The Patriots come off a painful divisional loss and head to Oakland to take on the Raiders on Sunday; perhaps with a little bit more to prove than they've had to so far in 2011.
The Raiders are currently 2-1 after coming back from a 10 point second quarter deficit to handily beat the New York Jets 34-24 last week. Leading the way for the black and silver once again was the league's current top rusher Darren McFadden, who went for 171 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
Being edged out by the long-woeful Buffalo Bills in week three has given Tom Brady and the Pats a lot to look ahead to and improve on for this week. Brady spoke earlier in the week about their preparations for Oakland, as he heads to play in the Black Hole for the first time since 2002.
"We haven't played them or I haven't played them in a while, so it's been kind of a crash course the last few days in getting to know them [and] getting to know their personnel and schemes," Brady told reporters. "They're very good; they play well at home. They're very physical, they're tough, they're big, they're fast. It's always a certain kind of player out there: big, fast, and tough. They play well at home. It's a good front. They're good in the secondary [and] they're physical. It's going to be a big challenge."
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges they'll have to face is 6-time Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour; who was a vital part of all three of New England's Super Bowl seasons and a fan favorite until he was traded to Oakland in 2009. Seymour talked about matching up against former teammates, offensive linemen Matt Light and Logan Mankins.
"They're good players. I have a lot of respect for them," he said. "I feel like we have a good defensive front and it'll be a good battle. I think that's what football is all about: a good offensive line going against a good defensive line. They have good players and we have good players and the team that plays the best on Sunday is going to win. It's pretty simple in my mind."
So obviously the Patriots have their work cut out for them this week against a challenging, strong and fast defense and an incredibly effective rushing offense. Here are five things to watch for in Sunday's game.
1. Tom Brady's recover from the "four-interception" debacle
First, let's take a look back in time at the rest of Brady's four-interception games, and how he responded the next week, detailed for us by Christopher Price at WEEI:
- Oct. 28, 2001 against the Broncos, Brady throws four interceptions in a 31-20 loss to Denver. He responds by going 21-for-31 for 250 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in a 24-10 over Atlanta.
- Sept. 7, 2003 against the Bills, Brady tossed four picks in the infamous 31-0 "They hate their coach" loss to Buffalo. The following week, the quarterback went 30-for-44 for 255 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks in a 31-10 victory over Philadelphia.
- Dec. 20, 2004 against the Dolphins - in what might have been the most shocking regular-season loss of Brady's career - he threw four picks in a 29-28 defeat to Miami. On Dec. 26 vs. the Jets, he went 21-for-32 for 264 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in a 23-7 win over New York.
- Nov. 27, 2005 against the Chiefs, the quarterback finished with four interceptions in a 26-16 loss to Kansas City. He turned around the next week against the Jets, and in a 16-3 win, posted a 27-for-37 performance for 271 yards with no touchdowns and no picks.
- Nov. 5, 2006 against the Colts, Brady tossed four picks in a 27-20 defeat to Indianapolis. The following week against the Jets, the Patriots suffered a rare back-to-back loss (17-14) as Brady finished 24-for-36 with one touchdown and one interception.
So first of all, this serves as a reminder that Brady has not always been the machine-like freak of nature that he has become since 2007. His genius was in his ability to manage the game and to distribute the ball to the open man, but the touchdown numbers, completion percentages and total yards were nothing like they have become over the past couple of years. So don't let his slip up against the Bills fool you. It may just make him come back this week better than ever.
Secondly, every year that they Patriots won the Super Bowl, Brady had a four-interception game. The last thing that the Pats should be worrying about is their offensive production and efficiency. The difference between this Patriots team and the Super Bowl ones is the defense, and Brady's lack of defensive support has put the pressure of this team's success too heavily upon his shoulders. It's all very reminiscent of the Peyton Manning-era Colts. That's what should worry for the long term of the season.
2. New England's Rushing Defense
Believe it or not, the Patriots defense against the run (10th overall) in 2011 is much better than their defense against the pass (32nd overall). The Bills have been averaging over 155 rushing yards a game, but they only managed a meager 79 yards with Fred Jackson against the Patriots defense last week. Overall the Patriots are only allowing 91 yards rushing per game.
The Raiders have been averaging 185 yards on the ground with McFadden at the helm, but the Pats definitely passed their test run against Jackson last week, and they have the ability to slow him down. Jason Campbell has only thrown three touchdown passes this year, and had none last week in their win over the Jets. If New England neutralizes or even just decelerates McFadden, they'll have the clear advantage in this game. The Patriots' secondary has been suspect at best, but Campbell is a guy even they can handle.
3. Oakland's Passing Defense
Conversely, it looks like the Raiders don't have much of an answer to Brady and his number one ranked passing offense. They've been allowing 289.7 yards a game through the air, good for 28th overall in defense against the pass; perhaps a sign that they are struggling to adjust to life in the secondary without Nnamdi Asomugha . If Wes Welker's 200 yard, two touchdown performance is any indication of the path he is on for the season (and it looks like it is) then the Raiders are going to struggle trying to cover him and Rob Gronkowski the whole game. Deion Branch and Danny Woodhead are guys that are more than capable of taking advantage of possible double coverages on Welker and Gronkowski, and no one is expecting much from Chad Ochocinco at the moment, but...he's still there.
4. Defending inside the the 20's
The Patriots have generally been pretty effective with their big play red zone defense. But in this game, they're going to have to do a little bit better than that to prevent Sebastian Janikowski from taking the field. Janikowski is coming off of a career high 33 field goals in 2010, and kicked a record-long 63 yarder for his team in week one this year.
With the way that the Patriots have let inferior offenses march down the field so far this year, the Raiders could find themselves within Janikowski's range on just about every possession if the Patriots aren't better at stopping them deeper. Hue Jackson is not afraid to use him, knowing that if McFadden is being pressured that Janikowski is definitely the more reliable points-getter over Campbell in 4th down situations.
5. The Patriots Offensive Line
The Raiders have already sacked the QB ten times this season, and Richard Seymour has a pretty intricate knowledge of the Patriots offense having worked in camps and practices with them for eight years when he played here. They sacked Mark Sanchez five times last week alone, and Brady had some serious pressure and a couple of scary hits a few weeks ago against San Diego. The absence of Sebastian Vollmer has already been apparent in the first three weeks, and this week Logan Mankins had limited participation in practice due to illness. These guys need to have a big game in order to protect Brady because the Raiders defense line young fast and will be exploding off of the line of scrimmage.
Taking all of this into consideration, my game prediction:
Patriots- 38 Raiders-17