After four preseason games, it all starts for real on Sunday. The New England Patriots will begin their quest for the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday afternoon against the Tennessee Titans. New England has brought in free agents such as wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and new defensive rookies in Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. But, the main question around the team still revolves around the offensive line in whether or not they can keep Tom Brady upright in the pocket. New England hasn’t lost a season opener since 2003, but they run into a tough road test in Nashville to start the 2012 campaign.
The Tennessee Titans had a 9-7 season in 2011. They had a chance to make the playoffs on the final week of the season, but a loss to the winless Colts in Week 15 ruined their season. This season, they begin the Jake Locker era at quarterback. Locker was the 8th pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, He played in five games last year and threw four touchdowns with zero interceptions!
Some of the keys to their season will be if Chris Johnson (CJ2K) can repeat his great 2010 season and if the defense can get pressure on the quarterback. Plus, they will try to replace the loss of cornerback Cortland Finnegan in the secondary.
On that note, it’s time for the first keys of the regular season!
1. Stuff Him In the Locker: If the Patriots are going to win this game, coach Belichick’s versatile defensive schemes are going to have to confuse the young quarterback. Locker played five games and only was sacked five times last season. I am watching to see whether the front seven can get pressure on Locker.
The one advantage #10 has over last year’s starter Matt Hasselbeck is his ability to extend the play with his mobility. Keep an eye on Chandler Jones to be the pass rush for New England in this one. But, to do that, they have to contain Chris Johnson to make Tennessee one-dimensional.
2. Cookin’ Up A Tight End: The Titans’ receiving corps took a hit last week when Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended wide receiver Kenny Britt one game for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. With Britt out, Tennessee will need to someone to be Locker’s security blanket. In this new NFL, the tight ends have become that for the quarterback. Tom Brady has Rob Gronkowski and Jake Locker will look to Jared Cook.
A lot of prognosticators have predicted that Cook will be this year’s Gronkowski. They have a good case considering Cook had 100+ yards receiving in two of the last three games to end 2011. Expect him to get more than his 82 targets he had last season with the rifle of an arm Locker has.
Also, keep an eye on rookie wide receiver Kendall Wright. He could be the deep threat the Titans use with Britt not in the lineup since he specialized in catching the deep ball at Baylor from Robert Griffin III. If New England’s defense isn’t careful, this game could turn into a shootout even without the former Rutgers’ wide receiver in the lineup.
3. Going Out On a Wimb-ley: As I mentioned in the opening, the problem the Patriots had in the preseason is protecting Tom Brady. Yes, Logan Mankins is coming back, but he is only six months removed from a torn ACL. Tennessee only had 28 sacks last year, with a quarter of them coming from defensive tackle Karl Klug.
The Titans brought in a pass rusher during the offseason in Kamerion Wimbley that could change all of that. Wimbley had seven sacks last season with the Oakland Raiders, including four in one game against the Chargers. He will be lined up against left tackle Nate Solder, who will be in the spotlight with the retirement of Matt Light. If Brady stays up, this game should be a Patriot win. If not, this game just might be an upset because the Titans have a good secondary even without Finnegan in Alterraun Verner and Devin Mccourty’s brother, Jason.
I expect this game to remain close throughout. While the Patriots have won nine straight regular season openers, this is a unique challenge. Remember, in 2009, New England beat the Titans up in Foxboro 59-0! Titan coach Mike Munchak has been using that as motivation all this week and some of those players like Chris Johnson are on this team today.
Locker will have some success in this game just because of the targets he has. Nate Washington is still a reliable veteran they can go to in the tough third down situations. Tennessee will get pressure on Brady, but when it is time to make a throw, Brady will look at the middle of the seams and throw it to Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Locker makes one mistake to Devin McCourty that decides this game in the 4th quarter. I had to stick with the brotherly theme here.
PATRIOTS 27 TITANS 20