The long wait is finally over. The offseason is a thing of the past. It's time to kick off the 2014 season and begin to find out just what kind of team Bill Belichick has assembled in New England. That starts Sunday afternoon in Miami against the Dolphins, a team that tied for second in the AFC East a year ago although that was four games behind New England. It's a new season, so there is hope in every NFL locker room. In Miami that's hope that the team is building toward challenging the Patriots for the top spot in the division and competing for a wild card playoff spot. There would be no better way to begin that process for Joe Philbin's troops than to pull off the opening day upset. Belichick's team, though, has a 10-game winning streak on opening day and is looking to establish itself from the get-go as a top contender in the AFC. The time for preseason prognostications and summertime dreams is almost over. By late afternoon on Sunday we'll have a real game to break down and real issues to discuss moving forward. Until that time, and prior to the 1 p.m. kickoff at Sun Life Stadium, pop open this summer-brewed, what's-on-tap edition of the Patriots at Dolphins Pregame Six-Pack!
- Miami heat –** The Miami heat is a far more formidable challenge than the Miami Heat these days in the post-LeBron era in South Beach. Belichick chose to fly his team to town a day early to get acclimated to the hot, humid and potentially stormy weather for the weekend. It's an approach the coach has taken in the past. There are a few factors that might help the Patriots deal with the conditions in the hot sun on Sunday. First, New England got a taste of that type of weather in joint practice work with the Redskins in Richmond in early August. That included a brutal, three-hour practice in which players' conditioning and fluids were tested mightily. That experience might help a bit on Sunday. It also just so happened that this week's practice in Foxborough took place in some of the hottest, most humid conditions of the summer. That, too, might help a bit. But really there is no preparation for a full 60 minutes of early season football in Miami wearing dark blue jerseys. For that reason, expect Belichick to do more rotating with his personnel, especially up front on both sides of the ball, than you will see later in the season. He's done that a lot on opening day in the past and will likely do even more of it in Miami. It's just not fair to ask guys to play a full game in those conditions at this point, especially considering guys like Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, Dominique Easley and others haven't played a single down of preseason action. The rotational depth of the Patriots roster will be tested/displayed against Miami.
2. Brady's calf – Tom Brady spent the summer telling everyone how well he felt, better than he ever has. Well, that was before he suffered an apparent calf injury this week that forced him to miss practice altogether on Thursday. Later that day Brady ensured Westwood One radio listeners that he'd be ready to go on Sunday. He indeed traveled with the team after being limited in practice on Friday, although he's officially listed as questionable for the game. Given his history of toughness and playing through everything that ails him over the course of a season, that's not a surprise. It seems to take an act of God – or a torn ACL – to keep Brady from the field. But the real question is how the calf issue might affect No. 12 against a pretty impressive Dolphins pass rush. First, is it his right calf? Could it affect his ability to push off and make throws down the field? Will it hinder his ability to move in the pocket and avoid the rush? Miami's defensive end duo of Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon combined for 20 sacks last fall for a pass rush that ranked 12th in the league. They face a retooled New England offensive line and a wounded, 37-year-old quarterback who was never all that mobile anyway. Brady has a way of overcoming physical ailments and proving doubters wrong. He'll get a chance to do that from the opening snap in 2014. While he probably will succeed in just that, it's certainly something that's worth keeping an eye on.
- Gronk spike in play –** Gronkowski declared himself good to go early in the week of preparations for the Dolphins. He then had his bags packed and accompanied the team to Miami. So all signs point to No. 87 making his debut after sitting out the preseason while recovering from a torn ACL. Officially, he's listed as questionable. Gronkowski caught the ball well and looked good late in training camp practices. But his conditioning will be a key, and it's likely he'll not be ready to play anywhere near a normal snap load. But even that might be selling him short, as he appears to be in the best shape of his career, at least in terms of shredded muscularity. If Gronkowski does play against a Miami team that had some struggles at linebacker a year ago and is without safety Reshad Jones due to a suspension, it should lead to some production. Let's be honest, Gronkowski is worth almost a touchdown per game every time he steps on the field. Even with a knee brace and arm brace Gronkowski seems destined to get on the field and find the end zone in Florida. It's just the way it is.
