On Monday night, the 2011 season will commence at Sun Life Stadium as the Patriots take on their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins. Most experts have the Pats advancing to the Super Bowl in February at Indianapolis, but we all know the road is not going to be easy. From all accounts, the Patriots have been relatively healthy this week at practice with the exception of RT Sebastian Vollmer, who is fighting a bad back. If he can’t go, look for1st round pick Nate Solder to take over that spot. Before you put this one in the win column for New England, Miami has been a thorn in the side for Tom Brady in hot Florida towards the first two months of the season.
As for the Dolphins, not a lot is expected them from this season. Head Coach Tony Sparano was almost replaced by Jim Harbaugh by his owner behind his back. That shows you the level of confidence, or lack of confidence they have in Sparano. Their signal caller Chad Henne has a confidence issue and last season, he struggled to keep the ball away from the other team. They did sign Reggie Bush to improve the running game, but losing Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams to free agency could take its toll. It’s the defense though that is the strength of this team, especially LB Cameron Wake (14 sacks in 2010).
Without further adieu, here are three keys to watch in Week 1:
One Running Back Short of a Pair: There is no Ricky-Ronnie combination in Miami this year and they might not have their power running back for this time. 2nd Round pick Daniel Thomas out of Kansas State might miss the game. He tweaked his hamstring that he hurt in the preseason. If he can’t go, Larry Johnson gets the start. Yes, the Larry Johnson that was great in KC, but only had five carries for two yards last season! Reggie Bush is a good running back, but he is not a number one rusher despite the change of scenery. The Pats were a top ten rush defense last season and they will make Chad Henne have to win this football game.
The Brady-Ocho connection: With the exception of the Lions’ debacle, you can say Tom Brady had a very solid preseason. However, with the exception of the touchdown against Tampa Bay, Ochocinco was no bueno in the preseason. He dropped a ton of balls and it has taken him a while to get down the system. Miami has some decent cornerbacks in Vontae Davis and Sean Smith, but they do not obtain interceptions so that helps Brady in this game. I don’t expect it to happen here, so look for a lot of passes up the middle to Gronkowski and Hernandez.
Waking Up the O-Line: I talked about Cameron Wake in the introduction and I think he could wreak havoc on this offensive line. If Vollmer can’t play, putting Solder at RT is going to be a huge problem going up against the man with fourteen sacks last year. You know Mike Nolan will line the two up one-on-one if that is the case. This is where veteran Brian Waters will have to help ease Nate into the game. The Pats kept him in check last year though (9 tackles, 1 sack in 2 games). He will get a sack or two, but hopefully for the Pats, it is not a game-changing sack.
Prediction: This game has the potential to be a blowout, but I just do not see it. This game reminds me too much of the opener in 2009 when the lowly Buffalo Bills came into Foxboro. Trent Edwards had one of his best games of his career along with Fred Jackson. If not for a Leodis McKelvin fumble, the Patriots lose that game. That being said, I think this game is a close game for 3 ½ quarters.
Chad Henne had a decent preseason and he seems to have a good chemistry with Brandon Marshall. It probably won’t feel like a home game for the Fins, but if Reggie Bush does well, they can waste some clock.
However, I like the Patriots in this football game. They were one of the best teams last year in forcing turnovers, Last season, Henne was sacked five times and intercepted four times to go with his 65 QB rating. That is pretty ugly! He makes the huge mistake that helps Brady and the Pats pull away in the 4th quarter.
Patriots 30 Dolphins 20