The New England Patriots look to defend their AFC championship as they start their campaign towards another Super Bowl appearance as they visit the Tennessee Titans. The Patriots come off an unimpressive preseason that highlighted offensive line deficiencies and limited scoring while the Titans turned to second year quarterback Jake Locker, who looked solid in the preseason and his first regular season professional start.
The Titans hope to keep Locker from being the focal point of the Tennessee offense, as former 2,000 yard rusher Chris Johnson enters the 2012 season healthy and focused on reclaiming his place among the NFL's best rushers. The versatile running back had an inconsistent 2011 season after missing all of training camp over a contract dispute. The Titans can only hope that the Johnson that performs this season is more like the rusher from three seasons ago and less than last season's version. An improved running game will benefit the inexperienced Locker, who brings mobility and a strong arm to the Titans' passing game.
For New England to be successful their defensive front seven will need to curtail the impact of Johnson while keeping Locker contained in the pocket. If Locker is able to scramble out of the pocket, the suspect Patriots' secondary will again be challenged as they were often in 2011. Last season New England ranked 31st in pass defense and lost their top two pass rushers from last year during the past offseason. In 2012, the Patriots will call on a pair of rookies (Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower) to help limit the time Locker has to find open receivers or scramble out of the pocket. The defensive versatility created by the rookie additions may pay dividends this weekend as the quick feet of both Johnson and Locker must be accounted for.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots have plenty of weapons at their disposal and will likely utilize the tight end position more than a traditional three wide-out formation. With tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in the lineup, Tom Brady will have more than his fair share of receivers to target in short to intermediate routes. If the Titan's defensive front seven focuses too much on minimizing the tight end options, Brady can simply look to receivers Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd for intermediate and long pass routes. Out of the backfield, New England will call upon Stevan Ridley to gain positive yardage and maintain possession of the ball to keep the Titans' defense from keying on the passing game. Ridley had a solid preseason and will look to replace the reliable BenJarvus Green-Ellis as the team's primary rusher.
In order for the Patriots' offense to click, the team will need better performance from the offensive line; specifically the right side where Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon were unable to demonstrate an ability to protect Brady in the preseason. Due to depth at the center position, the team moved dependable Dan Connelly from center to right guard in hopes of firming up their pass protection. During the preseason the Patriots struggled to replace the loss of Pro Bowl lineman Brian Waters on the right side of the offensive line, exposing Brady to several unnecessary hits. This year the team will need Vollmer to demonstrate that the mobility and pass blocking abilities that once existed still remain after a season long battle with back issues in 2011. The quick strike offense will prove to be a benefit in the early going this season as the receiving weapons at Brady's disposal should be able to keep defenders from targeting him often.
New England is currently a road favorite and faces a team with unproven defensive depth but more offensive versatility than last season. If the Patriots can utilize a quick strike offense to garner long scoring drives, the Titans will be forced to rely more on an unproven passing attack to keep them in the contest. Overall the Patriots have more than enough talent to win this game on the road and successfully begin their quest for a fourth Lombardi trophy.
Prediction: New England Patriots 27 - Tennessee Titans 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
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