Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season has arrived. Unlike many college programs, NFL teams don’t have the luxury carefully choosing cupcake opponents to start the season. The New England Patriots face one of their toughest challenges on the schedule immediately, when the defending NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles come to Gillette Stadium.
For their part, the Patriots (8-9 in 2022) made significant offseason improvements. New offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, the third play caller for Mac Jones in his first three NFL seasons, is the most important. In 2021 Jones learned under longtime Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, and had a very successful rookie campaign. After McDaniels left to become a head coach in Las Vegas (taking several offensive assistants with him) Jones and the New England offense struggled. Offensive plays were called by Matt Patricia, New England’s former defensive coordinator, who also helped coach the offensive line; it never gelled. O’Brien is a former offensive coordinator with the Patriots, head coach with both Penn State and the Houston Texans, and most recently offensive coordinator at Alabama. Unlike last season, there’s no question O’Brien knows how to run an effective offense, giving Jones and the Patriots more options and less predictability with the ball. The departed Patricia had his other responsibilities replaced by new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm.
Jones’ former favorite target, Jakobi Meyers, departed in free agency, and was replaced by JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Patriots also added wide receivers Demario Douglas and Kayshon Boutte in the draft. Former high priced free agent tight end Jonnu Smith is also gone, replaced by ex-Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki. Running back Damien Harris left in free agency, his place taken by recently acquired Ezekiel Elliott.
Offensive line was a problem last season, and is now a giant question mark. While the left side of the line appears set with LT Trent Brown, LG Cole Strange, and C David Andrews, the right side is in a state of flux. Mike Onwenu, the Patriots best overall lineman, would ideally be starting at right guard, but missed nearly all of the offseason while recovering from ankle surgery. His availability for the season opener is unknown, and if he suits up it is unclear who he’ll play alongside. Pressure will be Klemm to turn this group into a cohesive unit.
Bill Belichick spent money in free agency, as well as draft capital, to bolster the offensive line. Veteran Riley Reiff was the logical choice to start at right tackle, but struggled in camp, moved to guard, and is starting the season on IR. Calvin Anderson was another free agent tackle brought to New England, but an undisclosed illness prevented him from joining his teammates until last week. He did not participate in any preseason games. The day before Anderson was activated, Belichick made trades for two more offensive tackles, getting Tyrone Wheatley Jr. from the Browns, and Vederian Lowe from the Vikings. New England also selected C Jake Andrews, G Atonio Mafi, and G/T Sidy Sow in the 2023 NFL Draft. All of these above-mentioned offensive linemen were included in the Patriots initial 53-man roster, but it is unclear which ones will play a pivotal role in the season opener against the Eagles.
Defense was the strength of the 2022 New England Patriots, and looks to be even better in 2023. Pro Bowler Matthew Judon and Josh Uche will be put plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. A healthy Christian Barmore, who showed flashes of excellence in 2021 as a rookie, is in line to have a big bounce back campaign. The Patriots Front-7 also features veterans with Super Bowl credentials, such as Ja’Whuan Bentley, Lawrence Guy and Dietrich Wise. Belichick used a second round pick to take DE Keion White, who already possesses the size and makeup of an NFL player. This group was a glaring weakness for the struggling Patriots in 2020, and improving it over the past few seasons has clearly been a point of emphasis.
Devin McCourty, the longtime Patriots captain, is the most significant loss on the defensive side of the ball, but the defensive backfield should still be formidable despite his retirement. The safety group (Kyle Dugger, Jabril Peppers, Adrian Phillips, Jalen Mills) has both experience and versatility. The “centerfield” deep safety spot is an area of concern, but Mills should see significant time there as he transitions from cornerback, with current cornerback Myles Bryant seeing safety snaps as well.
Sunday will be the NFL debut of Patriots first round pick Christian Gonzalez. The #17 overall selection out of Oregon has impressed in preseason and should be New England’s top cornerback out of the gate. He’ll be joined in coverage by Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones, Myles Bryant and Shaun Wade. The group will face a significant test against Philadelphia, making it important for Judon and friends to put pressure on Philadelphia QB Jalen Hurts throughout.
As for the Philadelphia Eagles, there is a reason they won the NFC a year ago and are favored to repeat in 2023. Hurts was the best quarterback in the NFC last season, and QB play has become the biggest factor in how far teams go in the NFL Playoffs. Philadelphia has found their franchise quarterback, making them a threat to do damage every time they take the field.
Hurts is far from the lone offensive threat in the City of Brotherly Love. The Eagles wide receiver group features A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith, one of the most dangerous 1-2 punches in the NFL. They will look to test the New England defensive backs early and often. Dallas Goedert is also a productive weapon from his tight end spot. While their running game doesn’t have a workhorse in the mold of Derrick Henry, their backfield committee features talented players in D’Andre Swift, Rashaad Penny, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott. Philadelphia’s excellent offensive line includes All Pros Jason Kelce (C) and Lane Johnson (RT).
The Eagles defense is dangerous at all levels, packed with veteran Pro Bowl players and highly touted prospects alike. Their defensive line (Fletcher Cox, Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter, Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat) is excellent. Their linebackers (Hasson Reddick, Nakobe Dean, Nolan Smith, Zach Cunningham) are excellent. And their defensive backs (Darius Slay and James Bradberry are among the elite cornerback duos in the NFL) are excellent. Philadelphia’s defense is stacked. It will be a tough test for the Patriots patchwork offensive line, but also a good to get a difficult challenge under their belts so early in the season.
If the New England Patriots manage to play a perfect game, it will still be tough to win. Hurts provides a calming presence for Philadelphia, coupled with a defense that should have an edge in both talent and experience when paired against the Patriots protection. New England will need to show significant offensive improvements, while also playing elite defense and special teams. Though a loss will not be devastating, an uninspired and sloppy performance will have pessimistic Patriots fans in “I told you so” mode early. Expect the Patriots to play hard, showing significant improvements from 2022, but still not up to the level of their superior opponent in Week 1.
Final Score Prediction: Philadelphia Eagles 24, New England Patriots 21