The New England Patriots’ defense will have a distinctly different look to begin coach Bill Belichick’s 10th season in Foxborough, but the three-time Super Bowl champions will be happy to have a familiar face again at the helm of their offense.
Tom Brady(notes) will be back under center to open the season Monday night after he missed nearly all of last year due to injury, and he’ll be hoping to lead the Patriots to an NFL-record 12th straight win against a single opponent.
That foe is the AFC East rival Buffalo Bills, who will feature newcomer Terrell Owens(notes) in an offense that still has plenty of questions to answer after its coordinator was fired barely a week before the first game.
There aren’t many concerns about the Patriots’ ability to score with Brady back. The 2007 NFL MVP, who set a league record with 50 touchdown passes that year while leading the team to a 16-0 regular season, played less than a quarter in 2008 before tearing his left ACL when he was hit by Kansas City’s Bernard Pollard(notes).
Cassel, though, was dealt to the Chiefs and the reins of the unit are back in Brady’s hands. He’ll have some familiar weapons at his disposal, such as top wide receivers Randy Moss(notes) and Wes Welker(notes), and some new ones to use, like veterans Fred Taylor(notes) and Joey Galloway(notes).
“I’ve played a lot of games, so it’s not like it’s the first game of my rookie season, that type of excitement,” Brady said. “I think there’s just an excitement for a new season and to see what kind of team we have and to see what kind of mental toughness we have and what kind of character we have.”
The Patriots will also be curious to see what kind of defense they have after mainstays Mike Vrabel(notes), Tedy Bruschi(notes), Rodney Harrison(notes) and Richard Seymour(notes) all departed via trade or retirement. Seymour was surprisingly dealt to Oakland on Sept. 6 for a 2011 first-round draft pick.
The unit will take on a younger look, led by linebacker Jerod Mayo(notes), the NFL’s top defensive rookie last year. New England also seems to have improved its secondary after adding cornerbacks Leigh Bodden(notes) and Shawn Springs(notes) and drafting safety Patrick Chung(notes) with its first pick early in the second round.
“We have a lot of good leaders on our team and especially on the defensive side of the ball,” Belichick said. “No doubt about it, it’s different, but I think it’s good.”
Whoever has played for the Patriots has been good enough the last 11 times they have faced Buffalo - and often by a wide margin. The average score during the streak has been 29-9, and New England outscored the Bills 94-17 in two wins the last time Brady faced them in 2007.
No NFL team has ever won 12 straight against one opponent, and the Bills would have to pull off a major upset to avoid that fate. They’ve never won at Gillette Stadium, losing eight straight at New England since a 16-13 overtime win Nov. 5, 2000.
Buffalo added the controversial Owens following its third straight 7-9 season, but its offense has hardly clicked. After offensive coordinator Turk Schonert installed a new no-huddle attack during the offseason, the first-team offense managed three points in 15 preseason series, and Schonert was fired Sept. 4.
“(Bills coach Dick Jauron) wants a Pop Warner offense,” Schonert said. “He limited me in formations and limited me in plays.”
Schonert was replaced with former Bills quarterback Alex Van Pelt, who is still expected to employ a no-huddle approach.
“This is going to be a little bit of a transition for us,” Owens said. “We have to take accountability, we have to go out there and jell with one another and go out there and play.”
Asked Wednesday if he liked playing without a huddle, Owens said, “No, not really, but I gotta deal with it.” Owens later posted a note on his Twitter page insisting that he was “clearly joking.”
This will be the fourth team in the last seven years for the enigmatic but talented 35-year-old, who had his ninth 1,000-yard receiving season last year with Dallas.
Trent Edwards(notes) will be the newest quarterback trying to get Owens the ball. Edwards led the Bills to a 4-0 start last season before they stumbled down the stretch, losing eight of their last 10. He’ll begin this season without his starting running back, as Marshawn Lynch(notes) was suspended for the first three games after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge in March.
Another key spot on offense will be also in doubt after the Bills released starting left tackle Langston Walker(notes) on Tuesday. Second-year man Demetrius Bell(notes) will make his first career start protecting Edwards’ blind side.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” Jauron said. “We’ll find out on Monday night how far we’ve come. It’s not going to be easy, there’s no doubt about that. There’s a lot of worry.”
Jauron has returned for a fourth season as the Bills coach even though his contract ran out last year, and he may be under pressure to show some early signs of progress.