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NFL Preview - New England (0-0) at Tennessee (0-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The 2011 New England Patriots began their 11th straight winning campaign with a record-setting performance in the season opener.
If they can duplicate what happened in their last meeting with the Tennessee Titans, more records could fall on Sunday.
The Patriots hope to begin defense of their AFC championship with their ninth straight season-opening win and give the Titans' Jake Locker a rude introduction to life as a starting quarterback when the two teams square off at LP Field.
New England has not posted a regular-season mark under .500 since 2000, three seasons before it last suffered a Week 1 loss. That 31-0 setback at the Buffalo Bills was one of two defeats the club suffered over the 2003 season's first four weeks, but New England rebounded to go 14-2 and win the first of back-to-back Super Bowl efforts.
The Patriots are coming off a 13-3 season, their ninth straight year with at least 10 wins, but they lost for the second time in five years in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, this time by a slim 21-17 margin.
New England would love to get its 2012 season off to a similar start as last year, when the franchise opened with a 38-24 win over the hosting Miami Dolphins in which it set a club record with 622 total yards of offense.
Quarterback Tom Brady also set a franchise record with 517 passing yards to go along with four touchdowns through the air, one a 99-yarder to wide receiver Wes Welker.
Brady had an even better game the last time he faced the Titans, which occurred on Oct. 18, 2009 in New England.
Playing in snowy conditions, he led a 59-0 Patriots' rout with six touchdown passes, including five in the second quarter alone to set an NFL record. New England's 45-0 advantage at halftime also set a new league record.
Welker caught 10 passes in that game for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
"We obviously made some big plays. It was a crazy game in terms of conditions," Brady said this week in remembering the meeting. "It was raining in pregame warmups and it turned into snow. It was the sixth game of the year, so that's never happened up here. Last year it didn't snow at all, and that was mid-October and we had a huge snowfall. They're memorable games when the weather is as inclement as it was that particular day. I'm glad we executed well. It was a fun day to be on offense."
Mike Munchak was an offensive line coach for the Titans in that game, but enters his second season as the franchise's head coach. He led Tennessee to a 9-7 mark and second-place finish in the AFC South a year ago, with the club just missing out on a playoff spot.
Munchak is ready to roll the dice in 2012 and is going with second-year Locker as his starting quarterback over veteran Matt Hasselbeck.
"It's exciting for him, it's exciting for the franchise," Munchak said of Locker's start. "You're playing against a pretty darn good football team to start your career. I think we have to be smart on what we will ask him to do, what we will have him do. I don't think we really have to limit him. He just has to do things that he should, that he's good at right now."
With such a young signal-caller, veterans such as first-year Titan Steve Hutchinson, who steps in to start at left guard, wide receiver Nate Washington and running back Chris Johnson will need to be leaders.
Should the Titans get routed by the Pats again on Sunday, at least they'll have the 2009 season to fall back on as a learning tool. The blowout loss to New England capped an 0-6 start before Tennessee went 8-2 to finish out the season at .500.
This weekend's opener will also feature a matchup between twin-brother starting cornerbacks Devin and Jason McCourty. Devin enters his third year with New England, while Jason -- a fellow Rutgers product -- is in his fourth campaign with the Titans.
"Yeah, I mean there are definitely some similarities, as you would expect," noted Pats head coach Bill Belichick of the twins. "They're both fast [and] they're both aggressive, good tacklers, good solid players. We'll never get a better look at a guy than we will this week from Devin. It's about as close as it gets."
Patriots lead 21-15-1
Streak: Patriots have won last three meetings Last Meeting: Patriots 59, Titans 0 (Oct. 18, 2009 at New England) Last Meeting at Site: Patriots 40, Titans 23 (Dec. 31, 2006)
Patriots HC Bill Belichick vs. Titans/Oilers: 8-7 overall, 4-1 with Pats Titans HC Mike Munchak vs. Patriots: 0-0 Belichick vs. Munchak Head-to-Head: First Meeting
Notes: Tennessee's last win in series came in 2002 (24-7 at home). Franchises have met twice in the postseason, with Patriots earning 17-14 home decision in 2003 AFC Divisional Playoffs and Houston Oilers posting 31-14 home victory over New England in 1978 AFC Divisional Playoffs.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
New England: 2nd overall (428.0 ypg), 20th rushing (110.3 ypg), 2nd passing (317.8 ypg), 3rd scoring (32.1 ppg)
Tennessee: 17th overall (335.1 ypg), 31st rushing (89.9 ypg), 12th passing (245.2 ypg), 21st scoring (20.3 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
New England: 31st overall (411.1 ypg), 17th rushing (117.1 ypg), 31st passing (293.9 ypg), 15th scoring (21.4 ppg)
Tennessee: tied 18th overall (355.1 ypg), 24th rushing (128.3 ypg), 14th passing (226.8 ypg), 8th scoring (19.8 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
New England: +17 (34 takeaways, 17 giveaways) Tennessee: +1 (23 takeaways, 22 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
New England: 65.3 percent (72 possessions, 47 TD, 18 FG) -- 2nd overall Tennessee: 59.5 percent (37 possessions, 22 TD, 11 FG) -- 5th overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
New England: 55.7 percent (61 possessions, 34 TD, 16 FG) -- tied 21st overall Tennessee: 47.9 percent (48 possessions, 23 TD, 18 FG) -- 10th overall
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
New England used a top-rated pass attack to score over 500 points for a second straight season in 2011. Brady led the charge with 5,235 passing yards -- the second most in NFL history -- while completing 39 touchdown passes to 12 interceptions. He needs just 21 yards to become the 14th player in league history to reach 40,000 in a career and has thrown at least one touchdown pass in 32 straight games. The two-time NFL MVP loves to look for Welker (122 receptions, 9 TD) out of the slot and also helped Rob Gronkowski (90 receptions, 17 TD) put together one of the best seasons ever by a tight end. His 1,327 receiving yards, 17 touchdown catches and 18 total scores were all single-season records at the position, and he finished second in the AFC in receiving yards to only Welker's 1,569. Fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez was third on the club with 79 receptions, 910 receiving yards and seven scores. With the Pats parting ways with both Deion Branch and Chad Johnson, free-agent pickup Brandon Lloyd (70 receptions, 5 TD with Broncos and Rams) becomes Brady's new deep threat. Though New England moves the ball through the air, it doesn't have a problem putting it on the ground to score touchdowns. Gronkowski scored a rushing touchdown in 2011, while BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- who signed with the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason -- had 11 rushing scores. Stevan Ridley (441 rushing yards, 1 TD) takes over as the No. 1 back, running behind a line that lost left tackle Matt Light to retirement this offseason.
