edge. (Though two games, he has 12 tackles, two of them for a loss, as well as one pass defensed.) He’ll likely get a healthy dose of Solder, who has held up relatively well over the course of the first two games of the season. If the Patriots follow the same course of action they did last week against the Vikings (and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them do this, given the fact that the Raiders are the worst run defenses in the league), expect an extra tackle to work as a tight end to provide help in the running game. (Last week, it was rookie Cameron Fleming.) Bill Belichick had plenty of good things to say about Mack this week, calling him ‘disruptive,’ as well as ‘fast’ and ‘explosive.’ It’ll be interesting to see how he matches up with Solder.
4. Under the radar opponent who Patriots’ fans need to know: There are a handful of offensive skill position players who are relatively anonymous faces, but one relatively intriguing prospect who might get a chance against the Patriots is Latavius Murray, a second-year player out of Central Florida. He didn’t play last season (a foot injury landed him on injured reserve) but had 23 carries for 94 yards in the preseason for the Raiders. Murray has flashed positively as a kick returner this season, averaging 24.3 yards per return in seven chances ‘ and if Jones-Drew continues to have issues with his hand, Murray could get an opportunity against the Patriots.
5. By the numbers (tie): 4 — Per NFL gamebooks, the number of Patriots who have played every single offensive or defensive snap to this point in the season. On the offensive side of the ball, it’s Brady and Solder. On defense, it’s been linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower. (Last year after eight games, the Patriots had eight players who hadn’t taken a single snap off: Brady, Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins.)
6. Quote of note: No single phrase stood out for us this week more than the word “savvy.” On four different occasions, this reporter heard Patriots players use it to describe Oakland, usually in conjunction when asked about the collective age of the Raiders. (They are, on average, the oldest team in the league.)
7. Patriots fans should be worried about… the fear of the unknown, particularly when it comes to Carr. Sunday will mark his first ever start against New England and only his third career start at the NFL level. The Fresno State product has distinguished himself with two decent performances to this point — the 6-foot-3, 214-pounder has gone 47-for-74 passes for 414 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions while adding 55 rushing yards in two games, both losses for the Raiders. The simple fact that they haven’t faced him is enough in itself to insure that Belichick has been able to keep his defense a little wary about the prospect of facing a rookie signal-caller. If Carr has the ability to surprise, it could come with his ability to keep plays alive with his feet and maneuver out of the pocket once things break down. (To that point, several defensive players we spoke with this week talked about the importance of gap discipline when facing a potentially shifty quarterback like Carr.) As we wrote here, it’s worth mentioning that Carr has the opportunity to make history against the Patriots: Since 2001, no rookie QB in his first or second start against the Patriots in his first year in the league has beaten Belichick in New England. (In that span, Belichick has faced rookie quarterbacks on 19 occasions, and New England is 14-5 against them. However, none of those losses have come at home.)
8. Raiders fans should be worried about… the Patriots executing their offensive game plan, which involves jumping to an easily lead and sitting on the ball over the course of the second half with a bunch of grind-it-out drives. The Raiders enter the contest as the worst team in the league against the run, having yielded an average of 200 yards per game in their first two contests. Expect a heavy dose of Stevan Ridley throughout the contest — dating back to last November, the LSU product has put together a regular-season and playoff streak of 98 consecutive touches without a fumble. If he can build on his 101-yard performance last week against the Vikings and reach the century mark again, chances are good New England will win — since 2001, the Patriots are 38-1 when they have a running back hit the century mark. Given Ridley’s recent run and the Raiders woes against the run, it seems like a safe bet for Sunday.
9. One more thing: It’s interesting to watch the continued attempts to try and get tight end Rob Gronkowski up to speed. The big fella has played less than half the snaps to this point in the season — 38 of 86 in the opener against Miami, and 28 of 67 last week against the Vikings — and is still clearly working his way back to 100 percent. From this viewpoint, the Patriots appear to be gradually increasing his workload over the start of the regular season, with an eye toward having him as something close to a full-go next week when they head to Kansas City for a date with the Chiefs. They would then be able to build on that the following week against the Bengals, and have him at full strength for a five-game stretch from early November to early December that includes tough road games against the Colts, Packers and Chargers. Ultimately, as it relates to this week, it appears he’d be in the 50-75 percent range when it came to total snaps.