Months of hype and preparation are finally dwindling down into the final hours leading up to the Patriots Sunday night regular season opener in Arizona against the Cardinals.
Finally, Bill Belichick's team moves past an offseason dominated by discussion of Deflategate and Tom Brady's four-game suspension to open the new season.
Now, Jimmy Garoppolo is about to embark on his finite, four-game stretch as the Patriots starting quarterback. His first career NFL start is a clearly very tough challenge heading into University of Phoenix Stadium to take on a Cardinals team what won 13 games a year ago before advancing to the NFC title game.
Make no mistake, this opening prime-time affair - a bronze medal game of sorts between last January's championship weekend losers - matches up two of the handful of expected best teams in football this season. While there is a long ways to go from September to February, billing this battle as a potential Super Bowl preview would not be unworthy hype.
Both teams are stocked with playmakers, depth and talent on both sides of the ball. Belichick's strong feelings for his roster were evident throughout the summer, while Bruce Arians likely feels the same way in the desert.
As you wind down the hours to Sunday night's kickoff - and enjoy the weekend of returning football fun across the league -- here are a few of the key factors that could decide whether the Patriots pull off the road upset or if all of Patriot Nation is left upset after the first real football action of the year.
Patriots Football Weekly's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots season opener on the road in Arizona.
Turnovers - There is little question that other than points, turnovers are the most important statistic in football. Turnovers are also even more important for underdogs and when considering young quarterbacks. With Brady gone, New England's margin for error is greatly reduced. The Cardinals were second in the NFL with 33 takeaways in 2015, including 19 interceptions. That's a formidable foe for Garoppolo to have to deal with in his opening start. Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson are scary playmakers in the back end. On the flipside, the Patriots have the makings of a swarming defense that could force plenty of turnovers in its own right. The unit forced 10 turnovers in the preseason. If that trend can continue against Carson Palmer, who burned out in a fire of turnovers last January, it will give the Patriots a boost toward the upset. But if Arizona gets its hands on a ball or two from the Patriots offense, it could get the ball rolling for the home squad toward a dominating night. The direct connect in the NFL between turnovers and victory is quite real.
Hamming it up? - The Patriots avoided major injuries, for the most part, this preseason. The team is relatively healthy to open the year. The two biggest questions/concerns for the opener revolved around hamstring injuries for tight end Rob Gronkowski and left tackle Nate Solder. Gronkowski did not play in the preseason, as is the norm, and missed practice time after pulling up lame in joint practice action with the Bears. Depending on what reports you read he is a game-time decision or will play in Arizona. He is and always will be the most important pass catcher in the Patriots offense. Even if he plays, it bears watching weather he is at the All-Pro playmaking level Garoppolo might need for the offense to get the job done. If Gronk is limited or can't go that's a major blow to New England's chances. Few teams in football could be without their two best players - Brady and potentially Gronkowski - and still play at a high level on the road. As for Solder, he limped off in the preseason finale and was limited all week. He's the most experienced, counted-on guy on the retooled Patriots line. The tackle depth is already a concern to open the year and Dante Scarnecchia's group can ill afford to be without Solder in the mix against a Cardinals team that blitzed more than any in the game a year ago. Hamstring injuries aren't necessarily seen as major issues, but in terms of the Patriots chances in Arizona that's exactly what they are for Gronkowski and Solder.
It's all on the line - Solder is just one of the many questions on the Patriots offensive line. Joe Thuney is expected to make his first career start at left guard. David Andrews is back at center, while Jonathan Cooper could give it a go against his former team after missing most of the summer to a foot injury. For better or worse, Marcus Cannon is once again the man at right tackle. Altogether, it's a group with a lot to prove coming off what was a disappointing ending to last season. Scarnecchia is a legend returning from retirement, but assuming that's all it takes to cure all the line's problems is probably not realistic. The group will face a front that has plenty of talent and likes to be aggressive, especially in sub situations. Chandler Jones will be looking to make an impact against his former team as he opens up a contract year with eye on the elite money that generally goes to elite edge rushers. Calais Campbell and rookie Robert Nkemdiche are among the many other names that could make life tough for the front. Garoppolo, the running backs and the receivers can't get their jobs done if the line doesn't hold down the fort up front. That's a lot of pressure, both literally and figuratively.
