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Scouting the Matchups: Patriots could disrupt things against mistake-prone Palmer

WHEN THE PATRIOTS RUN

The Patriots will be looking for increased production in their running game this season. New England ranked 30th in the league in rushing yards per game in 2015 (87.8) and made little attempt to run the ball in playoff games against the Chiefs (14 attempts) and Broncos (16 attempts). The loss of Dion Lewis (PUP, knee) hurts, but New England could get a boost from D.J. Foster, who showed explosiveness during the preseason. LeGarrette Blount would appear to be the lead back by default, but with few exceptions he looked listless most of the summer. The Cardinals were fifth among NFL teams in defense in 2015, when they ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards per game (sixth) and rushing yards per play (ninth). They took Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche with the 29th pick in the draft, and appear to be well-suited to handle the Patriots limited running game to open the season.  Advantage: CARDINALS

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WHEN THE CARDINALS RUN

The Cardinals have a deep and talented group of running backs, but their go-to guy is David Johnson, a second-year pro who seized the starting job in Week 13 last season. He finished his rookie year with 13 touchdowns, eight rushing, four receiving and one on a kick return. Johnson, who played at Northern Iowa, seems to have all the traits needed to be a star: size (6-1, 224), power, speed and vision. He's also a good receiver out of the backfield. In addition to his 581 rushing yards last season, Johnson caught 36 passes for 457 yards (12.7 yards per catch). Backup Chris Johnson was among the top three rushers in the NFL for much of last season but suffered a fractured tibia against the 49ers in Week 12 and was placed on IR. Arizona likes to run the ball with two tight ends and will give the Patriots vaunted front seven plenty to deal with in the opener. Advantage: CARDINALS

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WHEN THE PATRIOTS PASS

This is a tough matchup to forecast since New England quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be making his first NFL start in a regular-season game. Garoppolo isn't lacking weapons, though. The concern is a banged-up offensive line that struggled to protect Tom Brady at some crucial times last season. The biggest uncertainty may be at right tackle, where Marcus Cannon will take the place of Sebastian Vollmer, who will begin the season on PUP with a hip injury. Arizona has one of the league's best cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson, and safety Tyrann Mathieu has been cleared to play after tearing his ACL late last season. Arizona improved its pass rush in the offseason by acquiring former New England defensive end Chandler Jones, and the Cards like to bring pressure early and often. The combination of pass rush and playmakers along the back end could make it a long night for Garoppolo. Advantage: CARDINALS

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WHEN THE CARDINALS PASS

Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer is coming off what was perhaps his best year as a pro. He set a team record with 35 touchdown passes and was consistently good during the regular season, when the Cardinals ranked second in passing yards per game. His only poor performance came in the NFC Championship Game, where he was intercepted four times in a 49-15 loss to Carolina. Palmer is blessed with a deep receiving corps that includes Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Fitzgerald led the team in receptions (109), receiving yards (1,215) and TD catches (nine) last season. Malcolm Butler is a solid cover corner, but New England's pass rush took a hit when defensive end Rob Ninkovich was suspended for four games after testing positive for a banned substance. Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower will be asked to provide pressure and extra help underneath against a diverse Cardinals attack and could disrupt things against the mistake-prone Palmer.  Advantage: PATRIOTS

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SPECIAL TEAMS

New England's special teams ran the gamut last season. Stephen Gostkowksi led the NFL in points but missed a PAT in the AFC Championship Game that proved costly. A muffed punt in Week 12 kick-started Denver's come-from-behind victory, and New England had a punt blocked and a punt returned for a touchdown in its loss to Philadelphia. Punter Ryan Allen turned in a solid season. He ranked sixth in the NFL with 31 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line and averaged 46 yards per punt. New England has several options to return kicks, including rookie Cyrus Jones and receiver Julian Edelman. Jones looked like a dangerous punt returner during the preseason and returned four punts for touchdowns last season at Alabama. Arizona's Chandler Catanzaro made 28 of his 31 field goal attempts last season but struggled on long kicks. He missed both of his attempts from at least 50 yards. He was also shaky on PATs, missing five. Punter Drew Butler usually produces good hang time on his kicks, and opponents failed to return 35 of his 60 punts last season. He had 22 punts downed inside the 20-yard line and only six touchbacks. The Cardinals will be looking for improvement in their return games this season. Arizona ranked 24th in punt-return average and 16th in kickoff-return average in 2015. Advantage: PATRIOTS

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OTHER FACTORS

This is obviously a difficult spot for the young Garoppolo to make his starting debut. The Cardinals are a talented team with strengths at virtually every level. Offensively they can score and defensively they force turnovers at an alarming rate. That combination could put Garoppolo under tremendous pressure – both in terms of the pass rush and the mental hurdle of trying to keep up. On the other hand, Bill Belichick has had plenty of time to prepare Garoppolo and his team for life without Tom Brady, and the Patriots have been excellent in openers with a 12-4 mark under Belichick. But this time Brady won't be there and the Cardinals will be energized by their rowdy home crowd playing under the lights on the NBC cameras. Advantage: CARDINALS

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