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The kids are back in school (except in Lowell). The adults are back in the office (though probably not today). And with the end of summer in New England comes a season more unavoidable than the onset of fall:
Yes, we’re talking football.
The New England Patriots kick off their 2023 season this weekend in Foxborough (Sunday at 4:25 pm on CBS) against the Philadelphia Eagles. The team is coming off what can only be described as a dysfunctional 2022. (In short, there were defensive coaches calling the plays on offense, and the results were not good). It’s now been four seasons since the once-dynastic team’s last playoff win. And unlike years past, the competition is only getting tougher in the AFC East.
So, what should we expect?
ESPN reporter Mike Reiss joined WBUR’s Morning Edition for a primer on this year’s Patriots squad as they enter the new year. If you’re tuning in this Sunday, here’s what you need to know.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Patriots finished in third place in the AFC East last year. What did they do in the offseason to turn that around?
Mike Reiss: The most significant change they made was on their offensive coaching staff. They brought in [former assistant coach and Massachusetts native] Bill O’Brien as their offensive coordinator. And the hope is his experience coordinating and leading offenses over the last decade leads to a better offensive performance for the Patriots than last year — specifically with their quarterback, Mac Jones, who enters his third season.
Mac is the best fit for what Bill O’Brien wants to do offensively, and that’s to spread the ball around to a variety of pass catchers and really put a lot on the quarterback from an intellectual standpoint. He’s going to put Mac back there and say, “Read the defense before the ball is snapped and know where you’re going with the ball.” And that’s really a strength of Mac’s game. He’s a thinking man’s quarterback.
What other new faces should we know about this season?
MR: Quite a few new faces. Offensively for Mac, one of his go-to players is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who fans might remember from last year playing for the Kansas City Chiefs — who were the Super Bowl champions — and, before that, for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
To compliment Rhamondre Stevenson, they brought in [running back] Ezekiel Elliott, who spent the first seven years of his career with the Dallas Cowboys. And he was a star player for them, a first-round pick out of a big-time school at Ohio State.
And then I’ll add a third: [former Miami Dolphin] Mike Gesicki at tight end, who joins Hunter Henry as another option when the Patriots want to put two tight ends on the field at the same time.
Former captain and safety Devin McCourty is gone this season. What does the Pats’ defense look like without him?
MR: Devin McCourty was not just an excellent free safety — patrolling the deep part of the field, making sure that the Patriots didn’t give up big plays — but he was also one of the greatest leaders that they’ve had in Bill Belichick’s 24 years as head coach. So, they’re filling not just a void on the field, but also a leadership void in the locker room.
Devin’s actually the only player on defense they lost from last season, and they were a really good defense last season. So the hope is that they can fill that void. They’re going to need multiple players to fill it.
The Pats will honor longtime quarterback Tom Brady at Sunday’s game. How do you see that going?
MR: It will be a spectacle. They’re gonna honor him at halftime and there’s only so much time that you can do that. But between the new construction at Gillette Stadium with the largest outdoor stadium video board in the country, Tom Brady coming back, the new lighthouse, something tells me there’ll be something unforgettable that fans and those that are there at the stadium on Sunday will experience. It will be more than run of the mill.
I think the way the Kraft family views it is that this is an opportunity for the fans to say thank you to Tom, which they weren’t able to do the first time that he left the team back in 2020 to go to the Buccaneers.
Prediction time: How do you think the season is going to go? And how do you think it’s going to end for the Pats?
MR: We started the conversation by noting how they were third place last year, 8-9 record. I think they’ll be a better team this year.
I think the problem for the Patriots is the competition around them is going to be better as well. When the oddsmakers set a win total, they say that seven and a half is sort of the target.
I would say they’re going to be a little bit above that — on the fringe of the playoffs. And if they can get in, anything’s possible. But this is a lot different conversation than we’ve had in the past years, when Tom Brady was the quarterback. It wasn’t necessarily if they would make the playoffs, it was how far they would actually go in the playoffs.
To listen to the full interview, click the red play button atop this post.
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