The NFL schedule makers down in Park Ave. haven't been too kind to the New England Patriots over the last several years. Save for the 2019 season-opening blowout against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they've had to sweat it out in Week 1 for the better part of the last decade. 2023 is no different, as the reigning NFC Champion Philadelphia Eagles come to town for the first time since that debacle of a 2015 game. It's safe to say that Chip Kelly, Sam Bradford, and Darren Sproles won't be a factor here, but the alternative is much more demanding.
Only the Kansas City Chiefs and San Fransisco 49ers matched the six total All-Pro selections the Eagles had a season ago, and no one matched their league-high eight Pro Bowlers. Of those nine separate players, the only one they lost was Miles Sanders, and he wasn't even their biggest loss. That would have been Javon Hargrave, who left for the 9ers. Better yet, for the Eagles, all of their losses were negated for the most part, thanks to a couple of great offseasons for GM Howie Roseman. Having just about half of the 2021 Georgia Bulldogs defense on your team seems like an excellent way to go about things if you ask me.
Offensively, things we're humming in Philadelphia like never before. Jalen Hurts got the reinforcements he needed, took a massive third-year leap, and came close to securing the city of Brotherly Love a second Super Bowl crown. Roseman swiftly rewarded him this offseason with a monster five-year deal worth over $250,000,000 and some extra depth pieces to play with on offense, like DeAndre Swift, Rashaad Penny, and Olamide Zaccheaus.
All things equal, this is one hell of an opening contest for the revamped Pats defense and the now Bill O'Brien-led offense. There are underdogs on home turf, and it's for good reason. Players and coaches alike have been preaching that this Eagles team is really good at basically everything, and while the Patriots are good in their own right, there is a gap here. The premier CBS matchup with Nantz and Romo on the call, Conference Championship winner coming into your barn to kick off the season, doesn't get much better than this. Oh, by the way, Tom Brady is getting honored, and several former Patriots legends are slated to attend. Zero pressure boys.
Date: Sunday, September 10
Start Time: 4:25 EST
Location: Foxborough, Massachusetts
Stadium: Gillette Stadium
TV Info: CBS (Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on the call)
Patriots Uniform Info: All Blue (Make these changes, I beg you @RobertKraft, @JohnathanKraft)
Typically, when a team loses their best defensive lineman (EDGE or IDL), linebacker, and safety in one offseason, that usually ruins a defense. The Eagles are in no such position, and that's bad news for the NFL at large, but mainly the NFC. Jordan Davis was more or less a spot guy a season ago, but with Hargrave gone, he and 2023 first-rounder Jalen Carter reunite in the trenches and fill that void. Carter had a litany of off-the-field issues, which were well documented before the draft, but he is the real deal. He can do a lot of what Hargrave was able to give the Eagles right now, and he still has room to grow, which is a horrifying thought. Stopping 98 upfront will be priority one.
The interior was a large part of why the Eagles pass rush was so good last year, but even then, the Eagles decided to get themselves some fresh legs in the form of Nolan Smith. Years from now, we'll ask, "How did he fall to No. 30?" and it's more than a fair question. If you like players who have juice, high-upside physical traits, and leadership qualities, then Smith is your guy. I descended further into madness with every pick he wasn't selected (I graded him as a top 10 player). Now, he joins a group of EDGE guys in Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, and Brandon Graham, all of whom put up double-digit sacks in 2022. Then at linebacker, Nakobe Dean filling in for T.J. Edwards is another example of the embarrassment of riches on defense for the Eagles.
The one real question mark in the secondary is at safety. Reed Blankenship has one of the two spots locked up, but will it be ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Terrell Edmunds, third-rounder Sidney Brown out of Illinois, or veteran Justin Evans, who most recently was with the New Orleans Saints? That might take a few weeks to figure out, so look out for the Eagles' secondary this Sunday. On top of the fact they retained both Darius Slay and James Bradberry as well, that's horrifying for everyone.
One final element for the Eagles is a new defensive play-caller, an understudy of Vic Fangio in the form of Boston University graduate Sean Desai. Although he does have prior seasoning as a defensive coordinator (2021 Chicago Bears, sixth best in YPG, third best pass defense), he has a much better group to work with in his second shot at holding the play sheet. They're keeping things under wraps intentionally going into the regular season, but via Honest NFL, Desai loved to roll out in nickel and penny looks that year in the Windy City, so keep an eye out for that.
