New England Patriots (0-0) at New York Jets (0-0)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms
SERIES: 95th meeting. Jets lead series, 48-46-1. Patriots have won the last six games at Giants Stadium. Counting the AFC wild-card game in January, New England has won 10 of the last 12 games, coinciding with Tom Brady taking over the starting quarterback job from an injured Drew Bledsoe early in the 2001 season.
PREDICTION: Patriots 27-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: Patriots QB Tom Brady is 10-2 against the Jets as a starter, with 14 touchdown passes and five interceptions. His ratio was 4-2 in three meetings last season, and now he enters the Meadowlands with a significantly upgraded receiving corps. WRs Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth bring vertical speed the Patriots lacked last season, and the Jets could have a difficult time with CBs Andre Dyson (foot) and Justin Miller (hamstring) nicked up, meaning rookie Darrelle Revis could see significant action. ... The Jets' first-team offense stumbled through the preseason, but the Patriots' defense stumbles into the opener without suspended S Rodney Harrison and injured DL Richard Seymour. Even without Seymour, the Patriots will attack the left side of the Jets' offensive line, where LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson is still learning and rookie LG Jacob Bender could get the start.
KEY INJURIES: Miller led the NFL with eight kick returns of 40 yards or longer last season, but might be replaced by Leon Washington.
Key injuries: Patriots: Moss (hamstring) is practicing and should play. ... Seymour is out for at least the first six games. Jets: Miller and Dyson will play, but aren't 100 percent.
FAST FACTS: Patriots coach Bill Belichick seeks his 125th career win. ... QB Chad Pennington led the Jets to just 13 points in 24 preseason possessions.
--The Patriots have elected seven players as team captains for the 2007 season. Quarterback Tom Brady and running back Kevin Faulk will serve as offensive captains; linebacker Tedy Bruschi, linebacker Junior Seau, linebacker Mike Vrabel and defensive lineman Ty Warren will serve as defensive captains; and linebacker Larry Izzo will serve as special teams captain. The Patriots captains were elected by their teammates this week.
"It's a great honor," Seau said. "I look forward to the season and obviously embracing that role, and going from there. Every day is a challenge and we'll go from there."
--The Sports Business Journal ranked the 20 most influential people in the NFL and Patriots chairman/CEO Robert Kraft ranked fourth.
Commissioner Roger Goodell; Executive Director of the NFL Players Association Gene Upshaw; ESPN/ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer; Kraft; and Fox Sports Chairman/CEO David Hill rounded out the top five
--The Patriots had CB Sammy Davis, CB Jerametrius Butler, CB DeJuan Groce, CB Dexter McCleon, S Bhawoh Jue and FB Kyle Johnson in for workouts.
--S Rashad Baker (hand), TE David Thomas (foot), DL Mike Wright (knee), QB Tom Brady (team decision), WR Randy Moss (team decision) and TE Kyle Brady (team decision) had limited participation in Thursday's practice.
--RB Thomas Jones was limited in practice Thursday because of a strained right calf, but is expected to play this week. Jones indicated Wednesday he expects to play.
--RB Leon Washington will probably get the bulk of the work on kickoff returns because CB-KR Justin Miller (hamstring) still is limited in practice.
--CB Andre Dyson (foot) was limited in practice Thursday, but is expected to play this week. However, Darrelle Revis could start in his place.
--FS Eric Smith (hamstring) was limited in practice Thursday, but is expected to play this week.
--WR Justin McCareins, bothered by nagging injuries the last two seasons, re-emerged as a downfield threat during the preseason with an average of 24.3 yards per catch. But will Chad Pennington have enough time to get him the ball, considering the Jets' issues at left guard?
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Even though the Patriots are deep at running back, there's no doubt who the primary ball carrier will be this year. That job belongs to second-year back Laurence Maroney. As a rookie, he finished second on the team with 745 yards rushing, while splitting time with veteran Corey Dillon. Maroney probably would have ended up being the team's leading rusher in 2006 if not for a rib injury that cost him two games and limited his effectiveness late in the season.
Maroney wore a red non-contact jersey during training camp but made his debut in the Patriots' third preseason game against Carolina. He carried the ball 15 times for 58 yards against the Panthers and showcased both his power to break tackles and his speed to get to the outside.
Now healthy and sporting a more muscular physique to endure the physical punishment running backs take in the NFL, Maroney looks primed for a breakout year.
"He has a lot of potential. He just has to take everything in stride and execute on the field," Kevin Faulk said about the young runner. "But he's got the skills to do a lot of good things for us. Laurence is one of those guys that has special talent and if he continues to work hard, that's going to show up on the field."
