By: Bob George/BosSports.net
September 06, 2008

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First of all, Tom Brady isn't even on the injury report.

Now, will you all relax?

Perhaps not if you witnessed the slopfest otherwise known as the 2008 Patriot exhibition season. The Patriots went out and cut four stinkers as they prepared for their AFC Championship defense, and a shot at a second straight Super Bowl berth. Naturally, the games mean nothing from a wins and losses standpoint, but the Patriots looked totally off kilter and at times listless and indifferent, especially when the starters were in there. The preseason simply didn't give you a good feeling about this upcoming season.

In the latest case of "he knows more than you do", Bill Belichick has not yet come out and looked unruffled or overly concerned. He was caught on camera lambasting punter Chris Hanson for outkicking his coverage and causing a punt to be returned for a touchdown, but other than that Belichick simply doesn't seem too bummed out by his team's poor preseason play. And there are many good reasons why, and one big reason is that Brady isn't on the injury list.

Brady almost always gets on that list, a ceremonial listing under "probable". Not this time. No mention at all. His foot? Some say there is a break, but that depends upon who or whom you believe. Brady is ready to go Sunday when the Patriots host the lowly Kansas City Chiefs in the 2008 season opener at Gillette Stadium. That may be all the Patriots need, given this weak opening opponent and being favored by 16 points to win the game.

Still, the Patriots will have some issues that need looked at, and you might say that the preseason wasn't the time to look at them. The preseason was merely a time for the veterans who perhaps aren't over the February Super Bowl loss to the Giants to ease their way back into game action, and for not showing the rest of the league an inkling as to how the Patriots plan to attack their opposition this season. Now that things are real now, and given the fact that the Patriots have a very winnable home game to begin the season, you might say that they can finally get down to work and figure out what they have for 2008.

That said, here are five areas to be on the lookout for on Sunday.

Right guard Stephen Neal has to learn to not get hurt. It might not have helped in the Super Bowl, but if this guy wants to be an All-Pro some day, he needs to stay healthy. His chief backup, Russ Hochstein, is listed as questionable for Sunday. Assuming that the other four linemates took the preseason off and merely went through the motions, Billy Yates (the likely replacement for Neal) has to step up and be more like what Hochstein was five years ago. Yates has yet to show that he is a solid backup, and has had injury issues himself. The Chiefs don't send people like Curley Culp at you any more, but Yates had better have himself a good day on Sunday.

Cornerback Terrence Wheatley, the rookie from Colorado, looks to start opposite Ellis Hobbs. The Patriots brought in former Bronco and Bengal Deltha O'Neal as veteran insurance. Fernando Bryant turned out to be a major mistake. Rather than open up the pocketbook for Asante Samuel, the Patriots instead keep an inconsistent Hobbs, an unproven Wheatley and a veteran retread O'Neal. Brandon Meriweather will likely see most of his action at safety, defying rumours that he might be switched to cornerback. Watch the Patriots to play receivers a lot like they did in the preseason, with lots of comfy cushions and no long plays. Here's hoping kicker Nick Novak's leg wears out in the fourth quarter.

Tight end Benjamin Watson is listed as doubtful for Sunday. This means that Dave Thomas may finally get a chance to show everyone in New England what he can do. What little we have seen has been good, but he gets hurt easily, and because he is primarily a receiving tight end, does not get much playing time when Watson is healthy. If the Patriots do not need the power run blocking package, Thomas could be worked into the offense quite well, and could be another safety valve if the wideouts are well covered.

Third down back Kevin Faulk is a scratch for this game thanks to being caught with some grass, and not the kind you play ball on. Some folks believe that Belichick may not settle with five running backs and may cut down to four. But which one? Look for Lamont Jordan to make his case to stay as he fills in for Faulk on third down. Jordan is an amazing pass catcher for a big stocky back. If his blocking skills are anywhere near Faulk's, he may make Sammy Morris sweat a little. The smart thinking here is that five backs stay. But if not, Jordan's play on Sunday is very critical.

Middle linebacker Jerod Mayo begins his quest for Rookie of the Year against a Kansas City offense which features Larry Johnson and not much else. Mayo will try and keep Grandma under wraps, and that battle will be fun to watch. The real key here is Tedy Bruschi, and how much gas he has left in the tank. Belichick would love to stay out of having to use Eric Alexander, but not having fellow veteran Junior Seau on hand to split the inside backer duties may become a factor as the season wears on. Never count out Bruschi, who has the heart of ten lions. But the aging process happens to everyone.

The Chiefs are so bad on paper that even a close win by the Patriots could be interpreted as disastrous. The Patriots might not lay a whipping on the Chiefs like they did all their first half opponents a year ago, but the Patriots do need to come out and make some type of loud statement. They have to show that they are over the Super Bowl, and that they have set back training camp fifty years.

Of course, this might not be a bad time for the Patriots to slink under the radar and work out more kinks in close wins against bad teams. Most of the region right now cares more about the Tampa Bay Rays losing than they do the Patriots losing. The outcry will be somewhat muted if, say for example, Brady comes out and throws three picks, the running game averages less than two yards a carry, Brodie Croyle throws three touchdown passes, but the Patriots somehow eke out a 23-21 win. Right now, when interest is perhaps at its lowest point, the Patriots may have bought themselves just a wee bit more time to put this team together and gun up for a serious run at the postseason later on.

Belichick always has a master plan. None of us really knows what it is, but we figure that this guess is as good as any.


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