Patriots fans should get used to hearing a lot about RPOs, as it relates to Bill O'Brien and Mac Jones, but no one was better with them a season ago than Jalen Hurts and the Eagles. The Eagles franchise QB was under center for a league-high 148 RPO plays in 15 games, with 122 of those ending up as throws, 32 more than anyone else. So if the Patriots come out in heavy zone (they shouldn't under any circumstance), Hurts can figure out the soft spots well in advance, and if the Patriots come out in man, Hurts can matchup hunt, so it's a lose-lose no matter what.
The matchup of this game is these Eagles wideouts, plus tight end Dallas Goedert, against the Patriots secondary. A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith were one of the most lethal receiver duos in football a year ago. Together, they combined for 183 catches, a few yards shy of 2700 (150.4 per game), and 18 touchdowns. Brown, specifically, was nothing short of spectacular. He's not your average 6'1 wideout. He plays like he's about 6'4 in terms of his contested catch skill and physicality. Additionally, it helps when he and Smith can go into the slot at will and still be productive.
The only notable change up front for the Eagles was the loss of right guard Isaac Seamulo, who bolted for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his place will be Cam Jurgens, who Philly took in the second round of the 2022 draft. As a natural center, he's more than likely the long-term replacement for Jason Kelce, but if he looks good at right guard, that's a great problem for the Eagles to have. Regardless, this is the premier offensive line in the NFL, and the Patriots have their work cut out for them.
With Miles Sanders gone, it appears it's a true by-committee look at running back in Philadelphia. New faces D'Andre Swift and Rashaad Penny should take the lead, but Ken Gainwell and Boston Scott are solid secondary options. The only concern with the former set of backs is health. Penny has missed 19 games the last two seasons despite averaging over six yards per carry in that span. Swift, meanwhile, has missed seven games despite being a formidable rushing and receiving option. I don't hate the idea of putting them together here, limiting their workload, and letting them complement each other along with Gainwell and Scott, though. We'll just have to wait and see how the carries distribute.
There isn't just a new defensive coordinator in Philadelphia. With Shane Steichen taking the Indianapolis Colts gig, Brian Johnson, Jalen Hurts' quarterback coach, gets a nice promotion from Nick Siriani. A former quarterback himself, Johnson was Alex Smith's backup in his final year at Utah before he went on to win Sugar Bowl MVP honors in 2009, dicing up Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. Since then, he's been a duel quarterbacks coach and offensive play caller at multiple D1 programs, most notably Utah, Houston, and Florida, before going to the Eagles in 2021. Believe it or not, Hurts and Johnson's relationship spans multiple decades too. Hurts' Father was an assistant on Johnson's High School team.
New England Patriots
The big news for Jack Jones is that while his gun charges have been dropped, he suffered a hamstring issue this week in practice that will keep him out this weekend at the minimum. That's one less option to cover either Brown or Smith and also ensures that it'll be Jonathan or Marcus Jones on Smith when he's out wide, and either the latter Jones or Myles Bryant should either one of the Eagles' top wideouts move into the slot. Assuming Christian Gonzalez is drawing Brown when he is out wide, that's a huge storyline to follow. If he can match Brown's physicality or even come in at a slight disadvantage at worst, that's a matchup I'd feel good about. Brown will get his, no question. It's just a matter of not letting him take things over.
While the Patriots did well covering tight ends a season ago (t-9th fewest yards and t-12th fewest receptions), the only team who gave up more touchdowns to them was the Arizona Cardinals. He wasn't a high-volume guy last year, but Dallas Goedert is as good as any tight end in the league, specifically at route running. Jalen Mills, when asked about his former teammate, said this.
The RPO element could also very well open things up in the running game for the backs as well, but remember this. The Patriots were one of just three teams last season to allow under 1400 rushing yards to running backs and under seven rushing touchdowns, allowing a league-low three (David Montgomery, Devin Singletary, and James Connor). On the flip side, the Patriots played five of the top eight teams that ran RPOs (Buffalo, Miami, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Chicago) and gave up only three yards more per game on average but allowed over 100 rushing yards by running backs against the Bears and Bills at home.
