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Patriots Game Preview: Week 2 vs. Arizona

Sep 9, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls from the line against the Tennessee Titans during the first half at LP Field. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE
Sep 9, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) calls from the line against the Tennessee Titans during the first half at LP Field. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE

Sunday afternoon, when the Patriots open their home schedule at Gillette Stadium against the Arizona Cardinals, will represent a classic case of the calm before the storm.

We may find out if it's possible for a team to have a trap game this early in the season when the Pats and the Cardinals line up in Foxborough. The game will be played one week before a rematch of last season's AFC Championship between the Pats and the Baltimore Ravens.

Of course, the Pats always keep their focus limited to one week at a time, which makes the idea of Sunday's tilt against the Cards being a trap at least somewhat of a long shot. But it's not out of the question.

If they come out flat, play with less than acceptable energy, take too long to get rolling and look otherwise lethargic/disinterested/underprepared against Arizona, there may just be a purple jersey wearing reason for it.

All that aside, in looking at the Cards, we see a 1-0 team with QB issues, a questionable ground attack and a very stout, potentially dangerous defense. They went from 1-6 to 8-8 last year, winning five of their last six and seven of their last nine games, allowing more than 20 points just once in doing so.

There are stars or potential stars at every level of their D, from Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett on the line, to Daryl Washington at linebacker and long time stalwart safety Adrian Wilson in the defensive backfield. Add to that group second year corner Patrick Peterson, an ascending beast in coverage who also happened to run four punts back for TDs in 2011 (tying a league record), and you have a defense that will give a lot of teams a tough time.

Will one of those teams be the Pats, with all of their offensive weapons? Time will tell. So with that, let's get into this game and some of its more intriguing storylines.

When the Patriots pass the ball.

Thanks to their lousy start, which featured a six game losing streak in which they allowed 30-plus points four straight times, the Cards finished the season ranked 18th in total defense, 17th against the pass, 21st against the run and 17th again in points allowed.

In their Week 1 win over Seattle, the Cardinals looked good against the pass (albeit against a rookie QB making his first career start), allowing just 154 yards and managing three sacks, two by former very short term Patriot, Paris Lenon.

Still, the Seahawks' receiving corps isn't the Pats' receiving corps. And Russell Wilson isn't exactly Tom Brady.

Expect to see Peterson on Brandon Lloyd for much of the afternoon. After that, it's probably a crap shoot for Arizona insofar as who will be responsible for Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, much like it is for pretty much any other defense that has to contend with that duo. And don't forget about Wes Welker, who will be primed for a big day after last week's quiet afternoon.

Wilson may be asked to do some covering, but he's more of a run stopper, a havoc causer. He's a bit like Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh, which makes sense given all the Steelers connections on the Cards' coaching staff (head coach, assistant head coach, defensive coordinator, etc.).

Regardless of who tries to keep up with all of the Pats' receiving options, it will be a moot point if Tom Brady doesn't have time. The o-line was mostly good last week against Tennessee and with the news that Dan Connolly was at practice on Thursday after suffering a head injury in that game, the Pats should be closer to their full complement of lineman for this one.

The Cardinals' strength on defense is their line, where Dockett, Campbell and 2010 first rounder Dan Williams cause havoc. The Cards like to blitz (again, a Pittsburgh hand me down) and the Pats will have to account for all three of these d-linemen coming with pressure, particularly Dockett, who is lighter and faster than your average defensive end but still possesses enough strength to overpower opponents. Making sure Dockett is always accounted for was a prevailing theme in soundbites from the Pats during the week.

If the Pats are up to the challenge of handling the Cardinals' pressure and blitzing, they will be fine in the passing game. Even though its defense is this team's strength and the secondary is solid, the Pats just have too many weapons.

Advantage: Patriots

When the Cardinals pass the ball.

The Cardinals spent all of training camp trying to decide which of their two lousy QBs would be their starter and once they did, it didn't even take him (John Skelton) an entire game to get injured.

