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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: It all begins vs. Chiefs

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There is so much to look forward to this season - both in New England and across the NFL.

All that hope and potential begins with the Patriots hosting the Chiefs Thursday night at what should be an electric season opener in Foxborough.

Seasons will collide, as the pre-game ceremonies to kick off yet another year of America’s most popular sport will include the unveiling of New England’s most recent Super Bowl banner, a fifth symbol of greatness that required renovations at Gillette Stadium to make room for the latest accomplishment of Bill Belichick’s modern dynasty.

There will be singing, dancing, pyrotechnics and more in a made-for-TV celebration of football and New England’s success with Patriots Nation taking a well-deserved front-row seat for it all.

But as Tom Brady noted, banners and pre-game celebrations are really for the fans. On the field the players have already put past successes behind them and there is a task at hand.

Sure there have been fan-and-media-driven dreams this summer of a 19-0 fall in Foxborough. But for Belichick, Brady and the rest of the defending champs to pursue 19-0 – a goal they would never speak of themselves – they must get to 1-0. In order to do that they must take care of business at home against a Chiefs team that won 12 games a year ago to earn the No. 2 seed in last January’s AFC playoffs. Last time New England faced Kansas City in the regular season Andy Reid’s team wiped the field with the Patriots, of course that was at Arrowhead Stadium and interestingly jumpstarted a Super Bowl run for the victims.

This is a new year. A year in which the Patriots once again appear locked and loaded for a championship run. Kansas City, on the other hand, may not be quite the same squad. The team’s 2016 leading rusher, Spencer Ware, is already lost to injury leaving a rookie to take over the lead role. Veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin was sent packing. And a high first-round pick was used on quarterback Patrick Mahomes, potentially signaling a passing of the passing torch in the near future.

Still, Kansas City has a well-respected coach. New England’s defense has plenty of respect for quarterback Alex Smith. There are star playmakers on both sides of the ball for the visitors. And opening night presents the unknown potential – good and bad – that’s unique to Week 1.

So as you mindlessly push through a day of Thursday work focused completely on impending opening of the football season, here are few potential keys in this prime time battle between a pair of talented playoff contenders from a year ago:

*Tom’s time - *Brady is coming off an impressive summer of practice and preseason action. He’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 2016. So the fact that he’s now 40 doesn’t seem to be an issue. Certainly the loss of his top target, Julian Edelman (ACL), is less than ideal. But Brady is still fortunate to have an absolutely loaded corps of offensive weapons to work with. It may not be long before 40 is seen as the new 30 at the quarterback position, and Brady is leading that charge. TB12 appears poised for another impressive season, maybe the best ever for a man of his age. He’s going against a ball-hawking Chiefs defense that led the NFL with 33 takeaways, including tying for the NFL high with 18 interceptions. But Brady should also find plenty of room with which to use his abundant targets against a K.C. D that ranked 18th in the NFL against the pass last fall. Brady appears more than ready to hit the ground running – or more aptly, passing – in 2017.

Protect this G.O.A.T. - Brady’s Under Amour pals preach about protecting the house. For the Patriots it’s all about protecting the G.O.A.T. Kansas City can put pressure on the passer. Dee Ford is coming off a 10-sack season as an ascending edge presence. Justin Houston remains dangerous. And the Patriots have yet to see left tackle Nate Solder suit up this summer, though he should do so in the opener. The best way for any opponent to stop New England is to pressure Brady. The Chiefs have the potential to do that off the edge. It will also be interesting to see if opponents take a page from Houston’s playoff playbook and try to earn favorable pass-rush matchups inside against New England’s youthful interior. Protect Brady and let him carve up the Chiefs.

*Big night for no big plays allowed - *The Patriots defense – mostly backups – allowed an alarming number of big plays this summer. That can’t be a part of the first-teamers resume this season if New England is to be as good as people think it can be. Belichick preaches the importance of not allowing big plays and has a veteran secondary that should be able to limit the damage on most game days. That’s important on opening night against a Chiefs offense that has somewhat limited potential, but has a couple big-play options in Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. If Devin McCourty and Co. can keep Hill and Kelce from moving the ball in big chunks of yards, Smith isn’t likely to be able to keep pace with Brady. But Hill is one of the more dangerous athletes in the NFL and Reid has surely been scheming all offseason to get the ball in his top playmaker’s hands with room to work. Get back. Tackle. Avoid allowing big plays. That’s where it all starts on defense in this matchup.

*Gronk spike! - *Rob Gronkowski is coming off a fully healthy offseason and summer of action. He played in the preseason for the first time since 2012. He showed his unique energy and style on the practice field on a daily basis. He hits the regular season seemingly destined to make plays from the get-go. The last two times the Patriots have beaten the Chiefs Gronkowski has notched a pair of touchdowns in each win. Eric Berry is one of the best safeties in the game, but he was on the ugly receiving end of one of those scores when Gronkowski and Brady embarrassed the Pro Bowl talent two years ago. The addition of Brandin Cooks to the Patriots mix will put even more stress on opposing safeties this fall as they have to pick their poison. If they give Gronk an inch, he’ll take a mile. And probably a touchdown. Few things would ignite the home crowd on this special night more than a Gronkowski touchdown and signature post-score spike.

*New beginnings - *The Patriots have key newcomers on both sides of the ball that should have an instant impact on Thursday night. Offensively Cooks’ role in the offense will be fun to watch as he grows more comfortable and builds a rapport with Brady. Comparisons to Randy Moss’ impact on the 2007 squad have been made. If that’s fair, expecting a huge opening night from Cooks should not be ruled out. Mike Gillislee could also be in line for a big debut against a K.C. team that fielded the NFL’s 26th run defense last fall. The former Bills backup is likely to be the top running option in New England could hit the ground running in the opener. Defensively Stephon Gilmore is a bigger corner who, along with Eric Rowe, might be in line to help deal with the unique matchup that Kelce represents. As the cliché goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

*The unknown - *Opening night is an exercise in reaction and adjustment. Teams clearly have new ideas, schemes and personnel to unleash on each other. Reid and Belichick are longtime friends with mutual respect for each other. Each head coach, and his respective assistants, will have to adjust on the fly as the game unfolds. Those adjustments will be key in taking steps toward victory. Who better to make those adjustments than Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff?

Special attention - The Patriots have had a lot of moving parts in the kicking game this summer. The role of punt returner is somewhat unknown for New England, although Danny Amendola seems the most likely candidate. Joe Judge’s unit also has a slew of new faces to work with in the kicking game – both rookies and veterans. Oh, and Hill is maybe the most dangerous returner in the game today, having hit for touchdowns on a pair of punts and a kickoff a year ago. Big plays in the kicking game are pretty common early in the season and can swing the momentum.

Prediction - *History tells us that defending Super Bowl champions are 11-0 in the Thursday night home opener since the NFL went to the current scheduling format. It’s hard to imagine New England being the first team to get upset in that situation. The Patriots are the more talented team with the better quarterback and better head coach. Sounds like a recipe for victory, especially when strengthened by the unique electricity of the home crowd celebrating the unveiling of another Super Bowl banner. The Chiefs strength on defense is all about turnovers. The Patriots, based on recent history, don’t turn the ball over. If that continues Brady should be able to move the ball with regularity and score frequently. The Chiefs will start a rookie running back and probably need big plays on offense to keep things close. That’s probably not going to happen. The NFL opener is a unique spot for a road team and not a good one to be in. Put it all together and the Patriots should come out of the summer on fire, piling up points on the way to the *45-10 victory jumpstart the new season.

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