Kevin Faulk has been a key member of the Patriots offense since 2000 -- his second season in New England after being selected in Round 2 of the NFL draft the year before. A one-time Heisman Trophy candidate at Louisiana State, Faulk's size has prevented him from being a feature back in the NFL. Instead, Faulk evolved into one of the league's most proficient third-down backs.
Faulk doesn't get the national publicity some of his teammates do but his blitz pickups and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield are invaluable to the Patriots offense. Even with Maroney getting most of the carries this season, Faulk is sure to be a major factor on passing downs, as both a runner and receiver.
Now entering his ninth season with the Patriots, Faulk also takes on a leadership role off the field, helping the younger running backs learn the Patriots offense.
"I'll help out as much as possible. Anything I can do to help my teammates," Faulk said. "Not just at my position but anybody on the team. If I can help them in any kind of way because I'm one of the longest tenured guys here then I'm all for it. Anything I can do to get people comfortable in the organization, that's great."
While Maroney is expected to be the go-to guy this year with the Patriots, the team brought in Sammy Morris to be the backup and spell the starter from time-to-time.
Morris has played in 94 games during his NFL career, with only 23 starts. He's been a valuable backup throughout his career with both the Bills and Dolphins. Morris' best year came in 2004 with Miami. He ran for 523 yards and six touchdowns when injuries thrust him into the starting lineup during the second half of the season.
Morris' versatility and knack for catching the football -- he has 112 career receptions -- makes him a solid backup to not only Maroney, but Faulk as well. When he first arrived in New England, Morris said he was going to watch Faulk closely because he expected to have a similar role with the team.
"I've learned a lot from him as far as study habits and picking up the small nuances of the offense," Morris said about Faulk. "This offense is a cohesive group and I think that's built on the small aspects of the game. That's something Kevin knows very well and is always willing to lend his advice to the rest of us."
Heath Evans was unemployed until the Patriots called him in November of 2005. Evans made an immediate impact by rushing for 158 yards in his first two games. He's only compiled 151 yards since but Evans contributes to the team in many other ways.
Since New England doesn't carry a traditional fullback on its roster, Evans does the bulk of the lead blocking for the Patriots. He's also used in short yardage situations, out of the backfield as a receiver and is a regular on special teams. Sort of a cult hero in New England with both fans and media alike, Evans sticks around not because he does any one particular thing great, but because he does a lot of things well.
"The one thing I know here is my role on every individual week," he said. "My style is my style and I don't have a problem staying in a particular role. Whatever I can do to help the team be successful."
Overall, New England has a deep, diverse stable of backs led by Maroney. And the Patriots version of the Four Horsemen isn't only talented, they're a close-knit unit as well.
"We have a really good, talented group here," Morris said. "We joke around a lot but at the same time we're able to push each other and make each other work harder. Whenever one of us is called on to go into the game, we'll be ready and the other guys will be there to lend their support. That's the way it is around here."
The last real game the Jets played was a 37-16 loss to New England in a wild-card playoff in January. Yet the tape of that game might not do either team all that much good this week, considering how much has changed since then. Both teams have new players, especially New England, which has four wide receivers that were not on the roster last season.
Add in the fact that both teams were purposely vanilla on both offense and defense during their preseason games, an it's obvious that there could be a lot of surprises when these familiar rivals meet.
That sense of unknown is heightened by the fact that one of the Patriots' new receivers, former Raider Randy Moss, didn't play in any of their preseason games because of a hamstring injury. The other new wideouts, Kelley Washington, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth, totaled 14 preseason receptions. Moss was limited in practice Thursday.
"With all their acquisitions," Jets' strong safety Kerry Rhodes said, "they can do whatever they want. ... They can line up in anything they want, five wides, four wides, three receivers and one back, two backs.
"They can do a lot more things," he added. "In the first game, you're going to see something that you're not expecting."
"It's almost like a mind game, a chess match," linebacker Jonathan Vilma said, noting that the Patriots could use an empty backfield "with the weapons (Tom Brady) has at receiver. ... Or they could try to pound it on us (on the ground). Who knows what's going to happen?
"It's one of those games, where you're going to be just as tired mentally as physically after the game."
Fatigue will likely set in afterwards for both sides of the ball. Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, 2-5 in his career as a starter against New England, knows to expect the unexpected in these games.
"We have to handle the different looks that they might give us," he said, "and the different game plans they may bring to us to challenge us with. We have to be able to adjust to those things. Always, especially with opening day, you're going to have some new wrinkles that you may not be prepared for and you have to deal with adjustments on the run. Both teams will be dealing with that."