FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Call it the final countdown. The regular season has kicked off for two teams, with just two more days until the Patriots take the field against the Bills in Buffalo (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on CBS).
After an unusual offseason that saw countless unforeseen twists and turns, the Patriots are likely as ready as ever to get back on the field and begin the process of achieving their ultimate goal.
There are new faces aplenty in the receiver corps, while the defense looks much like the group from last season. The coaching staff is virtually unchanged, with Bill Belichick welcoming another familiar face in Brian Daboll back into the mix.
On Sunday, the Patriots have a chance to begin their division title defense against an AFC East foe while also trying to continue their recent dominance of the Bills. In fact, quarterback Tom Brady is 20-2 against the Bills in his career, a mark he hopes to further improve upon this weekend.
With kickoff right around the corner, here are five things we’ll be watching for when the Patriots take on the Bills.
1. Does preseason success translate into the regular season for receiving corps? Indications from the preseason are that the Patriots pass-catchers will hold up just fine, as Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins, Zach Sudfeld and others have looked very much in sync with Brady. But the regular season is a new test and all eyes will be on this group -- particularly the rookies making their NFL debuts. If the Patriots hope to repeat their offensive success from last season, there can be no easing period for the new wideouts in New England.
2. Can the secondary stay on the arc of progression? The Patriots secondary picked it up down the stretch in 2012, and with several pieces in place again this season, improvement is expected. It looks like the same starters from the end of 2012 will get the nod this season, with Kyle Arrington as the top reserve cornerback followed by Logan Ryan. It seems plausible that the third safety will be another third-rounder from Rutgers, as Duron Harmon may have leapfrogged Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner on the depth chart. This group needs to build off of its momentum from 2012.
3. Disrupting Manuel. In 17 games against rookie quarterbacks, the Patriots are 13-4 under Bill Belichick (all four losses, incidentally, have come on the road). They’ll have another first-year test in EJ Manuel, the top quarterback picked in this year’s draft and the hopeful franchise player in Buffalo for the future. While Manuel is considered a polished prospect, how much the Patriots will be able to disrupt and confuse him with multiple looks will, at least in part, dictate his NFL debut. Don’t be surprised to see the Patriots bring the heat with extra rushers.
4. Rotations at RB, TE, LB. From the more under-the-radar category, there’s some intrigue in how the team rotates its players at three positions: running back, tight end and linebacker. At tight end, supposing Rob Gronkowski is unable to play, how might the Patriots deploy their duo of healthy bodies? Will Sudfeld play the predominant number of snaps, or will it be a more balanced workload? At running back, it appears Shane Vereen will be cast in the role Danny Woodhead played last season, with LeGarrette Blount as a backup to workhorse Stevan Ridley. As it relates to the linebackers, who will align next to Jerod Mayo in sub defensive packages? Could top draft choice Jamie Collins get the nod, or might it be Brandon Spikes/Dont'a Hightower, as it was last season? Dane Fletcher could be in the mix, too.
5. Special-teams notes. The Patriots have a new punter for the first time since 2010, and it’s a test for rookie Ryan Allen to show he’s ready for NFL action. Beyond his punting responsibilities, Allen will be called upon to hold on the field goal team. That’s an underrated chore that he must show he’s capable to do consistently. On the kickoff return team, might we see Blount step up into the role that the team struggled with in 2012? If so, he’d qualify as one of the bigger return men in recent NFL action. Finally, the Patriots have no shortage of punt return options, including Amendola and Edelman, who is the only player to have a punt return for a score in each of the past three seasons.