After a couple of road trips to open the season, the Patriots (1-1) return to Foxborough this Sunday afternoon for the home opener at Gillette Stadium against the Raiders (0-2). Bill Belichick's team hasn't exactly burst out of the gates in 2014 and there is plenty for New England to work on in all three phases of the game. Ultimately, though, NFL success is about improvement over the course of the year, not how you start. Oakland has been far more sluggish through two weeks, laying the foundation of a season that could lead the team to the No. 1 overall pick in next spring's draft. Fans and players alike should be fired up for the first taste of football in New England this fall as the Patriots look to begin to build positive momentum. Oakland heads across the country looking for its first win before heading across the pond for next week's game in London against the Dolphins. It's a renewal of a rivalry between two former AFL foes and the teams that made playing the snow fashionable while making the Tuck Rule a household term in the world of the NFL. It should be a beautiful fall day, assuming potential thunderstorms hold off. As you get ready for some home football cooking, kick back and enjoy this Silver-and-Black rather than black-and-tan edition of the Raiders at Patriots Pregame Six-Pack!
- Run Ridley** - Unless you've been living under the box that had been holding Brady's years-old resume you are aware that the Patriots passing game and its early season inefficiencies have been a major topic this week in New England. Pass protection and the contributions of complementary receivers have been a bit of an issue through two games. Last week the game plan in Minnesota called for fullback James Develin and rookie tackle-turned-tight end Cameron Fleming to bolster efforts to establish the run. It took a while to take hold, but the plan worked. Stevan Ridley notched 25 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown. That's a nice effort on the ground and a nice precursor to a matchup with a Raiders team that's opened the new year with the worst run defense in football. Oakland has allowed an even 400 yards on the ground in two games, including a 5.0-yard average. Getting the ground game going once again would take pressure off the passing game. It would open up some play-action chances and maybe help the Brady-led attack to hit a more comfortable stride. Ridley wants to run. Offensive linemen always want to run. The Raiders production on defense makes it look like they want to be run on. So, the Patriots should run and should be able to find some good success in doing so.
- Start to finish** - The Patriots have bene inconsistent in many areas to open the season. They've been inconsistent from play to play, half to half and game to game. One constant in the first two weeks has been a bad start and a wilting offensive finish. In Miami the bad start was a blocked punt. In Minnesota it was a drive on defense that couldn't have gone much worse. Both games saw New England's offense fade after halftime. Brady and Co. have not scored a touchdown in the second half through two games. The goal of every team, every coach, is to play a 60-minue game. The Patriots have failed to meet that challenge so far, even in a 30-7 victory last weekend over the Vikings. Heading into a home opener in front of an excited crowd on a beautiful fall afternoon in New England should be a perfect situation for the Patriots to get off to a fast start. And given that the Raiders are a team that's scored just seven points total in the first three quarters of two games they shouldn't be expected to put up much of an early fight. Start fast and finish strong against a team that's really looking like it could be one of the worst two or three squads in the game this season.
- Crash the Carr** - The Patriots pass rush got after Matt Cassel last week to the tune of six sacks. Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Rob Ninkovich and even Jerod Mayo have been enjoying getting after the quarterback a bit more this summer. There is no reason for that not to continue against the Raiders and rookie quarterback Derek Carr. Though the second-round pick has been sacked just twice so far, New England's versatile, athletic and more aggressive front should be able to throw some things at him that he's yet to see. The potential of getting Jamie Collins (thigh) back on the field and Dominique Easley building steam could also make life tough on Carr. The Raiders have also been terrible running the ball this season. Maurice Jones-Drew (hand) is banged up and had just 11 yards on his 9 attempts. Darren McFadden is averaging only 3.3 yards per attempt on his team-high 16 carries. So there isn't much of a running game to worry about at this point. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia should release the dogs and let them chase Carr all afternoon.
- Flag free** - As the great Paul Perillo so concisely put it talking about the Patriots win last week, 15 penalties and 16 points on offense isn't going to win a lot of football games. New England has clearly been working on becoming a more efficient offense and the track record for success in that area earns them the benefit of the doubt. The only thing more surprising than a struggling passing attack is the flurry of flags that have come down on Belichick's team through two games. They've come all over the field and in all three phases of the game. There may be no clear way to clean up the mess. Belichick and Brady both talked about it just being a need for more practice and more precise practice. But until the team can prove itself capable of going out and playing a relatively clean football game the flags have to be a concern. Ironically the Raiders are one of the least penalized teams in football at this point. In a weird way, at least in that area, the Patriots need to play more like Oakland. The flags just can't continue to fly at the rate of an average of a dozen per game if the Patriots are going to become the football team we all expect them to be. The step toward cleaner play needs to begin on Sunday or Belichick clearly won't be a happy man.
- Spread it out** - While running the ball is probably a good starting point for success against Oakland, that doesn't mean the Patriots passing game gets the week off. New England needs to improve, diversify and become more consistent through the air. That starts with the pass protection, flows through Brady and includes every target on the roster. Julian Edelman ended up with a back injury last week that saw him limited in practice this week. If he's going to be catching so many passes in a predictable attack, he's going to take even more of a beating moving forward. Rob Gronkowski is clearly not his Gronk-self coming off the ACL, but every week is a chance to get more fluid, consistent and involved. Beyond that it's up to someone else to starting getting the job done more consistently. Belichick always makes the role of receiver sound simple - get open and catch the ball. Apparently it's easier said than done, because the current group of receivers beyond Edelman hasn't being doing the job well enough. One or more of the guys from the group of Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell or Kenbrell Thompkins need to step forward and start producing.
6. No trap - There is no way in hell the Patriots should lose their home opener to the Raiders. Dennis Allen's squad has some notable names and talent that was good a few years ago, but it's just not a cohesive team expected to win with much regularity. Heck, the coach is already seemingly on the hot seat. The major factor that should keep this from being a trap game is that the Patriots haven't exactly rolled through the first two weeks of the season. They haven't played well enough to take anybody lightly. The ways the Raiders might stun New England are the traditional ways that upsets occur - turnovers and big plays. The Patriots have done a good job of taking care of the football to open the season and made good on opportunities to get their own turnovers. As long as that trend continues, the Patriots should avoid any trap or letdown against an obviously inferior opponent.
Though the Patriots may not be playing up to our too-high expectations, the team certainly made some strides last week against the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings. The test won't be too much greater this week in the first home game of the fall. There is no reason Ridley shouldn't be able to find good production on the ground. There is no reason Brady shouldn't be able to move the ball through the air, even against a veteran, experienced Oakland secondary. There is no reason the Patriots front seven shouldn't be able to get after Carr and control the game up front. There's no reason a Patriots secondary that has four interceptions shouldn't be able to add to that early season total. As long as Khalil Mack and Co. don't start making crazy pressure plays off the edge, New England's offense should be fine. As long as James Jones or one of the Raiders other weapons don't start hitting big plays, the defense should be fine. Belichick will have his team ready to go and the crowd should bring a little extra energy early. Put it all together and I think the Patriots cruise to the 38-12 victory, playing the team's most complete football game of the young season. I'm not sure we'll have too many more long-term answers about New England after the win, but it should still be an impressive victory. If not, that could make for much consternation next week.