4. Seven up! – One thing is certain for the Patriots base defense – it should include seven men up front. Based on preseason action, that could come from a return to the 3-4 scheme. Of course it's been a couple weeks since reporters have seen practice action, and Belichick has been known to swap between the 3-4 and the 4-3 in the past. If it is a 3-4 base, it's a given that Vince Wilfork will be in the middle. It's far less certain who'll man the two defensive end spots. Easley was not on the injury report this week after sitting out the entire preseason schedule, so the first-round pick should be in action in his home state. That could include a starting spot, but he'll likely need to take a few breathers throughout the day. With Chris Jones out of action due to his ankle injury, the other end spot could fall to second-year former undrafted rookie Joe Vellano. At least that was the case in the preseason. That would leave rotational reps for Sealver Siliga and Division II rookie Zach Moore. At linebacker we should see the summer debut of Jerod Mayo, with Jamie Collins next to him. The outside reps will fall to Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, with Dont'a Hightower and Darius Fleming in line for rotational action. Regardless of the scheme and the players on the field, the Patriots front will be expected to be a bit more athletically aggressive against a completely new Dolphins offensive line. Miami has five new starters, anchored by Pro Bowl left tackle addition Branden Albert. That should present some chances for the Patriots – especially the third-year rising star Jones – to make hay against a front that's probably still getting comfortable working together.
5. Five for fighting – The Patriots have questions about their starting lineup on both sides of the ball. This week gives us the chance to get a first look at the offensive line in the post-Logan Mankins era. First-year line coach Dave DeGuglielmo utilized a ton of different combinations throughout the summer in practice and preseason action. There was a Boston Globe report that Sebastian Vollmer, a second-team All-Pro at right tackle, was moving to guard. Dan Connolly has ascended to being named a captain after an offseason in which many speculated he might be in a fight for his roster life. An argument can be made that heading into the opener there is some uncertainty in terms of four of the five starting spots. The only real known is that Nate Solder is likely to be the left tackle. Connolly could be at either guard spot or even center. Marcus Cannon could be at either guard spot or right tackle. Ryan Wendell is probably the center, but it's not a given. Vollmer makes for an unlikely guard given his 6-8 frame, but who knows? Belichick said the team would have five linemen on the field in Miami, but wasn't looking to elaborate any further in his Friday press conference. Whatever the makeup and deployment of the group, they face a solid challenge from Wake, Vernon and the rest of the Dolphins front. Oh, and they'll be protecting a quarterback who's already nursing a calf injury.
- – Island time? --** Darrelle Revis is the greatest free agent addition in Patriots history. He's a Hall of Fame talent in the prime of his career. He's expected to be a transformational talent on the New England defense. He had an impressive summer and limited preseason action. The entire football world watched on Thursday night as Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers completely avoided throwing at Richard Sherman's side of the field for the Seattle defense. And many believe that now two years removed from a torn ACL that Revis is a better player than Sherman. Sunday will be our first chance to see Revis in real game action and to get a glimpse at how Belichick and Matt Patricia will utilize their flashy new defensive toy. Revis has lined up almost exclusively at left cornerback this summer, rather than matching up with receivers. He could continue to do that against Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins and take away one side of the field like Sherman. Or, he could match up with a Miami target, as he's done so often in his career. If he did match up, that might come against Mike Wallace, who Revis says is the fastest receiver in the NFL. Versatile tight end/H-back Charles Clay might also be a target, as the Patriots put then-No. 1 cornerback Aqib Talib on Clay last season. Regardless of how it unfolds, it will be interesting to see Revis unleash his elite talents on the Dolphins passing attack and take a first step toward showing exactly what he's capable of at this point for the Patriots pass defense. I've compared Revis' practice habits to those of Randy Moss. Moss' regular season debut in New England included nine catches for 181 yards and a 51-yard touchdown in 2007 against Revis' Jets. Can Revis make a similarly wow-worthy first impression?
Prediction: The Patriots are in the midst of a 10-game winning streak on opening day. But they have had their struggles over the years against the Dolphins in Miami, including a loss last December. Opening day games are always an unknown. There just isn't a lot to go on for game plan purposes. The Dolphins want to bring an up-tempo approach on offense under new coordinator Bill Lazor. That will challenge the Patriots defense, but only if Miami can move the ball. If not, it will lead to quick punts and more chances for Brady and his weapons. That's what I expect. I think the Patriots will be able to run and throw against Miami, assuming that Brady is up to snuff. I expect Gronkowski to play and score at least one touchdown. I think Julian Edelman will get off to a fast start after a great summer. Defensively I think New England will get after Tannehill a little bit, especially with some inside pressure from Wilfork, Mayo and Collins. Ninkovich will also probably get after rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James. The Dolphins have individual talents, but I just don't see them coming out in this one as a cohesive team. The Patriots biggest opponent in this one might be the heat, but rotating players will alleviate some of that. Put it all together and I think the Patriots win their 11th straight on opening day, beating the heat and squishing the fish to the tune of a 30-13 victory.