In week one of this NFL season the New England Patriots will face the Tennessee Titans. While many will look at this as an easy win for the favored Patriots, it’s anything but. Even though the Patriots won the AFC last season, the Titans finished a strong 9-7 and have improved this offseason.
The biggest advantage the Patriots will have against the Titans is in their passing game. The Titans lost their best defensive back in Cortland Finnegan to free agency. While Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are solid defensive backs and Michael Griffin is a solid safety, they are no match for Tom Brady’s weapons. In addition to the return of Pro Bowlers Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski, the team added another Pro Bowler in Brandon Lloyd. The Titans simply don’t have the ability to defend against those four stars.
The rest of the Patriots matchups are questionable. While Tennessee is without starting defensive end Dave Ball and has a suspect defensive line, there’s not much confidence in the Patriots offensive line. The good news for the Patriots is that Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer will both be on the field. The bad news is that they are now without Matt Light and probably Brian Waters. Nate Solder will be expected to perform at a high level but has not lived up to expectations thus far. The remainder of the offensive line remains a question mark as they’ve had little or no experience in the league.
The Titans have a solid linebacker corps of Colin McCarthy, Akeem Ayers, and Will Witherspoon who could cause the Patriots trouble in the running game. As for the Patriots running backs, it’s too early to tell what to expect. After BenJarvus Green-Ellis departed, the backfield was handed over to the two young rushers Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen. Both have looked strong throughout training camp, especially Ridley, but they are young and are being asked a lot. The Patriots did sign Joseph Addai during the offseason and he looked to be a mentor for the two but he was later released after reportedly being unable to physically perform.
Another lost player for the Titans is wide receiver Kenny Britt. Without Britt, there’s not a great deal of worry when it comes to the Titans receiving corps. This is good news for the Patriots defensive backs considering that they are young and inexperienced. The most notable defensive backs for the Patriots are Patrick Chung, Ras-I Dowling, and Devin McCourty all of whom have less than four years of NFL experience. Those three will be expected to lead this young group throughout 2012 and it starts with the Titans. Without the lack of a go-to receiver for Tennessee, it shouldn’t be too much to ask this week.
The Tennessee offensive line is a strong unit and could cause problems for the Patriots defensive line. Vince Wilfork is back and will cause problems for the Titans but the key player in this battle will be the Patriots number one 2012 NFL Draft pick Chandler Jones. Jones looked very impressive during training camp and preseason receiving raving reviews from coaches, media, and opposing teams. If he plays as well Sunday, the Patriots could have the advantage in that battle too.
One battle that could cause the Patriots problems is the Tennessee running backs against the Patriots linebackers. The young group including Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Dont’a Hightower will be in charge of shutting down the Titans speedster Chris Johnson. After three years of dominant running from Johnson, he had a down year in 2011 while undergoing contract negotiations. But the 2009 rushing champion will be looking to regain his form and it’ll be up to the young corps of Patriots linebackers to stop him.
There are several questions for both teams going into this game which could determine who wins but the determining factor will be the Patriots passing game. The Patriots had the worst secondary and second worst defense in the NFL in 2011 but were able to advance to the Super Bowl due to their ability to move the ball in the air. This offseason that passing game has only gotten strong with the addition of Lloyd and even if the Titans are able to put up a significant amount of points, they will not be able to keep up with the Patriots offense that will be able to score at will.