A look at the week ahead for the New England Patriots, and their quest for a fourth ring.
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I can’t wait to hear the melodious tones of Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf (a HOF alliteration broadcast team) once again. I can’t wait to have a heart attack every time I see Stephen Gostkowski in a close game. I can’t wait to come up with a new Patriots drinking game (last year’s “drink every time you see Vince Wilfork’s belly” game went HORRIBLY for everyone involved). It’s football baby. Get into it.
Key Matchup: CJ Spiller vs. Pats’ LB Crew
As I’ve said before, CJ Spiller is a frightening man. Outside of Adrian Peterson, Dougie Martin, and (once upon a time) Chris Johnson, there isn’t a bigger home-run hitter of a running back in the NFL. Every sweep run to the outside, every screen pass, I’m holding my breath til the end of the play. Last year, you could always rely on Fred Jackson stealing carries from Spiller, but no longer. The Bills have given Spiller the full-time job, and, with either EJ Manuel or Jeff Tuel helming the QB spot, he’ll be pretty much be handed the keys to the Bills’ offense. Of course, the question is, can Spiller adjust to such an increased workload. It’s hard to see Spiller averaging 6 yards a carry again, and you can be sure defenses will be keeping tabs on the Clemson product first and foremost.
Which brings us to the Patriots’ linebackers. Despite all of the Patriots purported defensive issues (I refuse to talk about their secondary until I’m emotionally stable), and their continued reputation as a bend-don’t-break unit, they have been solid against the run. And Bill Belichick has three linebackers at his disposal to plan accordingly for Spiller and the Bills’ running game. Jerod Mayo, arguably the best linebacker in the AFC East, is as smart as they come, and is the last player to make a mental mistake or not wrap up on the slippery Spiller.
Want to run up the middle? Say hello to Brandon Spikes, who rejoices in laying out backs who somehow made it past Wilfork. On the other side is Dont’a Hightower, who impressed in his rookie season, and is primed to make a jump in his sophomore year.
Look for Belichick to come into Buffalo with a defensive strategy to contain the wily CJ Spiller, and force EJ Manuel to make plays instead.
3 Pregame Questions
1.What can the rooks really do?
This is a big one. It’s hard to put too much faith in preseason games, which become less about finding a rhythm and more just seeing what you have in terms of personnel. Defenses may gamble a bit more, secondaries filled to the brim with rookies and castoffs and the odd future Pro-Bowler (my life-size bronze statue of Duron Harmon is still in the development stages), prospects given more snaps than known veteran commodities.
That being said, it’s hard not to get insanely excited about wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld(or as Pops insists on calling him, Malik Sutcliffe). The undrafted Cincinnati grad Thompkins outshined the much higher-regarded Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce, and showed both an impressive ability to get off the line of scrimmage and an uncanny connection with Tom Brady. This last point is HUGE. With an offense in such definite flux, and with Danny Amendola almost certainly the focus of most defenses, the Patriots need all the help they can get from Thompkins.
As for Sudfeld, let’s just say that he’s not only miles above what Daniel Fells or Michael Hoomanawanui could give the team, but fills a desperate need for the Patriots at receiving tight end, with the absence of Rob Gronkowski and the tight end whose name I can’t really mention without crying.
Not only that, but Sudfeld should be a nice counter to Gronk when the star returns. If we utilize Muppet analogies (which I always do), Gronk is Animal: wild, virtuosic, huge playmaking ability (Gronk became one of the few big-play offensive players, Animal could always be counted on to unwittingly bail out the Muppet crew when they were in trouble, usually with explosives), raucous celebrations (the Gronk Spike, the Animal Drum Solo), and undeniably awesome.
On the other hand, if all goes well, Sudfeld can be Rowlf: dependable, more quietly virtuosic (Sudfeld as pass-catcher, Rowlf as piano/harmonica player), and best used sparingly (Rowlf’s asides are always hilarious, and while Sudfeld may not strike fear in the hearts of D-Coordinators, he should be sneaky good on third down). Plus they weirdly look alike (Rowlf’s ears, Sudfeld’s golden locks). Basically, long live the Malik Sutcliffe era! Sunday’s game will be the first good look we get at the two rookies and will be a good insight into how the Pats will use them this season.
2. What will we see out of Chandler Jones this year?
If you’re like me, you feel cheated by Chandler Jones’ rookie season. Despite reservations (including mine) about his being no more than a project, Jones exploded out of the gate, putting up 6 sacks, 8 hits, and 20 hurries in his first 8 games. Then he got injured, and his explosiveness visibly decreased. While Jones’ production decreased severely in the second half of the season, his numbers in pressuring the QB still put him above players like Jason Pierre-Paul, Elvis Dumervil, Will Smith, and John Abraham.
A healthy Chandler Jones should prove to be one of the best pass-rushing defensive ends in the game. Luckily, Week 1 brings a promising matchup for the 23-year old player, as he faces Cordy Glenn at left tackle, who I expect to drop off a bit without Andy Levitre beside him at guard. With a rookie at quarterback, look for Jones to use his amazing athleticism to get to Manuel often in this game.
3. Which Tom Brady do we get this season?
I’m not talking about in terms of skills or production. Tom Brady will be consistently awesome, because he is Tom Terrific, and the day we doubt Tom Terrific is the day locusts fill the sky and all the Viking Warriors come storming out of Valhalla to destroy us all (they all look like Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes by the way). I’m talking about personality wise.
For years, Tom Brady was the golden child, Apollo the god of light, the underdog who won two Super Bowls and the heart of a Super Model. In recent years, hardened by the team’s inability to hoist another trophy and by the overall unsatisfactory nature of the world around him when compared to his magnificence, Brady has transformed to Ares, God of War, eternally pissed off. And, frankly, I love Angry Tom. He’s hilarious to watch, and becomes a stone cold killer on the field.
But can he continue being the NFL’s biggest hard ass? Say what you will about Wes Welker and his supposed shortcomings on or off the field (Jesus, was it painful watching Welker in the Broncos/Ravens game), but he was a great foil for Brady: calm, collected, way more likable, and holding himself to the same standard that Brady did. Can this ragtag group of receivers do the same? Can you picture Tom Brady screaming at Josh Boyce for missing a route? Chewing out Aaron Dobson for daring to drop a long bomb? Trying to decapitate Ryan Allen for trying to enter the field on fourth-and-short? It’s hard to see that going well. But then again, if Tom loses his God-of-War mentality, what does that mean for the Pats’ offense? Can we afford to see Brady go all soft and cuddly? Hell no. It’s a delicate balance. I can’t wait to find out how this goes.
Hell, I’m feeling optimistic about this. Despite all uncertainty surrounding the Patriots, they’re catching the Bills at pretty much the perfect time. The Bills have a brand new coaching staff, a young QB, and a running back who’s never handled full-time carries. It’s easy to predict that they’ll have some growing pains, and the Patriots’ defense, while not shutdown by any means, are consistent and seasoned enough to not let things get out of hand. Look for the Patriots to jump out early, as EJ Manuel needs a few series to get his bearings, before this thing turns into a shootout in the second half.
Patriots 31, Bills 21