Bill Belichick has the season mapped out, but will it go as planned?
The New England Patriots have been to five Super Bowls over the last decade, winning three of them. Yet the recent dry spell has the team 0-2 since their victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in February of 2005.
In order to right the course, there are several facets of the game that must fall into the Pats' favor. Call it a map to glory, or call it a blueprint—New England has a checklist for success.
Here are five points of contingency to keep in mind as the Patriots plan another Super Bowl run during the 2012 season.
Not so long ago, a young Tom Brady was quarterbacking the Patriots, and he relied on the screen pass to pick up first downs.
The quick dump off to third-down back Kevin Faulk hardly ever failed. In fact, that type of play drove defensive coordinators nuts.
How can wide receivers be locked down when the secondary has to worry about the running back springing out of the flats behind the blocks? Well, they can't.
The screen check-down used to be the Patriots' go-to weapon. But for one reason or another, New England has veered away from the short pass of late.
Don't expect that lull to continue, since returning offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels calls plenty of catch-and-run plays. This preseason proved that, as the Pats rushing corps collected 182 receiving yards in four games.
For the road ahead, the Patriots have several running backs who can change direction on a dime. Shane Vereen, Danny Woodhead, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden all have good hands and solid bursts.
As a result, defenses won't know what to expect because New England's offense will be as versatile as it has ever been.
Tight end is the new wide receiver, at least for the Patriots.
The 23-year-old Rob Gronkowski is coming of a 90-catch, 1,327-yard, 18-touchdown campaign. Pair those stats up with the 22-year-old Aaron Hernandez, who had a 79-catch, 910-yard, seven-touchdown season a year ago, and the Pats have a recipe for the record books.
If these two blocking targets can keep up this pace, there's no reason to believe they won't both be 1,000-yard receivers in 2012.
Most teams are hard pressed to even have one wide receiver at the 1,000 yard plateau. That's not a concern for New England, however. Beyond the prolific two-headed monster at tight end, the Patriots also have Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, who combined for 2,535 yards in 2011.
Defenses cannot cover all four at once. If the Patriots can execute this dynamic passing attack outside the numbers, in the seam and underneath, punter Zoltan Mesko might have time to learn another language this season.
Nate Solder is key for New England's offensive line.
Keeping Tom Brady safe sounds simple in theory, but it's easier said than done.
Without veteran left tackle Matt Light blocking Brady's blindside, former first-round pick Nate Solder must be the heir apparent.
Solder started 13 of 16 games as a rookie, and looked pretty sharp. Yet during this year's preseason, his performance was up and down, and so was Brady.
He was flagged for two holding penalties in the first quarter as multiple breakdowns up front paralyzed the offense, with quarterback Tom Brady getting driven to the turf and losing the football to end the team's second drive.
Against the Philadelphia Eagles in preseason Week 2, Solder didn't fare much better. Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham commented on his battle with the 6'8" Solder, per NBCConnecticut.com's Ryan Wilson:
"I was getting up and under him a lot and that is probably the best thing," he said. "The challenges are that he is a big, long guy and you have to get his hands off of you. He is real strong and you have to stay on your game when you're playing him."
Solder certainly has the tools it takes to be a stalwart left tackle in the NFL, but he's got to become consistent in order to ensure the safety of his quarterback and the success of the offense.
It's not all Solder's fault, however. Last year's fifth-round draft choice Marcus Cannon has been a swinging door at right tackle when filling in for Sebastian Vollmer. And in total, the Pats O-line has given up 10 sacks in four preseason contests.
The edge rushers are getting to the QB, and it only takes one big hit for second-year signal-caller Ryan Mallett to become the starter. Needless to say, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has been tested with this unit.
Jermaine Cunningham has been a pleasant surprise this season.
The Patriots have plenty of young and athletic pass-rushers. All of whom must continue to get to the quarterback if they want to see the field.
New England's revamped front is prided by the likes of 2012 first-rounder Chandler Jones, 2012 third-rounder Jake Bequette, 2010 second-rounder Jermaine Cunningham and undrafted rookie Justin Francis.
Those defensive ends combined for five sacks and 24 tackles this preseason.
What makes those statistics more impressive is that Chandler Jones appeared to be a raw talent, Jake Bequette wasn't considered all that athletic, Jermaine Cunningham was on the verge of being cut and Justin Francis was a long shot to make the team.
Those question marks have turned into answers. And now, all four men could have their impact felt almost immediately come the regular season.
Throw in veterans Trevor Scott and Rob Ninkovich, and the Patriots have the elements to create a very volatile defensive end presence this year.
Is the Pats' defensive backfield where it needs to be?
As if there were any doubt, New England's defensive backs must be better than last year in order for the squad to return to the Super Bowl.
The team's defensive back group has been bolstered this offseason, and it has shown on the field.
Second-round pick Tavon Wilson has padded the safety spot, sixth-round special teams safety Nate Ebner has shown a nose for the football and seventh-round value pick Alfonzo Dennard has helped reload the cornerback position.
In free agency, Steve Gregory was brought in to start alongside Patrick Chung at safety, and Marquice Cole was acquired for cornerback depth. Thus far, both have exceeded expectations.
Let us not forget about Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington and Ras-I Dowling, who figure to lead the way for the cornerbacks this season. McCourty will look to bounce back from a poor second season, Arrington will have to keep making plays and Dowling will have to stay healthy.
Will this core of defensive backs become a strength rather than a weakness? In the early going, they don't look perfect, but they don't look nearly as sloppy as last year, either.
New York Giants QB Eli Manning at Disney World.
New England left Lucas Oil Stadium empty-handed, but there's no time for a sob story. It's football season again, and the rubber is about to meet the road.
According to ESPN.com's James Walker (h/t ESPN Stats & Information), it has been 39 years since a Super Bowl runner-up has returned the following year and won it all.
Mathematically, only 4.3 percent of NFL teams have been able to accomplish what New England is trying to do this year. Those are long odds, indeed.
Do the Pats have what it takes to avoid being another casualty of the Super Bowl-loser curse? The team certainly has the firepower to do so, regardless of the ruts that lie ahead.