Here are ten things worth keeping an eye on in Sunday’s opener between the Patriots and Bengals at Gillette Stadium:
The Patriots’ defensive backs against the Cincinnati wide receivers: The most high-profile matchup of the afternoon. Can Devin McCourty and Darius Butler stop Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens? Butler and Ochocinco have already engaged in some playful trash talk (which got Butler in some trouble with Patriots coach Bill Belichick), and Ochocinco has threatened to shoot off one of the minutemen’s muskets if he scores.
For what it’s worth, Belichick-led defenses have always managed to pretty much hold both Ochocinco and Owens in check: in four regular-season games, Ochocinco has averaged 3.5 catches and 49 yards per game with one touchdown against the Patriots, while in five career games against the Patriots, Owens has 22 catches for 315 yards and two touchdowns. (In two meetings last year between the Bills and Patriots, Owens had four catches for 66 yards.)
“I would hope Belichick would have the best game for his team and his defense to stop the dynamic duo,” Owens told Cincinnati-area reporters this week. “We’re going up there to win the game and at the same time put on a show and have fun. We’re not trying to disappoint any of the fans by any means. It’s going to be Batman (Owens) and Robin (Chad Ochocinco) and Alfred (quarterback Carson Palmer) all year long.”
Stopping the run: While the Bengals derive much of their identity from the combination of Palmer and wide receivers Ochocinco and Owens, in truth, they are more of a physical, grind-it-out team that loves to run the football. The Cincinnati ground game is powered by Cedric Benson, who had a career-best 1,251 yards on 301 carries in 13 games last season, including a team-record six 100-yard games). Last we saw the New England run defense, the Ravens were abusing it in the postseason when Ray Rice and Baltimore rolled up 234 yards on the ground. If Benson and the Bengals can get untracked early and get a second-half lead, expect a steady dose of the running game from Cincinnati in hopes of milking the clock. If the Patriots are going to win this game, they have to do whatever they can to stop the run early and turn the Bengals into a one-dimensional team. That leads us into our next point….
Control the tempo: While there are questions about the New England defense, there are no such concerns about the offense. And because of that, the Patriots will focus on playing complimentary football, with the offense doing whatever it can to help out the defense. And while the quick-strike capability of Brady and Moss has its place, there’s also something to be said for a grind-it-out second-half drive that could control the clock and keep the Cincinnati offense off the field. If New England is able to get a double-digit lead in the second half, look for the Patriots to lean on their running game in an attempt to dictate the tempo and force the Bengals into being a one dimensional team — which would be a big boost to the New England defense.
Running strong: If the Patriots are able to get that second-half lead, expect a heavy dose of Fred Taylor. The 34-year-old — the oldest player on the New England roster — is now the closest thing the Patriots have to a feature back, and is expected to get the bulk of the carries out of the gate. (When it comes to his performance against Cincinnati, in eight career games against the Bengals, he’s averaged 84 yards a game and 4.5 yards per carry.) He will be backed up by Sammy Morris, but there remains a strong chance that Laurence Maroney will not play — he’s been nursing a thigh injury all week, and was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report.
New England’s slot receivers: Wes Welker is aiming to be back for his first regular-season action since he tore up his knee last January against the Texans. Even if Welker is not at 100 percent — as he said was the case this week — if you’re the Cincinnati defense, his mere presence must be accounted for, and that means more opportunities for single coverage with the rest of the New England receivers. (One thing to watch for — Welker has caught at least one pass in each of his 49 games with the Patriots, and a 63-game streak dating back to his days with the Dolphins.)
However, the health of the Patriots’ slot receivers remains an issue: while Welker has been working his way back from last year’s knee injury, Julian Edelman has been dealing with a foot injury since the preseason, and missed the last two preseason games (he was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report). If both are unable to go, look for New England to open in the same offensive formation it used for much of the preseason — a tight-end heavy set with two receivers, no slot presence and one back behind Brady.
Randy Moss: On the heels of a memorable preseason where he made a whole lot of defensive backs look foolish, there is a feeling Moss could be on the cusp of a special year, and history tells us that could begin in Sunday’s regular-season opener. Moss has always made it a point to elevate his game when his team is facing Owens — in last year’s regular-season opener against the T.O. and the Bills, Moss caught 12 passes for 141 yards. In addition, his three season openers with the Patriots, No. 81 has averaged nine catches and 147 yards, and he has two touchdown catches. Despite the fact that Cincinnati’s corners Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph will almost certainly provide a stern opening test for the New England receivers (the Bengals yielded only 18 passing touchdowns in 2009), history tells us Moss could be in for a big opener.
Many happy returns: The Patriots got some excellent performances out of their punt and kick return game in the preseason, with Brandon Tate (one kick returned for touchdown) and Devin McCourty (on kick returns) and Edelman (on punt returns) providing the Patriots with some excellent field position — in their four preseason games, their average starting field position was their own 30-yard line. A year after the Patriots got very little out of either spot, the return game now figures to be a position of strength for New England, and could make a big difference in Sunday’s opener.
The rookie tight ends: Over the course of the preseason, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined to make a formidable duo, one that could ultimately change the face of the New England passing game with their versatility and dependability. While Brady has built a relationship with receivers like Moss, Deion Branch and Troy Brown over the years, he’s never been able to boast of a consistent threat at the tight end spot. That time could be now.
Pressuring the passer: Since the start of the 2009 season, the Patriots have failed to deliver consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks — their 31 sacks was one of the fewest in the AFC and one of the lowest of the Belichick Era. Will things change in 2010? The Patriots get their chance to start all over again on Sunday. When it comes to the opener, Cincinnati’s Carson Palmer isn’t overly sackable (he was sacked 26 times last season, tied for 15th overall). He’ll be pursued by Tully Banta-Cain and Marques Murrell, who are likely penciled in as the starters at outside linebacker, with help coming from veteran Rob Ninkovich and rookie Jermaine Cunningham, the latter of whom missed all four preseason games but is likely OK to go on Sunday afternoon.
Opening with style: The Patriots have always had a flair for the dramatic when it comes to regular-season openers. Five of the nine openers under Belichick have been extremely memorable affairs, and that’s not even including last year’s come-from-behind win over the Bills at Gillette Stadium. In all, they’ve won all eight of their home openers at Gillette Stadium, and 13 of their last 15 home openers.