It’s certain to be an emotional Sunday at Gillette Stadium for the Patriots’ season opener against the Eagles.
The Patriots aren’t raising a championship banner. They’re celebrating Tom Brady, their six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who will be honored at the game.
Having Brady in the stadium will serve as a reminder to New England fans about where this era’s Patriots have been since his departure after the 2019 season and the level to which they’re trying to return.
Since Brady left, the Patriots went 7-9, 10-7 and 8-9 in the three subsequent seasons, making the postseason only in 2021, but losing in the wild-card round. That came after 17 AFC East titles and nine Super Bowl appearances in Brady’s 19 seasons with the team.
“He certainly deserves it,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of the now-retired Brady being honored.
“I think Tom Brady’s the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL,’’ current Pats quarterback Mac Jones told reporters this week. Jones went on to say he’s “trying to chase the standard that he set every day,’’ adding, “It’s definitely big shoes to fill.’’
In the game, Jones will face a fellow former Alabama quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who led the Eagles to the NFC East title and a Super Bowl appearance last season.
Hurts went 14-1 as a starter last season and since 2021 has the second-best winning percentage (22-8, 73.3 percent) among NFL quarterbacks, trailing only the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (26-8, 76.5). Hurts is coming off a 2022 season in which he completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,701 yards, 22 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He also rushed for 760 yards and 13 touchdowns.
The Patriots have made an attempt this offseason to help accelerate Jones’ development, bringing back offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien for a second stint. O’Brien was Brady’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator before he left to pursue head-coaching opportunities at Penn State, then with the Texans, that failed to work out.
O’Brien has added some of the zone-read plays that Jones excelled with while playing at Alabama. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who caught 78 catches for 933 yards and three TDs last season with Kansas City, was brought in to team up with incumbents DeVante Parker and Kendrick Bourne.
Running back Rhamondre Stevenson is coming off a career-high 1,461 scrimmage yards (1,040 rushing, 421 receiving) last season with six total TDs (five rushing, one receiving). He’s joined in the backfield by newly signed former Cowboy Ezekiel Elliott. After seven seasons with the Cowboys, Elliott is coming off a 2022 in which he accounted for 968 scrimmage yards (876 rushing, 92 receiving) and 12 rushing TDs.
Philadelphia figures to be a stout test for Jones and the New England offense, considering the Eagles’ defense allowed an NFL-low 179.8 yards per game last season.
The Eagles are led by linebacker Haason Reddick, who ranked second in the league last season with a career-high 16 sacks. He enters this season having recorded a sack in six of his past seven road games. Cornerback Darius Slay had 14 pass breakups last season, and fellow corner James Bradberry ranked third in the NFL with 17 pass breakups.
On defense, the Patriots are led by linebacker Matthew Judon, who led the team with 15.5 sacks last season after doing the same in 2021 with 12.5. Judon and the New England defense will have to deal with running back D’Andre Swift, who will be making his debut in an Eagles uniform after totaling 2,878 yards from scrimmage and 25 TDs (18 rushing, seven receiving) in 40 games with the Lions.
Eagles receiver A.J. Brown ranked fourth in the NFL with a career-high and franchise-record 1,496 receiving yards and had a career-high 88 catches and 11 TDs last season. DeVonta Smith had 95 catches for 1,196 yards and seven TDs. He and Brown were the only pair of teammates with 85 or more catches and 1,100 receiving yards last season. Add to that tight end Dallas Goedert’s 55 catches for 702 yards and three TDs, and you have a formidable offense.
One of the Patriots’ biggest changes during the offseason was in their kicking game. Longtime punter Jake Bailey was released in March and replaced by Michigan State’s Bryce Baringer, who was drafted in the sixth round. And, after New England used a fourth-round draft pick on Maryland kicker Chad Ryland, consistent incumbent Nick Folk was traded to Tennessee.
The Patriots have won four of the past five regular-season meetings between the two teams. This is the Eagles’ first visit to New England since a 35-28 win on Dec. 6, 2015. The teams have played twice in the Super Bowl, with the Patriots winning Super Bowl XXXIX and the Eagles winning Super Bowl LII.