After one of most memorable opening Sundays in recent memory, the 2011 NFL season's first Monday Night Football will feature a matchup of AFC East rivals—the New England Patriots vs. the Miami Dolphins—at 7 p.m. in Miami.
Both teams will be looking to start their season strong with a victory over a division rival. For the Patriots to do so, they'll need big games from a few of their not-so-big names.
Here are five Patriots who must have a big game for New England to come out on top.
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Had it not been for the Lions' Ndamukong Suh, it's entirely possible the Devin McCourty would have won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2010. For most of the season, the rookie from Rutgers was a lockdown corner on one side of Bill Belichik's defense, recording seven interceptions, a sack and 82 tackles.
Thanks to his stellar rookie season, the secret is out on McCourty. He will be matched up against the Dolphins' Pro Bowl WR Brandon Marshall for most of the game—if McCourty can hold Marshall in check, the Patriots will have a fantastic chance of winning the game.
If Marshall's combination of size, speed and skill is too much for the Pat's second-year CB, this game could go down to the wire.
While "skill" players like Reggie Bush, Tom Brady, Chad Ochocinco and Brandon Marshall are featured on Top Plays far more often than the big men in the trenches, they are arguably less important to the outcome of the game. More often than not, football is a game that's won or lost by the play of the big men on the lines.
For the Patriots to win this game, they will need their Pro Bowl NT to step up and have a great game. He'll need to control the inside of the line of scrimmage all game long, collapse the pocket and clog all of the inside running lanes, thereby taking away the time and space QB Chad Henne and RB Reggie Bush need to make plays.
If Wilfork is unable to clog the inside running lanes, it will open up draws, cutbacks and screens for Bush, as well as play-action passes for Henne. Even with a defender as talented as Pro Bowl CB Devin McCourty matched up against Marshall, if Henne has too much time, Marshall will get open.
Conversely, if the Patriots' defensive line can control the line of scrimmage, it could be a long night for the Dolphins.
Chad Ochocinco's big-time performance in the Patriots' Monday night debut is as important for several reasons, not the least of which is it will go a long way towards a New England victory.
Generally speaking, the more involved in the offense Ochocinco is, the more likely it is that he'll be a happy, productive member of the team. Even at age 33, Ochocinco can still run past most defenders, run flawless routes and create separation from the best CBs. He still has excellent hands, leaping ability and composure with the ball in his hands. In short: Chad Ochocinco still has a Pro Bowl caliber skill set.
On the other hand, Ochocinco is still a prima donna with a penchant for ill-advised antics and absurdly long concentration lapses. He still has the ability to split a locker room, cause chaos on the field and dominate headlines because of poor words and actions.
All of that being said, the Patriots would be wise to make a concerted effort to get Ochocinco involved in the offense early and often—his big-play ability is invaluable to the Patriots' offense, as is his continued good behavior.
All eyes will be on Tom Brady Monday night. And that is why it is imperative that RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis has a great game on the ground for the Patriots.
If Green-Ellis is able to control the tempo of the game on the ground, consistently gain three to five yards per carry and establish himself as a threat out of the backfield, it will open the rest of the field up for Brady and company.
A strong performance by Green-Ellis should also wear down a fairly strong Dolphins defense, creating opportunities for the rest of the Patriots' offense while keeping the team's defense resting comfortably on the sidelines.
This may seem to be an unlikely selection, but hear me out.
Gronkowski's performance will be vital to the Patriots' success on a number of fronts: (1) pass protection/run blocking, (2) safety-valve receptions and (3) production in the red zone.
In terms of blocking, Gronkowski will be crucial in helping the Patriots establish a strong ground presence early on in the game. If he can consistently get into or past the second level of the Dolphins defense, RBs Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead should be able to consistently rip off strong gains. In addition to run blocking, Gronkowski will likely be asked to provide chip blocking on blitzing downs, thereby allowing Brady the time he needs to make a play.
On the subject of passing downs, Gronkowski will be expected to be Brady's safety valve on most plays. Should the Dolphins double-cover WRs Deion Branch, Wes Welker and Chad Ochocinco, Brady will look to dump the ball off to Gronkowski. If "Gronk" is able to make those catches and turn upfield, he'll force the Dolphins to play him tighter, thereby freeing up other offensive weapons.
Finally, and most importantly, Gronkowski will be asked to help the Patriots turn red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. During the second half of the season in 2010, Gronk produced seven TDs in red-zone situations. If he can continue that type of production during this season, the Patriots will be well on their way to another division title.