The regular season of the National Football League officially begins tonight, and while the Patriots don’t play until Sunday, I’m ready to give my predictions for the game. Note that I’m not just going to predict the score here – I’m also going to delve into matchups.
1. The New England wide receivers vs the Tennessee defensive backs
The Titans hit on rough times this offseason when they lost standout cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Nevertheless, Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are two very talented cornerbacks, and Michael Griffin has been improving at safety. However, I’m not going to pretend like they can cover all of the weapons Tom Brady has. Wes Welker had more than 100 catches last year, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he got at least seven in this game. Brandon Lloyd makes incredible sideline catches, is very fast, and will be at home in Josh McDaniels’ offense. Rob Gronkowski is virtually uncoverable. As if they needed a fourth, Aaron Hernandez is projected by some to have an even better season than Gronk. That’s not even mentioning the solid stable of runningbacks who often get thrown into the mix in New England’s offense. Despite the quality of the Tennessee Titans, I can’t see the receivers having anything but pure dominance in this game.
Edge: New England
2. The New England offensive line vs the Tennessee defensive line
The offensive line has been a point of worry in New England circles based on the preseason. Brian Waters might not be back for this game, and anyone other than him is a downgrade. Nevertheless, assuming Ryan Wendell starts at center and Dan Connolly is the right guard, it’s not a horrendous downgrade. Nate Solder actually seemed to improve at left tackle as the preseason went on, and Logan Mankins and Sebastian Vollmer will finally be playing a full game.
I’m not really a fan of Tennessee’s defensive line. Dave Ball is hurt, so there’s a backup starting, and Derrick Morgan was unspectacular last year. Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey are both good, and they’ll be the test Wendell and Connolly have to face, but Mankins can handle either one of them without too much trouble. The only issue that’s troubling is Solder having to block Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley was fantastic for Oakland last year, routinely brutalizing quarterbacks. Solder will have his hands full, but if a runningback can chip Wimbley every so often, the trouble will be averted.
Edge: New England
3. The New England runningbacks vs the Tennessee linebackers
It’s a bit too early to tell anything for the Patriots runningbacks. Stevan Ridley looked very good running last year, but had fumbling issues toward the end of the season. These mistakes made him really stand out from BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who never fumbled in the NFL. Brandon Bolden looked solid running in preseason, but muffed two punts, which brings up questions about his ball security. Shane Vereen is injured, and I don’t plan on seeing him. Danny Woodhead will likely only play on passing downs. I don’t think Lex Hilliard will see much action without first learning more of the playbook.
I actually have high expectations for the Tennessee linebacking corps this season. Colin McCarthy looked better than Barrett Ruud as mike linebacker, Wimbley is an upgrade over most 4-3 linebackers, Akeem Ayers will steadily improve, and Will Witherspoon is still solid. The good news for the Patriots is they likely won’t be using the runningbacks much this game, unless it’s in screens. This would likely be the best way to take advantage of the blitzing Tennessee linebackers and the two defensive tackles.
4. The Tennessee wide receivers vs the New England defensive backs
Many Patriots fans are relieved Kenny Britt is suspended for this game, but I’m not. From a competitive perspective, it helps the Patriots that he’s not playing, but I prefer facing a team at its best. Nevertheless, the Titans had to play the vast majority of last year without Britt, so it’s not like they’re lost without him. Nate Washington is actually quite adept, and it will likely be on Devin McCourty to cover him. This is a big individual match-up to watch; Chung or Gregory might need to give safety help over top. Other than that, I like the Pats in this match-up. Arrington was decent enough last season, and it will be very interesting to see what Dowling will do this game. Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins don’t scare me. Kendall Wright isn’t a slouch, but I trust the New England secondary to take care of him. Jared Cook doesn’t do anything for me; in fact, I expect Dont’a Hightower to be able to cover him.
Edge: New England
5. The Tennessee offensive line vs the New England defensive line
I’m actually a fan of the Tennessee offensive line. Michael Roos is certainly good at the left tackle position, and Chandler Jones will have to be on top of his game to beat him. David Stewart is one of the best right tackles in the league and will likely give Rob Ninkovich a lot to deal with. Steve Hutchinson is still a very good guard and Leroy Harris was above average lat year. Eugene Amano isn’t exactly stellar, but handling Vince Wilfork is a two-man job anyway. Kyle Love will have a rough time in the middle. If Jones can get a hit or a sack on Roos, I’ll be impressed.
6. The Tennessee runningbacks vs the New England linebackers
Yes, I said runningbacks, plural, as in there’s more than one in Tennessee. Yes, Chris Johnson is extraordinarily fast, but there’s also Javon Ringer to contend with, who’s more of an inside the tackles kind of guy. However, I’m going to put this one squarely in favor of the Patriots. Yes, Roos, Stewart and Hutchinson are all fine in runblocking, so Johnson and Ringer will have plenty of help, but I liked what I saw in preseason from the Patriots run defense. Hightower is a thumper who’s also very fast, Jerod Mayo is solid as usual, and Brandon Spikes is probably the guy I would least like to take a hit from on this squad. It’s a shame I drafted Chris Johnson in fantasy, because I don’t foresee him doing too well in Week One.
Edge: New England
I think the Patriots will come out on top in this one with a pretty clear and well-earned victory. The tight ends will come out to play. Chandler Jones will have a tough test in Michael Roos, and I’ll be watching that fight intently.
Final score: New England 35, Tennessee 10.
You can follow Christopher Field on Twitter @ChrisDField.