The Buffalo Bills are creeping up in the Pats' rearview mirror with a flurry of big moves this offseason.
By conventional wisdom, the sky is the limit for the 2012 New England Patriots.
Coming off a season in which they went 13-3 and came excruciatingly close to a Super Bowl title, the Patriots filled most of their team weaknesses in an offseason that saw them acquire star WR Brandon Lloyd and add several players to improve their No. 31-ranked defense.
Nevertheless, there are several other powerhouses in the conference and across the league that pose a threat to the Patriots. Many of these teams can either slow QB Tom Brady and the Pats' offense down or match their high scoring step-for-step.
Let's take a look at five such teams, all of which the Patriots will be facing in the 2012 regular season.
The Patriots' trip to Baltimore marks the first leg of a tough road back-to-back that also includes the division rival Buffalo Bills.
The Ravens and Patriots have stood as two of the preeminent teams in the AFC for over a decade. Last season, they met in the AFC Championship game, which was decided in the final seconds by a missed kick from the Ravens' Billy Cundiff.
Their corps is aging, and their quarterback Joe Flacco will never be much more than average, given the ease with which he is rattled when the pocket collapses.
Still, the Ravens are a team that can't be counted out in the AFC; they boast a ferocious front seven led by DT Haloti Ngata and LB Ray Lewis, and (when healthy) they have a playmaking defensive backfield that includes Lardarius Webb and future Hall of Famer Ed Reed.
Look for this game to be a low-scoring affair, and one that is likely decided by a late turnover.
Gone are the days when the Buffalo Bills played the role of George McFly to the Patriots' Biff Tannen.
The Bills of the last decade were a shadow of the franchise that went to four straight Super Bowls from 1990 to 1993. They haven't made the playoffs since 1999, and had an ignominious streak of 15 straight losses to the Patriots that lasted up through last season.
This offseason, the Bills decided to take drastic measures to reverse their organizational fortunes. They made a huge splash by signing the best defensive player available in free agency, DE Mario Williams, to a six-year, $100 million contract with an astounding $50 million in guaranteed money.
They also added the second-best defensive lineman available after Williams when they inked Pats' DE Mark Anderson to a three-year deal, a move which weakened the Pats in addition to strengthening the Bills' line.
Now, with Williams and Anderson rushing off the outside and stout tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus manning the inside gaps, the Bills D-line looks to be the best in football.
The Bills beat the Pats last season in a 34-31 scoring bout, so they clearly have weapons on offense.
If QB Ryan Fitzpatrick recovers from a rib injury that affected his performance in the second half of last season, the Bills will have both the offensive firepower (with Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller covering rushing duties and burner Stevie Johnson supposedly recovered from his groin injury) to keep up with the Pats, and the defensive presence to suppress New England's high-flying offense.
The Bills? We can safely say they're no longer AFC East pushovers.
Manning and Brady have a longstanding rivalry dating back to the first half of the 2000s. They're the two best quarterbacks of the modern era, and they've combined for four Super Bowl rings and six MVP awards.
With Manning, the Broncos are an instant contender in the AFC and a favorite to win the West.
Though the Pats stomped the Broncos twice last season, that was largely due to the fact that they were able to contain QB Tim Tebow's read-option offense. Now Tebow is a Jet, and the Patriots have a formidable, longstanding foe to battle in Week 5.
Only time will tell if Peyton Manning is fully recovered from multiple neck surgeries. But if he is, then the Patriots' young defense will be run through the gauntlet against the Broncos immediately after two tough weeks against the Ravens and Bills.
The Texans may have lost Mario Williams, but that doesn't make them a cakewalk.
Far from it, in fact.
With the return of QB Matt Schaub, a healthy Andre Johnson at wide receiver and explosive back Arian Foster handling rushing duties, the Texans have a tenacious offense. Opposing defenses will likely key in on Foster, bringing eight men into the box by cheating a safety up toward the line.
Once that happens, passing lanes will inevitably open up; look for a healthy Schaub-Johnson connection to continue to produce next season.
Their defense is even more formidable: With Wade Phillips at the helm as defensive coordinator, the Texans were ranked No. 2 in the league in total yards allowed. Some will point to the loss of Williams as a sign that the Texans will take a step back in 2012, but Williams only played five games before landing on IR with a torn pectoral muscle.
With intelligent and relentless end J.J. Watt rushing off the edge, versatile and athletic Connor Barwin roaming at linebacker and physical corner Johnathan Joseph shutting down opposing receivers, the Texans figure to have a top-10 defense again in 2012.
The Texans' playmaking ability on both sides of the ball figures to give the Patriots fits. The Pats are lucky this game is taking place within the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium.
As for their defense, they have fewer concerns on that side of the ball.
Their defense ranked No. 4 in the league in total yards allowed last season and first in rushing yards. They also finished among the top ten in sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and points allowed per game.
The 49ers have enough offensive firepower to test the Patriots' spotty coverage, and their defense could make New England's offense one-dimensional.
Winning this game would require a Herculean effort from Tom Brady.
Though that's certainly something he's capable of.