The regular season is officially upon us.
As defending Super Bowl champions, Indianapolis kicked things off Thursday night with a 41-10 thumping of the New Orleans Saints. This Sunday, the Patriots start their quest to reclaim the Vince Lombardi trophy in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
And it won't be easy. Their AFC East rivals, the New York Jets, have a head coach who used to work here at Gillette Stadium, an offense with explosive wide receivers and a new feature running back, and a defense that, according to Pats boss Bill Belichick, seemed to click toward the end of last season.
With all the retooling they did this offseason, the Patriots should be up to the challenge, and then some. Here are the keys to this matchup in all phases of the game.
Keep your balance
The focus since February has been on all the pass-catching weapons that New England acquired. And deservedly so.
Wide receivers Randy Moss, Donté Stallworth, Wes Welker, Kelley Washington, and tight end Kyle Brady all appear healthy and ready to make significant contributions. But as a group, they haven't all been on the field at the same time with QB Tom Brady. So, it remains to be seen how quickly they can get their timing down with him.
If they all get on the same page on Sunday, that should soften up the Jets defense enough to make room for Laurence Maroney.
And let's not forget that this will be the first season with Number 39 as the Patriots' starting running back. He took part in training camp, albeit with a red (no-contact) jersey most of the time.
Maroney's lone preseason appearance, in the third game versus Carolina, offered a glimpse of what's to come. He carried a sizeable load and took some hits, but gained good yardage. If that's any indication of how he'll perform in the regular season, the Pats will be in good shape running the ball.
In turn, that will help Brady's passing game, because a good running game opens up the passing game, and vice versa.
Big shoes to fill
Safety Rodney Harrison and defensive lineman Richard Seymour won't be back in their Patriots uniforms until New England's famous fall foliage reaches its peak next month. Harrison, of course, is serving his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. The earliest we'll see him again is when New England hosts the Cleveland Browns in Week 5.
Seymour, meantime, is on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list as he continues to rehab an injured knee. By league rules, he's ineligible to return until Week 7, when the Patriots travel to Miami.
To fill Harrison and Seymour's starting roles at safety and defensive line, the Patriots are turning to veterans James Sanders and Jarvis Green, respectively.
Sanders, who saw increased action last season in his second NFL season, is more confident this year in his abilities.
"Yeah, I'm prepared," the 5-10, 210-pounder from Fresno State declared. "Last year, I got a lot of playing time, so, I'm real comfortable back there with the guys. The coach is calling my number right now, and I'm ready to go."
After five previous seasons coming off the bench, for the most part, Green is excited about his new starting role.
"When you get a chance to go in the game, you've got to make the best of it. For me it's motivation to become a starter. That's my biggest goal."
How well these two reserves perform in place of the two big-play starters will have an impact on the outcome of Sunday's game.
Prevent the Jets' big plays
The last time New England traveled to the Meadowlands (Week 2 of last season), Jets wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Laveranues Coles turned routine catches into highlight-reel touchdowns.
Those two plays completely reversed the seemingly unstoppable momentum that New England had accumulated after opening up a 24-0 lead.
"They're all explosive guys," Pats corner Asante Samuel said Friday when asked about the Jets' big-play duo. "They can make the long catch, they can make the short catch and turn it into a long catch. They're great competitors and they're great receivers."
Cotchery, in particular, seems to have New England's number lately. He's had a touchdown in each of the last three Jets-Pats contests, and last season, he and Coles combined for 173 receptions, the most ever by a Jets tandem in one season in team history.
Keeping those two playmakers in check will put more pressure on Jets QB Chad Pennington and newly acquired RB Thomas Jones to make plays. With New England's strength in its front seven, the Patriots have the advantage there.
Focus on field position
The Jets' Justin Miller made the Pro Bowl last season as a kick-returning specialist. He averaged nearly 30 yards per kickoff return last season, taking two kicks all the way for scores. Shutting him down will prevent New York from starting their drives with favorable field position.
On the Patriots sideline, kicker Stephen Gostkowski needs to return to the field-goal kicking form he displayed in his rookie year. And newcomer Chris Hanson, who's only been with the team since last Thursday, is a former Pro Bowl punter, but is still an unproven commodity on this year's squad.
If Hanson can duplicate the success of former punter Josh Miller, the Jets again will be starting off with tough field position
Expect the unexpected
During his press conference on Friday, Belichick acknowledged that in their playoff matchup back in January, he was surprised by the game plan that his former disciple, Eric Mangini, employed against him.
"The way the Jets played that game was kind of unusual. I don't know that they would play it again that way. Maybe they would. We'll just have to see."
At times, coaching matchups are underrated, other times overrated. Whatever their significance in Sunday's Patriots-Jets game, both coaches' decisions and strategies will ultimately play a role at some point.
"We just have to be ready for whatever it is that we get," Belichick concluded.