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Friday Six-Pack: Cardinals Edition

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Lee Brice

In terms of wins and losses, the Patriots and Cardinals are theoretically two of the hottest teams in football dating back to last season. Arizona's win over the Seahawks on opening weekend pushed the Cardinals record to 8-2 in their last 10 games dating back to 2011. The only team with a better record in its last 10 games is New England, whose only loss in the last 10 contests was to the Giants in the Super Bowl. But are these two really comparable foes? Can Arizona be more competitive this time around than its 47-7 embarrassing loss in the snow back in 2008? The new-look Patriots have a lot of confidence on both sides of the ball coming out of the win over the Titans and look to prevail in the home opener for the 11th straight season. Arizona flies into Foxborough for a measuring stick game against one of the truly elite teams in football. To hold you over until Sunday's 1 o'clock kickoff crack open this Cardinals edition Friday Six-Pack!

1. Full frontal D – The Patriots front seven couldn't have been much more impressive than it was in the opener in Tennessee. It completely shut down the run and got controlled pressure on a potentially athletic quarterback. The focus for the front will be similar this week, although the challenge comes against a more suspect offensive line. While Bill Belichick is trying to keep the praise of his young players in check, Chandler Jones has a chance for a big game this week. Cardinals left tackle D'Anthony Batiste had really never played the position before last weekend and hasn't started in the NFL since 2007. Jones should have a chance to get after Kevin Kolb, who can be adversely affected by pressure. Arizona also starts rookie Bobby Massie at right tackle, so the edge rush opportunities could come for both sides on Sunday. Beanie Wells had just 14 yards rushing on seven attempts in the opener, so the Patriots should also be able to continue to solid start on run defense to open the season. A bad QB with an average RB behind a bad OL should mean a good day for the Patriots front seven. The defensive confidence building should continue in this one.

2. Protection makes perfect – The Patriots offensive line took a positive step forward in the season opener after a tough preseason. It wasn't perfect, but for the first time that the starting unit actually stepped on the field together it was a decent first step. Dan Connolly left that game with a head injury, though he returned to practice on Thursday on a limited basis. Sebastian Vollmer rotated at right tackle with Marcus Cannon in the opener, but you'd like to think he'll get more reps in Week 2 as he works into shape. The Cardinals have some guys up front in their 3-4, Steelers-based scheme who can put a scare in an offensive line. Darnell Dockett is a big, mean, athletic man. The same can pretty much be said for Calais Campbell. You don't want those guys, who combined for 11.5 sacks last season, getting their hands on Tom Brady. Brady bounced back quickly from his ugly nose injury last week, but it's key to limit those hits. Nate Solder gets a different look dealing with the 3-4 front this week, so he'll have to be ready to go both mentally and physically. The Cardinals defense played much better later last season, although they finished 2011 tied with the Titans as the 18th overall defense in the NFL, 17th against the pass. Arizona has given up 20 or less points in six of its last seven games. But if Brady is protected, New England's offense should find plenty of room to work in this first appearance of 2012 in front of the Gillette Stadium crowd. It will be interesting to see if Patrick Peterson matches up with one of New England's receivers – and who might be – but in the end Brady's weapons far outnumber the Cards talented defenders.

3. Balance beaming – Stevan Ridley talked about just doing his job and not trying to be Superman at the running back position, but the second-year runner clearly was proud of what he did last week in Tennessee. After all, no Patriots running back in the last 25 yards had a game with five runs of 15 yards or more. Ridley has proven in a year-plus that when he gets carries he's going to have production. I don't see any reason not to feed him the ball early in this one against a middle-of-the-pack Cardinals run defense. Brady says they're committed to the run and want to be balanced. But the proof is in the pudding. The Seahawks didn't have a single rush longer than 11 yards last week against Arizona, but something tells me that won't be the case for Ridley in this one. The road to being a balanced offense that's tough to defend is, to some degree, about consistency. Keep the ground momentum going. Keep giving Ridley the ball. That also will take some pressure off the offensive line in dealing with the Cardinals pass rush.

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  1. Cover Fitzgerald** – This one is pretty simple. Chris Johnson was the focal point of the Titans offense in Week 1. Larry Fitzgerald is the key player on the Cardinals. New England proved it could take away a team's running star, now they must do the same to a truly elite receiver who Bill Belichick said may go down as the best of all time. The Patriots coverage was better against Tennessee than we saw most of last season, but it still left something to be desired. While Fitzgerald is capable of taking advantage of bad coverage and even of beating good coverage, the same can't be said of his quarterback. Kevin Kolb is nowhere near the guy Arizona thought it was getting when it traded for him and paid him like a worthy starter. That said, even bad NFL QBs can connect if guys are wide open, especially Hall of Famers. And Fitzgerald proved last year that he can still put up huge numbers with a bad quarterback throwing him the ball. I would expect the Patriots to double Fitzgerald, at least with safety help over the top, all afternoon. If he's held in check there are not too many other options on the Cards offense capable of doing a lot of damage. Cover Fitzgerald and everything else should take care of itself.

5. Pats cover Pat and friends – Peterson isn't just developing into one of the better young cornerbacks in the game, he's also a true impact player on special teams. As a rookie a year ago he had four punt returns for touchdowns. Kick returner LaRod Stephens-Howling has three career kickoff returns for touchdowns. While we're on the special teams note, the Cardinals also have led the NFL in blocked field goals in each of the last three seasons. Arizona blocked one in Week 1, so Stephen Gostkowski and the field goal unit need to be on their toes in this one. Cardinals Special Teams Coordinator Kevin Spencer is actually a former Belichick assistant and long-time friend of the Patriots coach. He certainly has put together an impressive unit in the desert, one that can change games in a variety of ways. It will be interesting to see if Scott O'Brien's troops are up for the early season challenge in the ever important third phase.

6. Home cooking – The Patriots have won 10 straight home openers. New England has lost just one regular season game at home over the last three seasons. Arizona hasn't won in Foxborough since 1984, losing in its last trip 47-7. There has been a lot of excitement around the Patriots this offseason and summer. Training camp attendance was at record highs. Patriots fans clearly have high hopes and a lot of excitement for the 2012 team, and that should be very much seen and heard on Sunday at Gillette. If New England can make a few plays early on both sides of the ball the home field should be rocking and that will make life very hard on Kolb and Co.

Prediction:
Aside from a few impressive individual players on defense and a great receiver on offense, there really isn't a lot to make one believe the Cardinals have much of a chance of rolling into Foxborough and upsetting the Patriots. Trap games are always a possibility and with a big meeting with the Ravens in Baltimore on tap next weekend it's possible the Patriots could look past the Cards. Possible, but not likely. Belichick was serving up Humble Pie to his troops this week and isn't looking to let any sort of overconfidence or complacency set in. New England lost in Week 2 in two of the last three years, although both were at the Jets. I don't think the Patriots will be too high on themselves entering this game, but they might be when they leave it. I think this will be a rout, one that will include big plays on both sides of the ball. Kolb can be sacked. He can be forced into bad throws. The Arizona run game can be held in check. I expect that all to happen. On the other side I think the Brady-led balanced attack will take advantage of Arizona's aging safeties to make some plays over the middle and down the field. Ridley will also continue his impressive start to the year. Assuming the Patriots don't let the Cardinals make big plays in the kicking game I think New England rolls to the 35-9 victory to improve to 2-0 heading into the big Week 3 AFC title game rematch with the Ravens.

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