I wouldn't anticipate the Patriots getting an abundance of pressure or sacks in this one, but could that be a part of the plan? Hurts can hurt the Patriots in and outside the pocket, but ensuring that he doesn't kill them on the ground is massive. The good news is that Matt Judon led the entire league with sacks on scrambles with five, and Josh Uche was in the upper echelon of the league himself. I wouldn't be surprised if Marte Mapu ends up in the QB Spy/Contain role in his first-ever game. They cannot let Hurts do what Lamar Jackson did last season. That extra guy in the box could be the difference between winning and losing.
Defending this Eagles offense will take all 11 guys and then some, but there's a trend that may wind up playing in the Patriots' favor. Last year, the Eagles' worst offensive performance surprisingly came against the Indianapolis Colts. In Siriani's homecoming to Lucas Oil Stadium, the Eagles put up just 17 points and didn't secure the winning blow unit 80 seconds remaining. In that game, the Colts went single-high over half of the time. The result was them holding the Eagles to three points for nearly 50 minutes of game time.
Do you want to know who loves to play some single high and has the personnel to limit big plays? The New England Patriots. Watching that game back, the Colts made it a point to disallow Hurts to make things happen on the run, which ties back to the earlier point about Judon, Uche, and Mapu. Can't say for sure who gets the majority of snaps in centerfield in week one, but the Patriots have plenty of options to work with, which is never a bad thing. It will be a legitimate heavyweight showdown with the Eagles' Offense and Patriots' Defense.
After the 1s (minus the offensive line) went out against the Green Bay Packers and looked as good as they did, I think it's fair to feel good about things going into Sunday. Mac Jones looked firmly in control of the offense and can change things at the line again, such a novel concept. The big thing for him this week is to get the ball out quickly, or quicker than usual anyway. Without knowing who's starting at right tackle, it's hard to say how secure things will be on that end of the line. Expect a lot of quick-developing stuff.
The Patriots should give the Eagles a taste of their own medicine with some well-timed RPOs should the opportunity present itself. Could see someone like Juju Smith-Schuster, who, by the looks of it, the Chiefs desperately missed last night, having a big game with that in mind. He had a nice second half against the Eagles in the Super Bowl with three gains of 10-plus yards and drawing the holding penalty that sealed things. Assuming Juju's set for the slot, he'll probably see a lot of Avonte Maddox again.
The Patriots could also reasonably exploit the lack of experience, newcomers, and a lack of numbers in the middle of the field. Between safety and off-ball linebacker, there are just seven total players for Philly. The only player with tenure with the team and at least 10 game appearances is Reed Blakenship. That's it. Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki should find themselves quality looks in between the numbers if they get the matchups they want. Speaking of whom, congrats to Henry on being named a captain with the Patriots for the first time.
While Rhamondre Stevenson did miss practice on Friday with an illness, don't worry too much. The third-year back should be good to go for the debut of his tandem with Zeke Elliott. As good a passing defense as the Eagles were a year ago, you can't say the same about the run game. Between the regular and postseason, they allowed 100 yards on the ground 14 times, including 158 in the Super Bowl. It should be a good day on the ground, depending on how the offensive line looks.
Points Spread: PHI -4 (-110) | NE +4 (-110)
Moneyline: PHI (-196) | NE (+164)
Over/Under: O 45 (-106) | U 45 (-114)
Lines via FanDuel as of Friday, September 9
Despite the 14-3 record a season ago, the Eagles were just 8-9 against the spread in the regular season, including a stretch of 3-7 from November onwards. Breaking that down further, Philly was 2-5 on the road as a favorite a year ago, exactly where they find themselves to kick off 2023. On the flip side, the Patriots are 1-4 as a home underdog these last two seasons and 0-3 last season. With the O/U at 45, note that just two Patriots home games all year exceeded 45 total points last season, in addition to just four Eagles road games. The under feels like the surest bet on the board here, but if you want to look elsewhere in this game, I'd lean Eagles outright, but ATS is a coin flip.
I'd be lying to you if I said I expect the Patriots to win this Sunday, but I do think they give the Eagles a game no matter what. There's just a lot of talent over there, and the Patriots have started the year slow for the better part of the last decade. But who knows, maybe the production crew at Gillette puts Brady on the big screen for some cheers or Matt Patricia up if they need some boos to get the crowd into it, and from there, anything can happen. Anyway, the Eagles should win this game, but it will be a rock fight for about 45 minutes at the least.
Prediction: Philadelphia Eagles 24, New England Patriots 20
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