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Spadaro: 6 key matchups to watch in Eagles vs. Patriots 

DeVonta Smith and Darius Slay
DeVonta Smith and Darius Slay

There are more than just one-on-one matchups and positional battles and star-watching for Sunday's season opener at New England. There are trends and statistical oddities and downright numerical comparisons to consider.

Let's make some sense of it all and see how much it matters for this game (Sunday, 4:25 PM CBS) at Gillette Stadium, where the Eagles haven't played since the 2015 season (a crazy 35-28 Eagles win that included a blocked punt return for a touchdown, an interception return for a touchdown, and a punt return for a touchdown).

Who knows what to expect here, but you can be certain it won't be a hum-drum affair. The Patriots are coming off an 8-9 non-playoff season. The Eagles won 16 games and reached Super Bowl LVII. Philadelphia has won 10 of its last 12 season-opening games.

The opening game helps set the tone for the season, so both teams want to establish a little something here.

Anyway, on to the matchups ...

1. Eagles pass rush against New England QB Mac Jones

We know a lot here, in the sense that New England's offensive line has been unsettled throughout the summer and won't have much collective time together prior to kickoff. That potentially bodes well for the Eagles, who last year led the league with 70 quarterback sacks and topped the NFL in pass defense.

New England's offense averaged 5.8 fewer points per game in 2022 than in the 2021 season, so it bears watching how the Patriots look to beef up their '22 average (21.4 points per game). Eagles Senior Defensive Assistant Matt Patricia served as New England's offensive line coach last season and actually called some plays, so he has some familiarity with the personnel.

What we also don't know is how new Eagles Defensive Coordinator Sean Desai will employ his personnel. He didn't show much throughout the summer.

The expectation is that Jones will try to get the ball out of his hands quickly, involve the tight ends heavily, and rely on a power running game to keep the Eagles off balance. The best counter to that is causing some minus-yardage plays and forcing the New England offense into off-schedule situations.

2. New England is 0-11 when allowing 25-plus points since 2021

Translation: New England would love to win this game, 21-17. The onus is on the Eagles to score some points, and that's something they did very well last season – ranking third in the NFL with 28.1 points per game and they scored 25 or more points in 10 games, tied for second most in the league.

The big challenge is matching up against New England’s front and focus on ball security against a defense that excels in taking the football away.

3. Wineth in the air

A great matchup to watch is the Eagles' wide receivers against New England's cornerbacks. The Eagles have A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, of course, but they're also going to utilize Quez Watkins and Olamide Zaccheaus to create favorable matchups against a Patriots pass defense that last year allowed 28 passing touchdowns, 27th in the NFL. At the same time, New England picked off 19 passes, third most in the league.

So what gives?

New England's terrific pass rush (54 quarterback sacks, third in the NFL) likely helped that takeaway number and the Patriots are physical on the back end. First-round draft pick Christian Gonzalez starts at corner for New England and he will experience an immediate two-level experience with his eye on Brown and Smith (Jonathan Jones is projected to be the second starter at cornerback). It is also possible that running back D'Andre Swift will get some work as a receiver – Philadelphia had the fewest receiving targets for running backs of any team in the league in 2022 and Swift helps in that department, having ranked as a top-4-5 running back in the passing game since 2020.


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4. The Bill O'Brien factor

A respected coach both at the college and NFL levels, O'Brien returns to New England and assumes the role of offensive coordinator. He is there to bring innovation and scoring punch to the Patriots. How much can he improve the situation and what can the Eagles expect on Sunday?

If O'Brien's past is any indication, he will offer a variety of run/pass options; some window dressing with motion, moving his personnel around the formation; and hitting the Eagles with a short passing game and screens.

5. Special teams: An All-Rookie combination for New England

For the first time since 2000 (Raiders), New England will open the season with a rookie placekicker (Chad Ryland) and a rookie punter (Bryce Baringer). Both have a lot of talent but both are, of course, not tested in an NFL regular season. And what better way to get their feet wet – literally, with a chance of rain on Sunday in Foxborough! – than with this huge game and the Tom Brady jersey retirement at halftime and the big television audience watching?

The Eagles will, it appears, keep the same operation as they have had the last two seasons – Jake Elliott as the placekicker, Arryn Siposs likely promoted from the practice squad for the game (he is the only punter in the locker room at this point, so ...), and Rick Lovato as the long snapper.

The kicking game bears watching because it is the last unit to come together with the roster, because New England traditionally has good special teams, and because there are new rules in place on kickoffs this season.

6. What is New England's plan to contain QB Jalen Hurts?

We can talk all day about the Patriots and the unknowns the defense will present, but let's face it: The first priority for Head Coach Bill Belichick is to slow the multiple ways Hurts destroys defenses. He's got some excellent edge rushers in Matthew Judon and Josh Uche, and both will be handfuls for Eagles tackles Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata.

Will the Patriots blitz a lot? Will they try to, instead, keep Hurts in the pocket and make him win as a thrower? What personnel wrinkles – extra defensive backs in the box, six defensive linemen, etc. – will the Patriots employ to try to take one element away from Hurts.

It's the game within the game and that is what could determine the winner of Sunday's opener. There is going to be so much to watch and the adjustments made on the fly will be vitally important with two teams and two outstanding coaching staffs going at it.

The Birds hit the field for a hot week of practice. Check out the best photos as the Eagles prepare for Week 1 against the Patriots.

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