New England begins the regular season with more question marks than at any time since 2001, when the Pats kicked off their first Super Bowl campaign. The offense has reloaded with receiving weapons all over the field for Tom Brady, but the offensive line may struggle to keep him upright. The defensive line, a strength for a decade, has two new starters on the ends, which may impact its ability to stop the run. Rushing the passer may be a problem, as well. Tully Banta-Cain did have 10 sacks last year, but rookie Jermaine Cunningham, who didn’t play a snap in the preseason, is the likely starter opposite him. And the starting corners, second-year pro Darius Butler and rookie Devin McCourty, have a combined five starts. The Patriots play three straight games against division opponents after this week, so they must put things together quickly.
Coming off an impressive regular-season showing but first-round playoff disappointment, the Bengals will be looking to once again conquer a tough AFC North. Carson Palmer must keep Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens happy — which may be easy to do this week with the inexperienced Butler and McCourty lined up at the corners for New England. Cincinnati ranked fourth in the league in total defense last year, and coordinator Mike Zimmer’s unit plays an attacking style that totaled 34 sacks and 19 interceptions last season and will likely give the Pats’ offensive line fits.
Keys for the Bengals
• Cincinnati needs to get Cedric Benson going. Ochocinco and Owens have garnered all of the attention, but Benson is coming off a career season despite missing three games. The middle of the New England defense — nosetackle Vince Wilfork and inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes — should be strong against the run, but the edges are a different story.
• Tom Brady called the Bengals’ trio of Jonathan Joseph, Leon Hall and Adam Jones likely the most talented corner group he’ll face all season. Joseph and Hall pulled in six interceptions each last year.
Keys for the Patriots
• After years of having primarily the same five starters on the offensive line, two of the five will be new this year — promising second-year pro Sebastian Vollmer steps in at right tackle, and Dan Connolly (the Pats’ third option with Logan Mankins in a contract dispute and Nick Kaczur out indefinitely) will be at left guard. With Brady, Randy Moss & Co., thehe Pats are built to move the ball through the air, but the offensive line’s strength is its run blocking.
• The secondary could be something special down the line but could struggle in this came if the front seven cannot get pressure.
There’s also no estimating the nerves of McCourty. He diidn’t look out of place in the Pats’ first two preseason games but struggled in the third against the Rams.
The Patriots have won six straight regular-season openers and all eight home openers at Gillette Stadium, but Carson Palmer & Co. will make things very difficult for the home team. Bengals, 28–27