The bulk of the preparation has taken place by the time Friday rolls around in NFL circles. The game plans have been installed and both the offense and defense have a pretty good idea of how they'll be attacking their counterparts come Sunday.
Beyond the unpredictability of opening day, and the previously mentioned youth of Kansas City that further clouds that element of the unknown, the Patriots and Chiefs are as ready as they're going to be to open the 2008 regular season Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
With that in mind, here's a capsule look at some of the key factors we see as having the biggest impact on Sunday's game:
Protect Tom Brady –Something tells us this will be pretty much a constant throughout the season. Brady is arguably the most important player in the league and losing him for any length of time could be catastrophic for the Patriots offense. Further complicating matters in this case is the foot injury that the quarterback may or may not have. He started the week being listed on the practice report as having fully participated in practice with right shoulder/foot injuries. One day later was missing from the report altogether. Regardless, it would appear that Brady is dealing with some discomfort in the foot and having the Chiefs young and hungry defensive line potentially stomping around him seems like a recipe for disaster. The Patriots need a solid effort from an offensive line that was stellar in 2007 with the exception of a Super Bowl performance that created panic in some circles. Returning to form would both keep Brady healthy and ease a lot of fears.
Get Randy Moss involved –As wonderful as Moss was last season, his production did take a dip down the stretch and in the playoffs. That had much less to do with the wideout than it did with opponents finally realizing that allowing him to run free through their secondaries probably wasn't a good idea. Look for Brady to try to get Moss some touches early in an effort to re-establish their dominance from 2007. Also, with a rookie second-round pick in Brandon Flowersexpected to start, exploiting such a matchup would seem to make sense, no?
Spread the carries –It's hard to remember now after all of the records the Patriots offense set last year, but New England opened the season displaying a very balanced attack. Laurence Maroneyand Sammy Morrissplit duties in the first few weeks and the results were terrific. Brady and the passing game would click early to get the lead and Maroney and Morris would pound opponents into submission in the fourth quarter. Now offensive coordinator Josh McDanielshas another option to hand the ball to in LaMont Jordan, and it would seem to make it easier to maintain that balance. I wouldn't expect Brady to stop the aerial assault, but spreading the wealth will pay dividends down the road.
Stop Larry Johnson – The Chiefs lead back is one of the league's best when he healthy, which was not the case last year when he finished with less than 600 yards in half a season. He's fully recovered from the foot injury that slowed him a year ago and, although he wasn't overly productive, he was able handle a full load during the summer. Johnson can control the tempo by grinding out first downs against even the best defenses, so it's imperative for the front seven to prevent that from happening. Working against a virtually new offensive line should make life easier for rookie Jerod Mayoin his debut inside next to Tedy Bruschi.
Prevent big plays – Dwayne Boweand Tony Gonzalezwill create matchup problems for the Patriots still-developing secondary. Gonzalez is one of the best tight ends in football and he's had many battles with Rodney Harrisonfrom their days together in the AFC West when the safety was in San Diego. He will threaten the secondary at every level and is capable of getting deep down the seam. Bowe enjoyed a solid rookie season last year catching 70 balls for nearly 1,000 yards. He is a big-play threat as well. The Patriots can't allow either to impact the game with a quick score that could potentially keep the Chiefs hanging around.
Confuse Brodie Croyle –The Chiefs young, third-year quarterback is starting just his seventh career game. He's also looking for his first win. Assuming the Patriots don't let Johnson control the game, which is a logical assumption, that puts a lot of pressure on the former Alabama star's shoulders. If the Patriots can make Kansas City one-dimensional, Croyle will be in for a long day. The defense can jack up the pressure and confuse him with different fronts and blitzes, which will likely lead to mistakes. Letting him get comfortable, especially early, could make things a bit dicey with Bowe and Gonzalez around. Expect at least three sacks and two turnovers from New England's defense.
Herman Edwards does not lack courage. If things don't go well in his attempted youth movement, he won't likely be around to oversee these players as veterans. The Chiefs will bring 15 rookies to Foxborough, and many of them are expected to play key roles. That doesn't sound like the ingredients of an upset. Expect the Patriots to move the ball effectively on offense, particularly early, and create a sizable working margin. At that point the defense should be able to dictate the way the game is played. Few teams play better in that situation. I expect the Patriots to open the season with a business-like victory – 28-13.