The New England Patriots (7-3) visit the Philadelphia Eagles (4-6) for a matchup at 4:15 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles will be without star quarterback Michael Vick and possibly cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
The Patriots have won two in a row after losing two in a row following their bye in Week Six. New England has seemingly righted the ship. They have had some good fortune, however. The Eagles are without Vick today. The Chiefs were without their starting quarterback, Matt Cassel, last week. The Jets, the week before that, had their starting quarterback, but that starting quarterback should probably be a backup in this league.
The combined record of New England’s opponents the rest of the way is 20-41. It will be difficult for Belichick to get an accurate reading on how good (or maybe how not atrocious) this Patriots defense will be come playoff time.
But the Patriots can’t control the schedule. They have to go out and play. They may very well run the table. With Vick out today, New England should run the table to finish with a 13-3 record, and very possibly the Number One seed in the AFC.
But it all starts with today. It is no secret that this Patriots team has many question marks heading into the home stretch, and 99% of them center on the defense.
Here’s what I’ll be looking for in today’s game:
— Can Andre Carter continue his torrid pace? I wrote earlier today about how the New England’s championship hopes may ride on the shoulders of Andre Carter. He has 8.5 sacks in his last five games. The Patriots should be running up some big leads in their final six games, allowing for Carter to continue racking up sacks as opposing offenses will be playing from behind often.
— Can the Patriots contain the Eagles running game? The Eagles come in with the top-ranked rushing offense in the NFL, averaging 168 yards per game. Michael Vick is a big part of the reason for that- having rushed for 300 yards this year as a quarterback. Running back LeSean McCoy is no slouch, though. He has already rushed for 1000 yards (1019) through ten games. But will McCoy find as many holes if New England’s defense is allowed to focus on him, and not have to worry about spying Vick?
— Can Eagles’ quarterback Vince Young exploit the decimated Patriots secondary? Devin McCourty (shoulder) and Patrick Chung (foot) are out. Young was 23-for-36 for 258 yards against the New York Giants in his first start of the season last week. It will be up to Carter and Mark Anderson to set the edge and keep Young in the pocket. It will then be up to Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love to collapse the pocket and force Young to make quick decisions and erratic passes.
— Can New England contain Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson? Although Jackson may be a bit of a headcase, no one questions his talent. He has been a disappointment this season after being one of the most exciting players in the NFL in his first three seasons. He is still one of the most talented, and probably the fastest, wide receiver the Patriots will face all season. The Eagles will be without their top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (hamstring), so Jackson needs to have a big game for the Eagles to win. Belichick always does a good job of putting a game plan in place to take away the opposition’s primary threat. It will also be interesting to see how Belichick handles Jackson in the punting game as well.
— Can the Patriots do a better job of protecting Tom Brady? Brady has been sacked at least three times in four of the last six games. He has also fumbled in the last four games. The Patriots will be without starting center Dan Connolly, and starting left tackle Matt Light escaped serious injury last week. Running back Danny Woodhead has been abused this year on blitz pickup. It goes without saying that it is imperative to New England’s long term prospects that they keep Brady upright and healthy.
— Will this be the week Taylor Price steps up? We have evolved from the “Will this be the week Ochocinco breaks out?” to “Will this be the week Price emerges?” Chad Ochocinco is out with a “hamstring” injury. Deion Branch also battled a leg injury last week but is expected to play. Not that Ochocinco was getting that many snaps, but it does open up playing time for some receiver. Knowing Belichick, he will probably turn to Matthew Slater as opposed to Price.
— How does the “Julian Edelman on defense” experiment continue to evolve? For a guy who was seemingly on the verge of getting cut following his nightclub mishap on Halloween, Edelman has seen his role increase dramatically the last few weeks. Last week against Kansas City, Edelman had a game changing punt return for a touchdown. More telling is his increased role on defense. He has adopted the Troy Brown role of a wide receiver being pressed into playing defense covering slot receivers.
LOOKING INTO MY CRYSTAL BALL:
— Matthew Slater, and not Taylor Price, will be targeted on one deep pass and will have two receptions. (Maybe it’s a bit of reverse psychology by me and this will, indeed, be Price’s breakout week).
— Andre Carter will have another two sacks.
— Brady will be sacked two times and will increase his fumble streak to five games in a row.
— Asante Samuel will pick off his former teammate once.
— Kyle Arrington will pick off his NFL-leading eighth pass today.
— LeSean McCoy will rush for less than 85 yards – not bad considering he is averaging over 100 yards per game.
— DeSean Jackson will score two touchdowns, possibly one on a punt return.
— Rob Gronkowski will haul in seven receptions for at least 90 yards and two touchdowns. (I know, I know- that’s not that bold of a prediction.) Philly’s linebackers are their Achilles’ heel, and they will have their hands full with the NFL’s best tight end.
— Patriots will win a tight one, 30-27. This will be the toughest test, even without Vick, for the Patriots for the remainder of the regular season.