Getting personnel - Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia have a lot of interesting personnel to work with on both sides of the ball. There are a lot of new faces and potentially versatile playmakers. How that all comes together in terms of personnel groupings and schemes will be interesting to watch. Offensively Martellus Bennett is one of three new options at tight end that might entice McDaniels to go with extra tights end, both to run and throw. Defensively the front includes a lot of guys who can move around and utilize their athletic versatility to make plays. Jabaal Sheard is apparently healthy after missing time to a knee injury in August. Chris Long looks like he has something left in the tank. Barkevious Mingo is intriguing. Returning studs like Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower appear poised for big years. How it all comes together, and how the coaches decide to put it all to use, will be a fluid situation through the first month-plus of the season and maybe beyond. Collins in particular, in a matchup with versatile running back David Johnson, could have a key start to his own contract year.
The quick and the deadly - The best Garoppolo looked this summer was running a two-minute offense against the Bears. He seemed to be quite comfortable in the shotgun and slinging it, kind of like he did back at Eastern Illinois. The Patriots are built - for Brady - to be a pass-first team. That's probably what they'll have to be to beat the Cardinals, as well. Giving Garoppolo a chance to make some quick, high-percentage throws early could set the tone. Some screen passes and quick throws to the slot would be a good early guess. Getting Garoppolo moving on some roll-outs or boots could also help the young quarterback get through his reads quicker. There is a lot of focus on how Garoppolo will play, but should probably be just as much attention paid to how McDaniels and Belichick ask him to play. After watching Trevor Siemian's performance in the Broncos opening win, some of the things Denver asked him to do early on could be similar to what New England goes toward with Garoppolo.
Hello, Larry - Cardinals future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald had a crazy good year last fall moving inside to become maybe the best slot receiver in the game. He caught 109 passes for 1,215 yards with nine touchdowns in 2015. Dealing with him will likely be the focal point for the Patriots pass defense to branch off from. It looked in the summer like rookie top pick Cyrus Jones may have earned the role as the No. 3 cornerback and top slot option. But it's hard to think he'd be asked to shut down Fitzgerald in his debut. Could No. 1 corner Malcolm Butler be tasked with the job? Maybe more zone? Logan Ryan with help over the top? The latter might be the best option. Palmer had a great season last fall and a lot of that started with Fitzgerald. It's unlikely the Patriots pass defense, which has impressive continuity this year, will be able to shut down the duo. But how they choose to approach the matchup will be an interesting first step in the team's overall defensive effort.
Prediction - Sunday night in Arizona is a tough spot. It would have been a tough spot for Brady. It's a huge challenge for Garoppolo making his starting debut in a sea of red. The Cardinals have talented playmakers all over the field. They pressure you in endless ways. Garoppolo didn't look great dealing with the road pressure in Carolina. Theoretically you'd want to run the ball early to help the young passer out, but the Patriots don't seem well equipped for that either on the line or in the LeGarrette Blount-led backfield. That's all a long, roundabout way to say this doesn't seem like a good opening matchup for the Patriots. Both of these teams should be very much in the playoff and potentially Super Bowl hunt this year. A loss on the road for the Patriots isn't something the team can't come back from and isn't something that should be unexpected given all the circumstances. Unless the Patriots can have a dramatic advantage in the turnover battle and in the kicking game I think the home squad is very deserving of its status as the favorite. I can see Garoppolo struggling under pressure as most young quarterbacks do early in their playing time. I could see him turning the ball over a couple times. I could see the Patriots losing a game somewhere in the range of 30-13. If there isn't at least one New England defensive score and a big play in the kicking game, I just can't see the upset. But, I've been wrong before. And, even if I'm right, Garoppolo and the Patriots have three more important AFC home games on the horizon to look forward to.