TOST Question of the Week: How will the Patriots do this season and specifically, how will they do Sunday against the Bills?

Todd: Before I begin my Pats prognosis, I first have to give props to the Sox this week for three straight wins that were as diverse in style as they were impressive.  It began Tuesday night when Jon Lester outdueled 19-1 Max Scherzer in a 2-1 win; then Wednesday they tied a team record with eight home runs in a 20-4 rout of Detroit (the first time in ten years the Sox scored twenty runs in a game), giving Boston two of three games against the Tigers; then last night in the Bronx the Sox blew a 7-2 lead yet still managed to come back to win in extra innings, in part because Koji Uehara out-Rivera-ed the best closer in history (for the record, Mariano’s fifteen blown saves vs. Boston are the most he’s had against any team, yet that number still averages out to only one per year throughout his hall of fame career).

Uehara has now pitched 26 consecutive scoreless innings and has not allowed a single run since late June.  He is currently the best closer in baseball, which proves that the fourth time (Hanrahan, Bailey and Tazawa) must be the charm.  As a result of the Sox winning three straight and ten of their last twelve (and the Rays stumbling out on the west coast), Boston’s Boys of Summer have opened up their largest lead of the season in the AL East (6 ½ games) and have reduced their magic number to clinch the division (and avoid the dreaded play-in game) to sixteen games…sweet.

Now on to the Boys of Belichick, who after spending the last few seasons rebuilding the defense are now in the process of doing the same to the offense.  Yes, Tom Terrific is still under center, and at 36 years old still appears to be at the top of this game.  But with Rob Gronkowski still working his way back from multiple offseason surgeries, none of Brady’s top five receiving targets from a year ago will be on the field in Buffalo when the Pats attempt to get back to the AFC championship game.

What I like about this team is the offensive line, as all five starters return to protect Brady and establish a solid ground game.  I also like Stevan Ridley to improve upon the 1,263 yards he rushed for last year and for the Pats’ ground game as a whole to be a bigger part of the offense if only to take some of the pressure off Brady.  I realize that the NFL has evolved into a pass-first league, but in the last thirty years only two quarterbacks (Jim Plunkett, John Elway) as old as Brady have won Super Bowls, and did so because they relied more on a running game and less on throwing the ball all over the place.

As for Brady and the passing attack, I think the numbers are going to drop from last year and it wouldn’t shock me to see TB12 to struggle for at least half the season developing chemistry with a whole new crop of receivers, where the oft-injured Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman are the lone veterans of a group loaded with youth and inexperience.  Let’s hope guys like Kenbrell Thompkins (who impressed in the preseason) and Aaron Dobson (who did not) are quick to learning the Pats offense and don’t become lost causes like the Chad Jacksons, Bethel Johnsons and Brandon Tates.  Let’s also hope that Gronk can get back on the field sooner rather than later and stay healthy through December and January.

Defensively, while I still think the Pats are far from perfect there is plenty of upside to be excited about.  Second-year lineman Chandler Jones had a great preseason and looks to be an impact pass rusher.  Second-year linebacker Dont’a Hightower looks to build on last year’s hot start and sustain his play for an entire season.  Rookie linebacker Jamie Collins shows promise and defensive end Tommy Kelly could also be a big part of New England’s front seven.  Of course it’s always great having Vince Wilfork as the anchor of that unit, and in the secondary it’ll be great having cornerback Aqib Talib in a Pats jersey for a full season.

Another area to keep an eye on early in the season are special teams, where Zoltan has vanished and been replaced by a cheaper punter in Ryan Allen, who also becomes Stephen Gostkowski’s new holder on field goals and extra points.  We tend to take those points for granted, but it might take some time to get to the two of them in sync.

All in all I like the Pats, though with a tough schedule (especially in the second half) I do not see this team getting an easy 12 or 13 wins like some of the so-called experts do.  I predict the Patriots finish 11-5 and win the AFC East in a cakewalk over little competition.  But the playoffs will once again prove to be a struggle, and I think that unlike last year the Pats will have to make the trip to Denver for the AFC championship where they will come up short to Peyton Manning and the Broncos (what should be a great preview of that matchup takes place at Gillette on November 24).  BTW Peyton looked pretty ageless throwing seven touchdowns against the Ravens.

My Super Bowl prediction is…a blizzard!  Sort of kidding, although this year it could happen (but I think all the hype will go for naught and it’ll just be cold).  As for the teams playing at MetLife Stadium next February, on the 45th anniversary of the only Super Bowl matchup between former/eventual divisional rivals (Jets vs. Colts), I think it will happen again as former AFC West foes Denver and Seattle square off, with the Seahawks stunning the Broncos to win their first Lombardi trophy.

This Sunday, I like the Pats to beat the Bills and rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, although I don’t think it will be quite the blowout most of the so-called experts think.  Patriots 28, Bills 17.  Each week Mike and I will give you our thoughts on the Pats game, and starting next week we’ll pick some other NFL games as well.

Mike: I am certainly ready for some football! As much as I enjoy summer, there's something about the return of Sunday (and Thursday and Monday) football that is special to me.

This year's Patriots' squad will be one of the more intriguing ones to take the field in a number of years, mostly because of all of the new faces on the field. It's going to be interesting for the first few weeks to see how all of these new players mesh in.

I am fairly optimistic about how things are going to go this season. I really do feel that the Patriots have a good chance to be one of the top teams in the AFC this fall and at the very worst, they will be playing some entertaining football this year.

Maybe I have my Belechick blinders on, thinking "In Bill We Trust" too much, but I don't think so. Tom Brady (still the heart and soul of this team) has been connecting with his new receivers during the preseason, and once the games get going for real, I only expect improvement.

Another thing going in the Pats' favor is the schedule. They open up with two VERY winnable games, going on the road to take on Buffalo and their rookie quarterback and then coming home on a short week to host the always-entertaining (simply because of how much they are imploding Jets). If the Patriots aren't 2-0 going into Week 3, I'll be shocked.

After the first two games (and a third winnable one against Tampa Bay), things get a little rougher as New England has to take on Atlanta and Cincinnati on the road before returning home to take on New Orleans. They get a break after the Saints with back-to-back games against the Jets (who may have fired Coach Rex Ryan) by then and Miami.

The first weekend in November brings the Steelers to Foxborough, always a tough matchup, but I think the Steelers will struggle this year, making that a very winnable game for New England.

The last half of the season features some big, tough matchups, with Peyton Manning, Wes Welker and the Denver Broncos coming to Foxborough and road games with Baltimore (who looked AWFUL in the opener Thursday night) and Houston.

The Patriots have a virtual bye in the last week of the season as Buffalo, who should be on their sixth QB of the season by them, will limp into Foxborough for a ritual slaughter.

I am seriously hoping for a major blizzard to strike New Jersey on Super Bowl Sunday. It would serve the NFL right to have the game in the snow after making the decision to hold an outdoor night game in the Northeast in February. I hope all of the corporate ticket holders who are there to see and be seen enjoy freezing their butts off. Me, I'll be home in my sweats nice and warm watching the action.

As for the game, the Patriots are going to go all the way, beating the 49ers 31-20.

To open the season, I'll take New England over Buffalo 34-10.

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