Patriots vs. Cardinals: 5 Keys to the Game for New England

Oliver ThomasContributor ISeptember 14, 2012

Patriots vs. Cardinals: 5 Keys to the Game for New England

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    In order for the New England Patriots' home opener against the Arizona Cardinals to be a success, several matchup battles will have to be won.

    Although Sunday's contest may not look all that close on paper, the Patriots must stick to a strict game plan to dodge an upset at Gillette Stadium.

    Here are five keys for the Pats as the 1 p.m. ET bout with the Cards draws near.

Brandon Lloyd Must Win Battle vs. Patrick Peterson

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    Brandon Lloyd impressed during his regular-season debut with New England. Against the Tennessee Titans last week, the dynamic wide receiver caught five balls for 69 yards.

    Those numbers could have been much higher, however.

    In the first quarter, Lloyd broke through the defensive secondary for what looked to be a big-play touchdown. Unfortunately, the veteran slowed down as quarterback Tom Brady released the ball, which resulted in an incomplete pass.

    When Lloyd takes the field this weekend, his communication with Brady will be critical. Yet there's also a battle against 22-year-old cornerback Patrick Peterson that must be won.

    Peterson, a lightning-quick 2011 first-round draft pick, could be a thorn in Lloyd's side if the two go head-to-head in Foxborough.

    According to WEEI.com's Christopher Price, Lloyd has plenty of praise for Arizona's promising defensive back:

    He has all the intangibles — the size, the speed, the short-area quickness. He has all that....On top of that, he has just incredible ball skills. That’s what separates him from a lot of the guys you face. And in the special teams area, he’s an incredible threat when it comes to returning the ball. He’s definitely a really talented player. One of the best players we’ve faced all season.

    In two games versus the Cardinals last season during his stint with the St. Louis Rams, Lloyd saw his share of Peterson. Still, he was able to produce 10 catches for 154 yards and one touchdown, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.

    Nonetheless, Peterson is a year wiser and Lloyd is still adjusting to his new home. This will be a tight competition outside the numbers all afternoon.

Keep Arizona's Pass Rush at Bay

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    The Patriots' offensive line survived Week 1 by allowing just four quarterback hits and one sack, according to ESPN.com. Will that security continue when the Cardinals come to town?

    Tom Brady can only hope so.

    According to NFL.com, the Cardinals' pass rush is a force to be reckoned with. Last year, Arizona ranked seventh in the NFL with 42 sacks. Through the early going this year, that prowess hasn't wavered, as the Cards are third in the league in that category.

    After a shaky preseason, New England's offensive line may finally be settling down. But competing against the likes of Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, Daryl Washington and Paris Lenon is no small task.

    This will be a big test for second-year left tackle Nate Solder. He will have to stand his ground when the defense brings the heat.

Contain Larry Fitzgerald

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    The Patriots had to reboot the defensive backfield this offseason after placing 31st in pass defense a season ago, per NFL.com. Now, the time has come for New England's defensive backs to face one of NFL's most potent receivers: Larry Fitzgerald.

    Since entering the league in 2004, Fitzgerald has six 1,000-yard receiving campaigns, 73 touchdowns and 697 catches.

    Will he be shut down by Pats' cornerbacks Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington? Not likely, but he can be held in check. That's the objective for the secondary.

    By concentrating on containing Fitzgerald, who is one of the most dangerous route-runners in football, other Cardinals' receivers, such as Early Doucet, Andre Roberts or Michael Floyd, may have more of an opportunity to make plays. But that is worth the risk.

Let Stevan Ridley Carry the Load

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    Halfback Stevan Ridley took the reins against the Titans last weekend, and the results were tremendous.

    The 2011 third-round draft choice racked up 125 rushing yards and a score on 21 carries. He also had two receptions for 27 yards.

    After watching the LSU product notch his first 100-yard game in the NFL, it will be hard to keep the ball out of his hands.

    There are bound to be ups and downs along the way, but the Patriots certainly have an explosive, powerful back leading their ground attack.

    With Ridley getting 20-plus rushes per game and averaging six yards a carry, this more balanced attack should serve the Patriots well.

Pressure the Cards' Signal-Caller

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    The Cardinals have a conundrum at quarterback.

    Kevin Kolb was the backup when the preseason ended, but now the landscape has changed. Starter John Skelton left the opener against the Seattle Seahawks with an ankle injury, and Kolb led Arizona on a game-winning drive.

    According to Mike Florio of NBCSports.com's Pro Football Talk, Skelton could miss up to four weeks due to a low ankle sprain.

    No matter who is in the huddle on Sunday, the Patriots must put them under duress.

    After all, neither passer has a great track record. Kevin Kolb has thrown for 21 touchdowns and 22 interceptions during his six-year pro career. As for Skelton, he's thrown for 13 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in three NFL seasons.

    If there's any vulnerability that the Pats should pounce on, it's Arizona's quarterback situation.