ESPN has dubbed 2011 the "Year of the Quarterback." Down here at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots are more likely to consider it the "Year of the Tight End."
And it has nothing to do with the production of their own second-year tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. In what's become a familiar early-season storyline for the Patriots, the team is set to be challenged by one of the league's top tight ends Sunday when Jason Witten and the Dallas Cowboys visit Foxborough.
Even with the likes of Antonio Gates and Dustin Keller in the rearview mirror, things simply don't get any easier with Witten, a seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro. And while Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't discriminate when pumping the tires of an opponent in the week leading up to kickoff, the praise he's heaped upon Witten this week makes it clear that much of New England's game plan will almost certainly center on limiting the tight end's impact.
"I evaluate [Witten] as one of the all-time greats," said Belichick.
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[Your turn: Will the Patriots have the same success vs. Witten that they enjoyed against the likes of Gates and Keller? Sound off in the comments.]