On paper a matchup between the back-to-back defending Super Bowl champions, a Patriots team that has gone 34-4 over the last two seasons, and the Oakland Raiders, team that went 9-23 over that same span, isn't necessarily a marquee affair.
But in this case, prior performance does not necessarily predict future production.
The 2005 Oakland Raiders are not the same team that won five games in 2004. This offseason the team traded for arguably the most talented and explosive receiver in the game in Randy Moss and added productive running back LaMont Jordan a guy who has spent the early part of his career in the shadows backing up future Hall of Fame back Curtis Martin in New York. Combine that new talent with returning strong-armed quarterback Kerry Collins (289-of-513 for 3,495 yards with 21 TDs and 20 interceptions in 13 starts in 2004), returning wide receiver Jerry Porter and a developing young offensive line and the Raiders have the talent not only to be productive, but to be flat out explosive.
The Patriots defenders will get the first taste of that potentially potent unit Thursday night at Gillette Stadium with the entire football world watching. From a defensive point of view for any team, defending these new look Raiders starts with stopping Moss.
"He's one of the top receivers in football," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "He can do it all, long, short, run after the catch. They play him at a lot of different positions. They play him in the perimeter most of the time but he does play inside. He can do anything. Go up and get the ball, run short to intermediate patterns, get off the line of scrimmage, beat press coverage, run after the catch, any type of stop and go routes, double moves. He's a very quick and fast athlete with exceptional ball skills. [He can] go up and jump and take the ball away from a player or other players in a competitive jump ball type of situation. He's got pretty much all the skill you could ask for in a receiver."
Add that to an offense that already ranked eighth in 2004, and mix in Jordan (4.9 yard career average in limited action behind Martin) to bring stability to a rushing attack that was at the bottom of the league a year ago, and the Raiders are a new-look offensive beast.
Making things even more difficult for the New England defenders is that preparing for an opening week matchup is like working without a net. There isn't much film to go on and when a team has added weapons like Moss and Jordan in the offseason, last year's tendencies can almost be thrown out the window.
"It's hard because you just have less information to work with and what you do have in the preseason, some of that could be pretty vanilla relative to what the team really wants to do," Belichick said of preparing for the opener. "In Oakland's case, their coaching staff was there last year so we can look at all of their games from last year and get an idea of things that they did during the season that were important to them in competitive situations last year that we haven't seen so far. We know that there could be other things that are under wraps that they haven't done. We just have to be ready to make some adjustments during the game. I think that's the way it always is. There's no question that this is the hardest game."
"It's a guessing game," veteran linebacker Chad Brown said of preparing for early season games. "You have prepared for them and then all of the sudden they released some guys that you prepared for. Now you have to prepare for some new guys. You have the unknown, every team is going to have some kind of new wrinkle opening day. So what is that wrinkle going to be? It is a bit of a guessing game. There is no way of really being accurate with your guessing. You just have to be prepared to get to the sideline and adjust."
One thing that helps the defense in its preparation for the opening matchup against a talented, versatile offense, and for every other opponent this season down the line, is the fact that the Patriots defenders practice against a very talented Tom Brady-led New England offense every practice.
"Obviously we are preparing against one of the best offenses in the league," linebacker Monty Beisel said. "I think that helps. You have Deion Branch, David Givens, guys like that giving good looks. We are just trying to get ready to go out there. Obviously it's not going to be full speed and the way we are going to see it on Thursday, but that's the nature of the beast."
The bottom line is that this veteran based New England defense, with a variety new players at inside linebacker and in the secondary, has been looking toward this first game all offseason. It's the most important game on the schedule right now not because of the challenge it poses, the fact that the whole league is watching, that it's the home opener or that the Super Bowl banner will be unveiled. It's the most important game because, as Belichick has beaten into his team so consistently over the last five-plus seasons, it's the next one.
"Accomplishments in the past, all that doesn't mean anything," Willie McGinest said. "Everybody's goal this year is just to win, to win games and try to be standing at the end of the year. We keep everything consistent, our goal remains that we want to win one game a week. That's the Raiders. That's all we have been preparing for this whole offseason up until camp and that's all that matters."
Jets Vilma not easily impressed
Despite New England's back-to-back Super Bowl wins and dominating 34-4 record over the last two seasons, New York Jets second-year linebacker Jonathan Vilma still isn't blown away by the team's talent. Asked in the September issue of Maxim magazine if the Patriots were more talented than the Jets, the confident former University of Miami star responded with somewhat surprising candor.
"I don't think so," the 2004 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year answered. "They're not that good. After my first game against them, I was like, 'That's it?' I was expecting big, great miraculous plays. It's a matter of them tuning in to the little things, which we have to pay more attention to."
The Patriots and Jets don't meet until Dec. 4 at Gillette Stadium. New England has gone a perfect 4-0 over the last two seasons against New York.
The Patriots filled out the eighth spot on the practice squad on Monday by signing rookie tackle Wesly Britt. The 6-8, 314 pounder was drafted by the Chargers in the fifth round (164th overall) of April's draft after finishing his career at Alabama where he started 46 career games and earned third team All-America honors from the Associated Press as a senior. Released by the Chargers on the final roster cutdown to 53 on Sept. 3, Britt has been assigned locker and jersey number 65 in New England. … In case you missed it there were a few other number changes over the weekend. Linebacker Wesly Mallard now wears 96, Monty Beisel has the number 52 formerly owned by the guy he is helping to replace, Ted Johnson, and undrafted rookie free agent defensive lineman Mike Wright switched from 69 to 99. … While it doesn't garner the attention its hooded brother gets thanks to game day attention, Bill Belichick often wears a similar hoodless gray Patriots sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves to his daily press conferences at Gillette Stadium. The heavy duty has caught up to the sweatshirt, which now has just a single 'B' below the Patriots logo on the front where the head coach's double initials were located. … New England castoff Kyle Eckel signed with the Dolphins.