Things haven't gone perfectly or exactly to plan through two weeks of regular season action in New England but the Patriots (2-0) still hold a perfect record atop the AFC East after two games. Things haven't gone nearly as well for Greg Schiano as he brings his Buccaneers (0-2) to Gillette Stadium for Sunday afternoon's battle between teams that saw plenty of each other about a month earlier in joint practices and preseason action. While the Patriots are looking to find someone to catch the ball from Tom Brady, Tampa Bay seems to be looking for somebody to throw it, as the Josh Freeman era seems to be coming to a somewhat ugly end. Still, Bill Belichick pounded home the point this week that Tampa Bay is just a couple plays away from winning its first two games, and obviously we all know that New England is a couple plays away from having potentially lost its first two. So these two teams, led by friendly head coaches, might be more competitive and evenly matched than some would have thought previously. With 10 days between the games the Patriots are obviously hoping to shore things up on both sides of the ball, particularly the new-look passing attack. They'll have the chance to do that against Darrelle Revis and the scuffling Bucs. Heading toward kickoff, and before one of these two teams is forced to walk the plank, use your hook to crack open this Buccaneers at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Healthy choice?** - Tom Brady's clearly been frustrated through a couple weeks of action in which he's barely completed 50 percent of his passes. That led to some on-field and sideline eruptions of emotion from the ultra-competitive quarterback last Thursday night. The best way for No. 12 to calm his emotions might be to get some of his more talented, experienced weapons on the field. The biggest question surrounding the Patriots right now is the health of projected top pass catchers Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola. Gronkowski continues to be limited in practice and continues to say he's making strides. Various reports late in the week, though, seemed to lessen the likelihood that Gronk would make his debut against the Bucs. He was upgraded from doubtful to questionable on New England's Friday injury report this week, but his playing status is still very much in doubt. Amendola has reportedly avoided needing surgery for his groin, but he didn't look all that good moving on the practice field this week in the limited time the media is allowed to watch. While Brady would love to have his most proven receiver back on the field, that would probably not be the best thing for Amendola's long term health. He was listed as doubtful on the injury report. Seems as though neither target will be on the field against Tampa Bay, and that makes Brady's job much harder than he's used to for the second week in row.
- Front Freeman** - Freeman's time as Tampa's quarterback is limited, and that seems to have something to do with his relationship with Schiano. But it could also have something to do with the fact that he's completing 45-percent of his passes and has a 63 passer rating in two games, one of which came against a questionable Saints defense. Freeman has weapons to work with in the passing game, most notably Vincent Jackson. Jackson has had success against the Patriots in the past with the Chargers, and has had a nice start to the season. He certainly has the potential to get behind the New England secondary - maybe a matchup with Aqib Talib - and make plays. One way to ensure that doesn't happen is to get some pressure on Freeman. The Patriots pass rush tried some new looks against the Jets last week, including Chandler Jones on the inside and more games along the defensive line. That led to four sacks, although the pressure still wasn't great. The Bucs have a solid offensive line, especially in the middle. Still, the Patriots defensive front needs to be a more consistent force to make life hard on the opposing passers, as those passers are going to get more dangerous in the coming weeks with Matt Ryan, Andy Dalton and Drew Brees on the upcoming schedule.
- Manage Martin** - The pass rush isn't the only focus New England defensive front has to deal with. Doug Martin is a true workhorse for the Bucs, having tallied 53 of the team's 54 rushing attempts by running backs this season. He has the ability to pound away as a downhill runner, but still can hit for a big play on occasion. Martin runs behind Pro Bowl caliber guards in Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph. This will put the onus on Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly - and undrafted rookie Joe Vellano when he's in the game - to get the job done in the middle of the trenches. That wasn't always a given against the Jets last week. Another issue is how much Nickel defense the Patriots choose to run against Tampa's three-receiver sets. Base defense puts Brandon Spikes on the field and makes the defense better suited to deal with Martin. Going with the sub look, as the Patriots have done often through two weeks including a complete domination of C.J. Spiller on opening day, could give Martin more of a chance to get things going on the ground. Clearly the Patriots attacked the Bills by deciding to take Spiller out of the game. That was supremely successful. Martin is a different type of back, but the goal will be the same.
- 10-day redemption** - New England's rookie receivers have been the story, and not a good one, to open the season. There have been too many drops and too much frustration from Brady. But it's probably not surprising that they struggled against the Jets coming off a short week that included only walk-throughs and no actual practice time. Now, Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce have had a full 10 days between games to get things going in the right direction. They should have a better chance of getting on the same page with Brady. They should have gotten any opening day or debut jitters out of their systems. Now, they have to respond to the challenge at hand and prove they're better than what we've seen through the first two weeks. It's not imperative that all three rookie receivers make plays against Tampa, but at least one of them has to prove himself a capable complementary option for Brady to put to use. And we could even throw rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld into the mix. After missing a game with a hamstring injury, he should be back to help out in the passing game.
- Line up!** - The Patriots have a lot invested in their offensive line. There are a couple first-round picks. The group has three of the top-10 cap numbers on the team. The entire starting lineup returns from a year ago and is seemingly pretty healthy. That should mean the group is ready to be a strength of the team as some issues are being hammered out at the so-called skill positions. But that hasn't exactly played out through the first two weeks. Brady has taken a few more hits and been under more pressure than would be deemed ideal. Lead back Stevan Ridley is averaging just 3.4 yards a carry, while backup LeGarrette Blount is at just 2.4 a clip. Maybe the line is built for the pass more than the run. But right now the team needs to have a running game to balance out a struggling passing attack and that starts up front. The Bucs have a decent defensive line with the likes of Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn. Logan Mankins and his crew need to be the strength of the offense right now while the rest of the unit works out the kinks.
6. Turnover control - It's rather obvious just how important turnovers are in the NFL. Force them and your defense can cover up a lot of ills. Give them up and it can shoot even productive offenses in the foot. Right now the Patriots aren't nearly good enough to get away with losing the turnover battle. That means Brady, his receivers and his backs must take care of the football as much or more than ever. It also means that the defense needs to continue to give the offense extra opportunities while simultaneously shutting down would-be scoring drives. Even a single field goal could be the difference in winning and losing these days. That's what the margin of error is. If the Patriots can win the turnover battle against Tampa Bay it's almost a certainty that will lead to another home victory. But if it's even, or if it happens to go the other way, New England will be in a fight to remain undefeated.
While the Patriots have struggled and had to fight to the wire through the first two weeks to win, Tampa Bay has been the other end of that equation. It's not pretty right now in New England or Tampa. Brady may be struggling a bit and frustrated. But he's still the better quarterback in this game, in a league where contests are often decided by that position. That was a big difference in the win over Geno Smith and the Jets. I fully expect New England to handle if not shut down Martin. That means Jackson and his deep balls are the wild card. That and turnovers are the only way I could see the Bucs pulling off the upset. Given 10 days to prepare I expect the Patriots to be a better football team than the one we saw punt 11 times against the Jets. It probably still won't be pretty but I expect some improvement from the passing game and the young receivers. In the end I can see something in the range of a 24-13 victory for the Patriots.