The New England Patriots open their 2012 home schedule with an inter-conference contest with the Arizona Cardinals. The game represents the 13 th time the two teams have met, with both teams splitting the prior 12 games.
The Patriots easily dispatched the Tennessee Titans 34-13 last week, with the offense playing one of the more balanced games the team has played in quite some time. While the Patriots offense was in mid-season form, the defense looked solid as well, as the run defense held elite rusher Chris Johnson to just four yards on 11 carries.
As New England was handedly defeating the Titans, the Arizona Cardinals allowed a 13-3 third quarter lead to evaporate before regrouping under the leadership of Kevin Kolb in their 20-16 defeat of the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday. The win represents the eighth for the Cardinal's in their last 10 games dating back to last season. The team is developing under head coach Ken Whisenhunt is poised to be a team to contend with in the NFC West for a possible playoff berth.
Currently, Arizona is in the midst of a potential quarterback controversy. Last year's starter Kevin Kolb was projected to be the team's quarterback for years to come after being acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles before last season. During the preseason Kolb was involved in a quarterback battle with third-year signal caller John Skelton, with the latter appointed the team's quarterback to start 2012. With Skelton not looking very impressive prior to suffering an ankle injury against Seattle, Kolb may again have the opportunity to reclaim the starting job after a solid late game performance and prove his acquisition was just.
The Patriots seldom see the Arizona Cardinals but there are several factors to follow in the game which will help determine the ultimate outcome of the contest.
Last week, perennial All-Pro wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was held to 63 yards on four receptions, 25 yards fewer than last season's per game average. With a likely shakeup at quarterback on Sunday the potential for more opportunities to target the reciever is great. Look for Arizona to exploit mismatches against a not yet proven Patriots' secondary.
If Skelton is able to go on Sunday, his performance against the a competent Seahawks does not instill much confidence that the inexperienced starter will improve against an improving defense like New England. If Skelton is scratched from the game, Kolb will look to build off of his limited success from last week. Where Kolb was effective against Seattle running a no-huddle offense in the game-winning drive last week, he will likely not be able to rely on that offensive scheme for an entire contest against a scheming Patriots defense that is capable of giving the Cardinals several different looks.
How well the Patriots can put pressure on either the hobbled Skelton or Kolb in the pocket the better the defensive secondary will play, due to less time having to account for Fitzgerald on passing routes.
Cardinals' running game
The New England Patriots looked impressive defensively on Sunday, especially in the area of pass defense. The reconfigured defensive front seven is bolstered by a pair of impressive rookies in defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower. These additions to an already solid rush defense should be able to continue the success they had last week. With an uncertain quarterback position; look for the Cardinals to establish the run early in the game, especially in a road contest.
Arizona does possess a 1,000 yard rusher in Beanie Wells, but his yardage last week (14 yards) give an early indication that the Cardinals rush attack is not as formidable as the one New England dispatched last week.
Patriots' running game
Week 1 was a coming out party for second-year rusher Stevan Ridley, who shredded the Tennessee Titans for a career-best 125 yards. During New England's win, Ridley demonstrated a quick and aggressive running style that will likely lead to more consistent carries as the weeks go on. The last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl, they did so with a more balanced offense supported be a solid rushing attack. If Ridley is able to maintain possession of the football and help the team consistently move the chains, the team may have found the number one back they have been searching for.
Patriots' offensive line
The much maligned Patriots' offensive line from the preseason appeared to be gelling in Week 1, with the shift of Dan Connolly from center to right guard. This week the line may be challenged again as the veteran lineman is recovering from a head injury sustained in last Sunday's win. His injury and the slow progress of right offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer are keys in keeping Tom Brady upright and maintain the potent and efficient Patriots' passing attack.
While Connolly returned to practice on Thursday, his ability to play on the bulk of Sunday's game will be essential. A re-shuffled offensive line will open the door for Arizona's pass rushing defensive linemen Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell, who are more than capable of applying ample pressure on Brady if the line falters.
The young and aggressive Arizona defensive secondary is anchored by Adrian Wilson who possesses 27 career interceptions. His presence will be essential as Brady tends to look over the middle of the field for pass targets. Without well timed pass routes, Wilson may be a factor in picking off Brady is he is under pass pressure.
Patriots' receiving targets
One of the storylines coming from last week's New England win was the low number of receptions garnered by perennial top target Wes Welker. As someone playing on a one-year contract, Welker's low number fueled media speculation that the Patriots were fazing out Welker from their offensive scheme. The fact is the Patriots have so many offensive weapons at their disposal, there are going to be games when one or more receivers have limited touches. Against an aggressive pass rush, New England will likely look to target Welker more in a quick-out pass pattern. While these receptions are not designed for large quantities of yardage, having Welker quickly engage off the line of scrimmage offers Brady the safety valve he needs to avert the Cardinals pass rush. Look for Brady to target this favorite receiver early in the contest.
With an abundance of offensive talent and an improved defensive front seven, the New England Patriots are well positioned to open their home schedule on a positive note. While Arizona does have some select talent in place and an aggressive defensive approach, they simply do not have enough talent to keep pace with the explosive Patriots. With uncertainty at the quarterback position and a less than stellar running game, the Cardinals will be hard pressed to control the time of possession and put enough points on the scoreboard.
New England Patriots 37
Arizona Cardinals 17
Scott Duhaime is a fan and follower of the New England Patriots for over 30 years, witnessing the team's ascent from league irrelevance to among the league's elite franchises.
Follow Scott on Twitter: @Scott_Duhaime
Yahoo! Sports NFL Box score: New England Patriots 34 @ Tennessee Titans 13
Yahoo! Sports NFL Box score: Seattle Seahawks 16 @ Arizona Cardinals 20