The New England Patriots return to Foxboro after an excellent Week 1 road win in Tennessee to face the Arizona Cardinals in their home opener in Gillette Stadium. The Cardinals at home last week, won a big game over rival Seattle and travel east where they’ve struggled in early games.

The Patriots got fantastic performances by their rookie class in the opener and will be looking to build upon that success. Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Tavon Wilson all made plays in Tennessee to help a defense that struggled in 2011.

The theme this week from the coaches will probably be continuing to improve each game and in front of a loud, home crowd, the youngsters will be pumped. With that in mind, let’s look at the matchups…

Patriots Running Game-
The Patriots new-look running game got off to a very good start in Tennessee last week with Stevan Ridley showing some excellent bursts of speed as well as good vision in getting to the second level of the defense. This is the kind of balance the Patriots are looking for.

Arizona runs a 3-4 defense based upon the Pittsburgh model and they are very aggressive, especially on the edge with DEs Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. That would have doomed an outside Patriots running game in 2011, but not this season.

Look for Josh McDaniels to mix things up and try to use their aggressiveness against them. The Cardinals gave up a lot of yards in the rushing game last season but limited the Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch just 3.5 yards per attempt in the opener. A big matchup for the Patriots will be if C Ryan Wendell can handle NT Dan Williams.

Cardinals Running Game-
The Patriots front seven had a very dominating performance against the Titans in the opener, leaving Chris Johnson with nowhere to run and no place to cut back to. Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love at the point of attack were outstanding.

Arizona has some very good running backs in Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, but their offensive line is below average. With Wilfork and Love being able to more than hold their own, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones will have to maintain the edge. This will allow the Patriots down-hill LBs Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower to blow up plays in the backfield. I think Jerod Mayo will have a big game this week making plays at OLB.

While a result like last week is a tad unrealistic (20 yards rushing allowed), I think the Patriots will have no problem in slowing this Arizona rushing attack and making them one-dimensional.

Patriots Passing Game-
Last week the Patriots attacked outside the numbers much more so than they did in 2011. By spreading the ball around, QB Tom Brady kept the Titans defense off-balance for much of the game.

Arizona’s strength on defense is outside the numbers and it starts with CB Patrick Peterson, who is often left one-on-one with opponents best WR, which in this case would have him locked up with WR Brandon Lloyd.

Look for the Patriots to go back to last year a bit and attack the middle of the field, the Cards safeties Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson are not going to be able to matchup with TEs Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

This will be a good game to get Wes Welker back into the mix as he’ll be matched up with William Gay at corner. I look for Brady to attack the Cards underneath and down the middle in this one and have a big afternoon.

Cardinals Passing Game-
Kevin Kolb had lost the starter’s job to John Skelton before Skelton was carted off with an injury on Sunday against Seattle. Kolb is talented but the knock against him has always been his consistency. Kolb will be looking to keep the Cards in this game with no significant rushing attack which is a difficult task.

Arizona boasts perhaps the best WR in the game in Larry Fitzgerald and you can bet that there will always be two men on him all game. Fitzgerald can single-handedly take over a game, think back to the Super Bowl a few years ago against Pittsburgh. The Patriots will have to rein him in and limit the big plays.

The key here is Kolb’s protection, which is poor and can be used to the Patriots advantage. While last week the plan was to contain Locker in the pocket, I think the Patriots may be a little more aggressive in the pass rush this week.

Ninkovich and Jones should be able to generate pressure from the edge and with an already overmatched interior, look for Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia to send Dont’a Hightower on a few blitzes up the middle.

Special Teams-
This will be an interesting matchup here where the Patriots have a big edge in the kicking game and the Cardinals have the big edge in the return game.

While both kickers, Stephen Gostkowski for the Patriots and Jay Feely for the Cardinals are solid, Gostkowski owns the much stronger leg of the two and the Patriots will need that to limit the kick-off returns of LaRod Stephens-Howling who is a very good kick returner.

Likewise the Pats have the advantage with P Zoltan Mesko over Dave Zastudil as Mesko’s hang time and superior directional punting give him the big edge. Again, the Patriots will hammer that point home this week as they try to limit the returns of Peterson who returned four punts for touchdowns in 2011.

While Peterson and Stephens-Howling have a big edge over Devin McCourty and Julian Edelman for the Patriots, New England does have better coverage units and those will be something to watch for this week. Arizona’s coverage units struggled last week against Seattle so they’ll be looking for a much better effort on the road this week.

One final thing to watch for is Zastudil starts to line drive his punts as has happened in the past, it may open the door for Edelman or Welker to have a big return in the punt game.

 

“X”-Factors-
Arizona, like other teams from the West Coast have struggled when traveling across the time zones for a Sunday 1 p.m. start time on the East Coast. It’s an advantage that can’t be overlooked. Coupled with a New England home opener in front of a pumped up Foxboro crowd and coming off of a big win on the road, the Patriots have a big advantage.

The Patriots have won their last ten home openers under Bill Belichick, he always has a way to fire up his team and have them prepared to play in Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady and company will be chock full of confidence while the Cardinals will be looking to weather the storm in the early going.

Conclusions-
I expect the Patriots to handle the Cardinals pretty easily in this one, while the Arizona defense was vastly improved down the stretch last season and provided a goal line stand to preserve its Week 1 victory, the Patriots offense is a completely different matchup for them.

The Cardinals strength is defending outside the numbers and with the Patriots TEs and Wes Welker, the Patriots can keep them honest enough outside to take advantage of the middle of the field to keep the offense moving the chains all day.

I expect McDaniels to try to take advantage of the aggressive defensive ends and run to the outside to catch them coming up the field. Stevan Ridley has the speed, once he gets to the second level to be a dangerous weapon on offense.

Brady’s protection remains the key here as the Patriots will have to watch ILB Paris Lenon who had two sacks last week against Seattle coming straight up the middle. Rob Gronkowski will be matched up against big safety Adrian Wilson who is certainly physical enough to challenge Gronk but doesn’t have the wheels to run with him. Aaron Hernandez will be a nightmare matchup for the Cards.

I can’t see the Cardinals running much at all against the Patriots front seven, and while Larry Fitzgerald is among the very best WRs in the game, the New England coaches will give him plenty of attention.

The key here is if Kevin Kolb behind a subpar offensive line can find secondary receivers or Fitzgerald enough to keep up with a potent New England offense. And they won’t, Brady will have a big day throwing the ball and the Patriots will remain balanced offensively. Arizona can’t cover all of the Patriots many weapons on offense and this one is an easy victory for New England. Patriots roll 37 – 13.

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