Now that Skelton is out a couple weeks, Arizona turns its lonely eyes to Kevin Kolb, who was acquired from the Eagles following the 2010 season for a good, starting corner and a second round pick then signed to a five-year $63 million deal.

It the took him seven whole games to get benched.

The point is, the Pats will be playing against a backup and not just any backup. A backup who's contract was named one of the league's worst by CBS Sports' NFL man Jason La Canfora.

Kolb may be a bum but he still has an all-time receiver at his disposal in Larry Fitzgerald, a superstar whom Bill Belichick referred to as maybe "the best one ever."

Fitzgerald continues to thrive even without a bona fide QB. Since Kurt Warner retired following the 2009 season, Fitzgerald has still managed 170 catches for 2,548 yards and 14 TDs. He's a monster and a guy the Pats will be hard pressed to keep up with.

Seeing as how the Pats' pass defense has had terrible trouble with receivers far less dangerous than Fitzgerald the past couple of years, one would hope that whoever has to cover him on Sunday has a lot of help. As worried about Fitzgerald as the Pats must be, it's his teammates that could decide Arizona's fate on offense.

Seven different players caught at least one pass for the Cards in the win over Seattle, including the game-winning TD (thrown by Kolb) by third year man Andre Roberts. In addition to Roberts and long time tight end Todd Heap and the Cards also have a rookie first rounder in Michael Floyd who, at 6'3", 225 pounds, is a big, strong target, a lot like Fitzgerald.

It's worth noting as well that Kolb, for all the criticism levied upon him since his arrival in the desert, won the game for the Cards last week, coming off the bench after Skelton's injury to go 6-of-8 for 66 yards and that winning TD pass to Roberts. With a full week of practice to prepare for the Pats' suspect secondary, he may be capable of even better things.

The key for the Pats will be pressure. If Chandler Jones, Jermaine Cunningham and any other member of the front seven who can get after the QB can make Kolb uncomfortable and not allow him the time he needs to find Fitzgerald, that could be a huge difference in the game.

Advantage: Cardinals

When the Patriots run the ball.

If you had Stevan Ridley as the Pats' biggest offensive star last week against Tennessee, we need to go buy some lottery tickets or play Keno or something.

Ridley and the running game were a revelation. He ripped off 126 yards on just 21 attempts and as a team, the Pats rushed for 162 yards at over 4.5 yards a pop.

What does that mean? Well, as far as this week's game goes, not much. But now that the Pats know they can run the ball with power and authority if they so choose and given the Cardinals' strength in pressuring the QB, don't be surprised to see another hearty effort on the ground.

The Cardinals allowed Seattle's No. 1 back, Marshawn Lynch, to gain 85 yards on 21 attempts, a very healthy 4 yard average. The Seahawks run/pass differential was pretty much even (33/34) though that may be a deceiving stat given their trailing in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and having to move the ball the length of the field.

The Pats ran the ball four more times than they threw it (35-31) against the Titans which may be a byproduct of the score being pretty lopsided my about halfway through the fourth quarter.

Still, it would make sense for the Pats to balance things out in a similar fashion to last week. The Cards' defense is at its best when its getting after the QB. This isn't to suggest that the Pats will have trouble with Arizona's pressure, but keeping the Cardinals guessing can only aid in slowing their pass rush down.

And after last week, the Pats know they have a back who can carry them.

Advantage: Patriots

Prediction: Patriots 28, Cardinals 10

The Cards deserve credit for their much improved work on defense since the first half of last season, as well as for their 8-2 record in their last 10 games going back to last year. They will not be pushovers on Sunday. Still, even if they can get after Brady, the Pats are just too powerful on offense to be held in check by this team for 60 minutes. Fitzgerald is a real threat given the Pats' shortcomings against the pass, even with Kolb throwing to him. But if they can at least slow the big receiver down, Arizona will have a really tough time getting any kind of consistency anywhere else on offense. It won't be the cakewalk it may have looked like when the schedule was released, but the Patriots should still win this one with relative ease.