It is no surprise that the Titans struggled at times on defense last year given that they got 39 starts from rookies, including 16 from strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers (76 tackles, 2 sacks) and another 15 by defensive tackle Jurrell Casey (52 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Both return to their starting roles this year and no rookie is slated to start on the defensive side of things in Week 1, though second-round pick Zach Brown could be a key contributor at linebacker. The strength of the unit figures to be pressure brought by ends Derrick Morgan (30 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and free-agent signee Kamerion Wimbley (63 tackles, 7 sacks with Raiders), a former first-round pick who has 16 sacks over the past two seasons. Weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon (56 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) offers a veteran presence alongside Ayers and second-year middle man Colin McCarthy (68 tackles, 1 INT). Cornerback Cortland Finnegan left as a free agent, leaving Alterraun Verner (49 tackles, 1 INT) to start opposite leading tackler Jason McCourty (103 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT). Free safety Michael Griffin (75 tackles, 2 INT) is also a key part of the unit and tied McCourty for the club lead in interceptions last season.
WHEN THE TITANS HAVE THE BALL
The Locker era begins on Sunday despite Hasselbeck (3571 passing yards, 18 TD, 14 INT) almost leading the Titans to a playoff spot last season. Still, Tennessee drafted Locker to be the future and sees no reason keeping him on the bench now. Though it will be the 24-year-old's first NFL start, he did get into five games a season ago while completing 34-of-66 pass attempts for 542 yards, notching four touchdown passes without a pick. However, Locker will have to wait one more week to begin building chemistry with No. 1 wide receiver Kenny Britt, who was limited to just three games last year due to a torn ACL. Though he is now healthy, he'll sit out Week 1 to serve a one-game suspension handed down by the league for a July 20 arrest for driving under the influence. That leaves Locker's main targets as wide receivers Nate Washington (74 receptions, 7 TD), Damian Williams (45 receptions, 5 TD) and rookie first-round draft choice Kendall Wright. Washington set career highs in receptions, receiving yards (1,023) and touchdowns last year and Williams was solid filling in for Britt last season. Tight end Jared Cook (49 receptions, 3 TD) also looks to take another step forward. Tennessee allowed just 24 sacks last season, tied for the second-lowest total in the NFL, and added a seven- time Pro Bowler in Hutchinson. He'll join a line that will try to make more space for Chris Johnson (1047 rushing yards), who is coming off a frustrating 2011 campaign in which he rushed for the lowest total of his career. He also scored just four touchdowns after finding the end zone 25 times on the ground in his previous two seasons.
New England's defense aims to improve on its bend-not-break style from a year ago, as opponents racked up yards against the unit but didn't find the scoreboard with the same vigor. The Patriots turn to a pair of 2012 first- round draft choices to help in defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower as the club shifts to a 4-3 scheme. Former linebacker Rob Ninkovich (74 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 2 INT) also drops down to an end spot alongside tackles Vince Wilfork (52 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT), a four-time Pro Bowl pick, and Kyle Love (33 tackles, 3 sacks). Outside linebacker Jerod Mayo (95 tackles, 1 sacks, 2 INT) also is a key piece to the unit, which could feature a solid secondary if cornerback Kyle Arrington (88 tackles, 7 INT) can build off a 2011 campaign that saw him tie for the NFL lead in interceptions. Even with a step back by fellow corner Devin McCourty (87 tackles, 2 INT) following an excellent rookie campaign in 2010, New England led the AFC with a plus-17 turnover margin last year and added veteran Steve Gregory (67 tackles, 1 INT with Chargers) in the offseason to start at free safety next to Patrick Chung (62 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT).
Regular-season success is nothing new to the Patriots and Locker has a mighty task ahead of him, as he needs to keep pace with Brady and company. Moving the ball against the New England defense won't be the hard part; that will be matching an offense primed for another big season thanks to Brady, Welker, Lloyd and returning offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. The veteran unit should have no problem finding the holes and forcing Tennessee's young players into mistakes. The Pats should find their season-opening win streak extended by weekend's end, while the Titans will get a gauge on how they stand heading into a tough opening schedule that features some other talented offenses on deck over the next few games.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 31, Titans 17
09/06 15:12:56 ET