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Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Marching toward the Saints

New England heads to New Orleans looking to bounce back in a big Week 2 battle.


At a loss.

That's exactly how the Chiefs shocking 42-27 opening-night upset last Thursday left not only the Patriots (0-1) but also those who predicted the defending champions roll to victory in the 2017 debut.

So, what now?

For Bill Belichick's team, the answer is simple. Go to New Orleans and put forth a bounce-back effort against a Drew Brees-led Saints (0-1) squad that fell on opening night in Minnesota.

For fans and analysts, it's not quite as simple. Outsiders are left to wonder if the fourth-quarter failings against Kansas City are aberrations or cracks in the foundation of coming season.

Smart money is on the former. History – though Belichick admonished the world this week to stop living in the past – says the Patriots rarely lose two in a row. New England is 42-6 following a loss dating back to the beginning of the 2003 seasons. And the Patriots haven't opened a season losing their first two games since 2001, when Drew Bledsoe was still the starter.

Plus a quick look at the Saints shows a team that had the worst pass defense in football a year ago and is trying to fix it by throwing rookies at the problem. It didn't work last Monday night, when Sam Bradford put up an NFC Offensive Player of the Week performance against what looked like the same old Saints on that side of the ball.

Most importantly, Tom Brady and the rest of New England's talented leaders have spent the last week-plus focused on rebounding from an effort after which the quarterback questioned the team's "attitude and competitiveness."

A focused, motivated, talented Brady taking on a young, suspect defense is usually a recipe for success in New England.

"It's a tough place to play. It's a big game. Neither team wants to be 0-2 so you've got to figure out how to get a win," Brady said earlier this week of the trip to New Orleans. "Everyone just has to go get their job done. Whatever you're asked to do, you've got to do it. That's what it's going to take. It's going to take a big effort from everybody."

As the time ticks down to a battle between future Hall of Fame passers taking on defenses that are at best a work in progress, here are a few keys to this matchup between the only two NFL squads with "New" in their names that don't hail from New York.

Pass to basics – There is no doubt that the passing game remains the focal point of the Patriots offense. But with the loss of Julian Edelman and the injury to Danny Amendola last week, New England's aerial attack looked out of sorts. It was seemingly left with Brady just throwing the ball deep. Gone were the high-percentage throws to the passing backs. Gone were the underneath routes to slot targets. Those things need to return against the suspect Saints pass defense. Dion Lewis and James White need to be active options in the passing game against New Orleans and rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone. Chris Hogan has the versatility to work out of the slot and make plays underneath and in the middle of the field. Brady needs to get back to his quick, high-percentage passing game against New Orleans and allow the big plays to come as they may after a rhythmic start.

Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 2 matchup against the New Orleans Saints.

Communication is key –The Patriots secondary should be the strength of the defense, but it didn't look that way in the opener. There were clear breakdowns both in execution and communication. That needs to be cleaned up because if it's not, Brees is certainly still capable of making you pay. The Saints quarterback may not be surrounded by the same weapons as he has over the years, but he can make things happen almost regardless of who he's throwing to. Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler need to bring more consistency to the back end. Big plays are the biggest sin when playing defense for the Patriots and that was the biggest problem for the unit on opening night. Hard to imagine that being the same kind of issue this week. If it is, that's a really bad early-season sign. New England will also need to figure out a way to deal with New Orleans' endless personnel changes on almost every snap.

A rush to contribute –The Patriots pass rush – or a potential lack of one – was a major topic of debate this summer. There is little doubt New England is a little undermanned on the edge of the defensive front. Good news is that the Saints are undermanned on the end of the offensive line. New Orleans enters this battle with two tackles inactive as Terron Armstead (shoulder) and normal right tackle starter Zach Strief (knee) are already ruled out. And Brees' blindside will be protected by rookie Ryan Ramczyk. Trey Flowers' ascension as New England's top pass rusher continued in the opener, at least statistically, as he notched a pair of sacks of Alex Smith. Rookie Deatrich Wise Jr. showed the ability to affect the pocket some as well, notching a sack in his NFL debut. The duo and the rest of the New England front should have a chance to beat up on a beat-up offensive line and get after Brees.

Corral Kamara & Co. – Last week the Patriots struggled to contain Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt. The young playmaker put up nearly 250 yards of total offense, including big plays on the ground and through the air on the way to three touchdowns. New Orleans has its own versatile young back in rookie Alvin Kamara. The third-round pick had seven carries and four catches in his debut as Sean Payton tried to make full use of his three-headed backfield committee that also includes veterans Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram. Both Kamara and Ingram are options to catch it almost as often as they run it. The Patriots Alan Branch-led run defense wasn't good enough a week ago and will have to prove itself capable of getting the job done without the injured Dont'a Hightower (knee). And the scheming Payton was likely paying attention to the issue the Patriots had last week with defensive end Cassius Marsh ending up in coverage of Hunt leading to a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown. New England needs to tighten up its defense of running backs against a Saints team that will role three different beasts through the game on Sunday.

Bounce back –Few Patriots played a good, clean, productive 60-minute football game in the season opener. A team that was considered as good and deep as any in the NFL stumbled mightily out of the gates. But the talent and playmaking ability that had some speculating about a 19-0 season didn't disappear last Thursday night. From Belichick down through his coordinators and to his players, pretty much everyone in wearing a Patriots logo needs to be better this week. All are capable of doing the job. Rob Gronkowski can be better than he was. The game plan can be better on both sides of the ball (no Jordan Richards at linebacker, please!). There are so many ways New England can be better in Week 2. The ability is there, it's just about making it happen in a hostile environment.

Prediction: If the Patriots are who most think they are in 2017 this is a game they will not lose. If the Saints are who most think they are in 2017 this is a game where they won't be able to stop the opposing offense. As the late, great Dennis Green might say, both teams are who we thought they were. Brady isn't going to miss his chances against this New Orleans secondary. He's not going to look uncharacteristically frazzled again. He's going to find open targets and put them to use. The opportunity is there for his passing backs, Hogan and Brandin Cooks to all have big games just like the Vikings did last Monday night. Defensively the Patriots simply aren't as bad as they were late against the Chiefs. At the very least, the big-play problems are highly unlikely to continue. Brees will move the ball and score some points because that's what he does. But Brady will move the ball more easily and score more points. In the end it comes together fora 35-21 New England win to bring some calmness to Patriot Nation, at least for this coming week.

What do you think about our keys and prediction? Let us know with a comment below!

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