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Patriots Monday (WEEI Simulcast) Mon Sep 23 | 09:00 AM - 06:00 PM

Keys to the Starting Lineup presented by CarMax: Tom vs. Texans

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The long offseason and short summer are over in New England.

The best part of the post-Labor Day life is obviously the return of Patriots football!

Sunday afternoon Bill Belichick’s squad will return to real, exciting, meaningful action hosting Bill O’Brien’s hopeful Texans in a 1 p.m. kickoff at Gillette Stadium.

Salacious storylines, draft decisions and free-agent departures can all finally be put to rest. Days after releasing the final installment of his “Tom vs. Time,” Tom Brady gets to work on his 19th NFL seasons with a matchup against upstart youngster Deshaun Watson, who was a would-be MVP candidate as a rookie a year ago before going down with a torn ACL.

Despite everything that’s gone on over the last year, New England opens the new season as not only the clear favorite to win the AFC East, but once again contending for a Super Bowl title. That’s not to say there aren’t questions about the Patriots on cusp of the 2018 schedule – maybe even more questions than in past seasons – but there are also certainly plenty of things to get excited about and an abundance of hope this September.

Still, opening day is the ultimate unknown. All 32 teams enter the season believing this is their year, their turn to be the surprise playoff squad or opportunity to bring home a ring.

For better or worse, opening day is a first look at what could be store.

“I’m sure we’ll see things that we haven’t prepared for, just like we always do and always happens on opening day,” Belichick admitted this week, while expressing his excitement to get the season going. “So, again, opening day is opening day.”

It is. And it’s finally here. The time for talk is over. The past is irrelevant. The future is meaningless. It’s all about the plays made and missed on Sunday against Houston.

According to NFL.com, since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, teams that won the opener went to the playoffs 54-percent of the time and won their division 32-percent of the time. Opening day losers went to the playoffs just 24-percent of the time and won their division a mere 14-percent of the time.

Opening day matters.

Football is back, baby!

As you count down the hours till Sunday’s kickoff, here are some keys to keep an eye on in this battle with the Texans:

Tom’s time – Much has been made of Brady’s absence from voluntary OTAs this spring. It was a new approach that the quarterback explained as a bit of a work/life balance in “Tom vs. Time.” There are certainly those ready to pounce if Brady struggles at all early in the season. Some will point to his age and that he’s finally falling of the proverbial cliff. (His name rhymes with Max Kellerman.) Others will point to his missing the key throws of the practice action this spring. But last we saw Brady a year ago he showed no signs of slowing down on the way to his MVP award. He will face the challenges of aging as well as trying to pull things together with a new-look, undermanned corps of receivers. Still, is anyone betting against Brady?

Line up! – For Brady to do his job in the passing game, he’s going to need time to throw. The battle between New England’s offensive line and Houston’s talented, deep and versatile front seven could very well decide this game. J. J. Watt is back and supposedly as good as ever to lead the Texans up front. But the group goes much deeper than that with guys like Jadeveon Clowney and past Patriots thorn Whitney Mercilus, among others. Those guys will move around the front and try to create matchups. Most eyes on the Patriots line will be on the tackles spots. Trent Brown has held down the left side, filling Nate Solder’s spot, since practice began this summer. The giant pass protector will get the chance to prove his worth in the opening act against in a stiff challenge. The right tackle spot is also a question after Marcus Cannon missed basically all summer, though he was listed as full participation with a calf injury on the practice report this week. If the Texans win the line of scrimmage and make Brady uncomfortable it may be a long day for the Patriots offense. If they don’t, expect the G.O.A.T. to eat up the Texans with a precision short passing game.

Pressure control – Watson is supposedly completely recovered from his torn ACL. If that’s true, then New England will be dealing with an exciting young player who can kill a defense with both his legs and his arm. Houston averaged basically 40 points a game when Watson was rolling early last season. New England has struggled with mobile quarterbacks over the years and must prove the new-look defensive front is capable of the kind of controlled pass rush that Belichick generally employs in such matchups. Adrian Clayborn is an experienced veteran with plenty of past NFC South battles with Cam Newton, so he should be ready for the challenge. Trey Flowers is healthy and ready to go. Deatrich Wise Jr. and Derek Rivers bring youthful potential. But are they all set to set the edge and keep Watson under wraps? We’ll find out Sunday.

Debut day – Plenty of guys with the potential to play key roles this game and this season will make their regular season Patriots debuts against the Texans. Is Brown all he’s expected to be at left tackle? Will Jeremy Hill be the next big back in line, picking up where LeGarrette Blount left off? What kind of impact can Cordarrelle Patterson have both in the kicking game and on offense? Does Danny Shelton have what it takes to be a dominant interior force in the mold of past Patriot Vince Wilfork? Can Clayborn stabilize the defensive end spot that was such an issue a year ago? Are two McCourtys – Jason joining twin brother Devin in the back end – really better than one? Which of the rookies will have the biggest impact out of the gates? There are plenty of questions and plenty of positive possibilities surrounding a group of guys making their debut in a New England uniform on Sunday afternoon.

Is there a catch? – The biggest storyline surrounding the Patriots throughout the summer was the lack of depth and proven options at the receiver position. At the very least that question will continue until Julian Edelman returns from suspension after Week 4. In the meantime, it’s really unknown which if any of the current options is ready to step up. Chris Hogan is bumped up to the No. 1 option, which means he’ll get increased attention from opposing defenses. Sure he has a working history with Brady, but he’s not going to find himself wide open too often as was the case when he averaged 17.9 yards to tie for the NFL lead back in 2016. Phillip Dorsett had a solid but inconsistent summer as a former first-round pick who’ll be leaned on early. Patterson is still far from a polished route runner in the mold of traditional Patriots targets. Brady will have to make it all work on the fly, even if he primarily leans on tight end Rob Gronkowski and his passing backs, led by James White.

Special attention – New England returns its three specialists, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be questions in the kicking game in the opener. Traditionally there are big plays in the kicking game early in the season as teams pull it all together in the third phase and settle in. The new rules governing kickoffs and kickoff returns will be worth watching from a philosophical standpoint. It will also be interesting to see how the Patriots handle punt returns. Safety Patrick Chung is probably the most likely candidate, though Riley McCarron is a late option or Patterson could get that job along with kickoff return duties. In what should be a competitive game, a big play in the kicking game could sway momentum and maybe the end results.

Prediction – Despite last year’s debacle of a loss on Thursday night to the Chiefs, it’s hard to bet against the Patriots on opening day in Foxborough. So here at the Keys we’ll work smarter not harder in 2018 and go with New England to take care of business against Houston. But it won’t be easy. The Texans have proven stars with elite playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. Watson, though, needs to prove he’s back to full go less than a year removed from a torn ACL. Offensively the Patriots have dealt with Watt for the most part over the years and he also needs to prove himself healthy and ready to dominate. Most likely Brady will employ a short, quick passing game similar to what we saw with him going to White in the preseason. Gronkowski will obviously be the go-to option on third down or in key spots in the red zone. He’s healthy and happy with the contract, so he’s ready to do the job. The matchups in the back end between Stephon Gilmore’s secondary and the Hopkins/Will Fuller receiving group is worthy of keeping an eye on. But if New England avoids the big plays allowed on defense and takes advantage of lots of little plays on offense it should be enough to make the home crowd happy. Put it all together and look for a 31-24 victory for Brady and Co. to kick the season off the right way.

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

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