Welcome to Season 12, Episode 1 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup . . .
Well, the Patriots aren’t exactly easing into this new season, huh?
After winning eight games a season ago, the Patriots enter 2023 with a deeper, more well-rounded roster and a coaching staff boosted by the essential return of offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien. The defense, which scored seven touchdowns a year ago — or just three fewer than quarterback Mac Jones threw for — is talented, fast, and versatile.
If the offense is merely competent — which would be an enormous upgrade over last season’s Matt Patricia-led tribute to ineptitude — the Patriots will be a much better team this season. Much better.
But they are going to have to beat multiple teams along the way that enter the season with the perception of being better than they are. The schedule is brutal, right from the get-go with Sunday’s opener against the defending NFC champion Eagles.
This is the first time in Patriots history that they have opened against the NFC champ, and fifth time they have begun a season by facing a team that was in the Super Bowl the previous year. In 1974, they beat the two-time defending champion Dolphins en route to a 5-0 start under Chuck Fairbanks. In 1979, they lost in overtime to the Steelers, who would win their second straight Super Bowl that season. In 1993, they lost to the Bills in Bill Parcells’s debut as coach. And in 1998, they fell to John Elway and the Broncos, who would win their second of back-to-back Super Bowls that season.
So the 2023 Eagles aren’t the best team the Patriots have opened against, but they can be mentioned in the conversation after going 14-3 last year, finishing second in the NFL in points per game (28.1) and with the second-fewest points against (20.2 per game), and nearly taking down the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.
Dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts (22 passing touchdowns, 13 rushing TDs last season) has emerged as one of the faces of the league. And the Eagles’ defense, which racked up 70 sacks last season, just two short of the regular-season record set by the 1984 Bears, will give the Patriots’ uncertain offensive line a test that they haven’t had much time for which to prepare.
The Patriots have a chance, a real chance, to begin putting last season’s frustrations behind them. But the Eagles are as tough an opponent as they will face all season. Where are the Arizona Cardinals when you need them?
Kick it off, Ryland, and let’s get this one started . . .
Three players to watch other than the quarterbacks
Christian Gonzalez: Let’s make this clear right away. It’s not reasonable to expect Gonzalez, a talented cornerback from Oregon whom the Patriots had the good fortune of landing with the No. 17 pick in the draft, to come in and be this year’s version of Sauce Gardner. The Jets star, picked No. 4 overall last season, made the transition to lockdown cornerback look easy, and it is not. Gonzalez is going to have growing pains. That public service announcement aside, it’s going to be intriguing to see how Gonzalez fares. He will be tested right away, most likely by 6-foot-1-inch, 226-pound A.J. Brown, who had 88 catches for 1,496 yards and 11 TDs after the Titans gifted him to the Eagles in April 2022. He is far from the lone weapon at Hurts’s disposal. DeVonta Smith had 95 catches for 1,196 yards and 7 TDs last season, and drew rave reviews this summer. The Patriots’ pass defense, 16th in the league a year ago but without Devin McCourty for the first time since 2010, must be locked in immediately.
Ezekiel Elliott: Sure, he’s a shell of what he was during his glory days as the Cowboys’ bell cow. Perhaps he won’t offer much more than 1980 Chuck Foreman, 1982 Mark van Eeghen, and assorted other aging ball carriers that have finished out their NFL days in Foxborough. But this seems like it could be an excellent fit. Incumbent running back Rhamondre Stevenson is the Patriots’ best offensive player, fully capable of being a workhorse. But Stevenson was running on fumes by the end of last season. O’Brien will not allow that to happen this year. Elliott — just 28 years old, though his Dallas workload essentially aged him another five years — remains a goal-line threat, with 12 rushing touchdowns last season. The Patriots lack their usual definitive third-down back in that J.R. Redmond-to-James White lineage, and Elliott will help in that regard. And we’ve heard so much about his knack for blocking that maybe he should be in the mix at right tackle.
Trent Brown: Once it became clear that Jones and O’Brien were copacetic, the biggest question for the Patriots through training camp was the status of the offensive line. The ifs have carried over to the regular season, which isn’t ideal against the mighty Eagles pass rush, which has added talented but troubled first-round pick Jalen Carter. If Brown remains engaged and healthy, and if Mike Onwenu and Cole Strange can step right in after spending training camp recovering from injury, and if 31-year-old center David Andrews doesn’t show signs of decline, and if someone emerges from the auditions at right tackle . . . OK, fine, that’s a lot of ifs, but at least some will be solved in a positive way. The key is the massive, capable Brown, who looked checked out at times last season, though not nearly as often as former first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, who can now quit on the Dolphins’ time.
Grievance of the week
Coaching matters in football more than in any other sport — basketball, baseball, pickleball, jai alai, whatever. And for whatever valid frustrations fans may have had with some of Bill Belichick’s personnel and staffing decisions in recent years, this remains true: There is no better head coach in the NFL once the game starts. The argument can be made that in the three post-Tom Brady seasons, the Patriots won more games than their rosters suggested they should have. The Patriots have a faster, better, and deeper roster now than most national pundits have noticed. They have added competence and eliminated ineptitude from the staff of assistants. And so it’s beyond ridiculous that BetMGM has the Patriots’ over/under for wins at 6.5. The worst is behind the Patriots. They are not going down to rock bottom again. With a few breaks and Aaron Rodgers flopping in New York, they might just win more than that by December.
A recollection of a game, moment, or performance from a previous matchup.
The Patriots and Eagles have met in two Super Bowls, as you may be aware. With the Patriots honoring Brady at halftime Sunday, it’s fitting to remember the good times that brought so much pleasure, so we will note the first meeting here and not the second one. The Patriots officially established a dynasty with a 24-21 win over the Donovan McNabb/Andy Reid Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX, which gave them their third championship in four years. It’s wild that this game was tied going into the fourth quarter, because it feels now like the Patriots won it with relative ease. This was probably the most talented team of the six champions, and it’s one of their two Super Bowl victories in which someone other than Brady was named Most Valuable Player. Deion Branch claimed the honors in this one with an 11-catch, 133-yard performance. (Julian Edelman also won it for Super Bowl LIII against the Falcons.) A favorite stat from this one: David Givens had a touchdown catch for the fifth straight postseason game, and he would extend it to seven the following year. This game also featured the most clutch punt you will ever see, when Josh Miller pinned the Eagles on the 4-yard-line with 49 seconds to play.
Prediction, or Randall Cunningham could probably still help a team today
Question: Is it possible that the Eagles will have a Super Bowl hangover? I picked them to get back to the Super Bowl this year, but for as talented as they are, there are some red flags. Five defensive starters have gone elsewhere. Both coordinators got head coaching jobs. Heck, Patricia is now on Nick Sirianni’s staff, as a defensive assistant (He should have to coach the offense this week. It’s only fair.) And they did kind of blow the Super Bowl after holding a 10-point lead in the second half. It’s not out of the question that the Patriots expose some flaws here.
I don’t think the Patriots will win. And that’s fine. Let’s just see if they can resemble their old, best-of-Belichick selves again. No more special teams blunders and dumb, lazy penalties. Play to the strengths of the players. Don’t leave points on the field. Resist the temptation to lateral. If they play well but come up short against a good team, that’s progress. Come Monday, it will be all right. Eagles 30, Patriots 24.