The Patriots and their revamped receiving corps will embark on a challenging 2013 schedule, one that could have them without all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski for the start of the season.
The road to the playoffs always goes through the division, and the Dolphins especially have been extremely active this offseason, while both the Jets and Bills should provide the challenges that they always do. Despite the Patriots' divisional dominance, the games early in the season especially always seem to be closely contested.
The 2013 campaign will see the Patriots face the top playoff seeds from both conferences from last year, along with a total of four road games against playoff teams. It's one of the toughest schedules the Pats have faced in years, with challenging games sprinkled throughout the season.
Here are the five games that will make or break the 2013 Pats.
In recent years, the Patriots have had some extremely close battles with the Buffalo Bills early in the season.
There was 2009's come-from-behind win, the largest and latest deficit ever overcome by Tom Brady. Perhaps most memorable for Bills fans was 2011's win as time expired by Buffalo, their first victory over New England since opening weekend 2003. And lastly was 2012's Patriots domination, which saw the Pats down 21-7, before rallying to a 52-28 final.
Now, with former Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine calling the Bills' defense, they should be better prepared to challenge Tom Brady.
The first game of the season is always an interesting one. Both teams spend the entire offseason focused on that one matchup, and the Bills will be ready to attack the Patriots.
For the Pats, starting the season off with a divisional win on the road, likely without Rob Gronkowski, would be great first step and put Buffalo immediately in a divisional hole. But a Bills win would signal there just might be a real race in the AFC East this season.
After a busy offseason, the Dolphins look like the AFC East team best prepared to challenge the Pats' string of four straight division titles, and 11 out of the last 13.
The Dolphins were the last team, other than the Patriots, to win the title back in 2008, and this year, with a promising quarterback entering year two in Ryan Tannehill, and a veteran defense, Miami just might be ready to take the crown from the Patriots once again.
The key for Miami will be to keep the race close to give themselves a chance in December. With four divisional games in the last five weeks, Miami will be in the race until the end, unless it's a disaster outside the division.
The Dolphins are also fortunate to get the Patriots in Miami in December instead of freezing Foxboro. The Pats have had their struggles in Miami, winning by just a touchdown in 2012. However, Miami has the longest winless streak in the division against the Pats, having lost to New England six straight times since their last win in December of 2009.
They'll need a perfect game to take down New England.
This game could very well play a big role in determining the division, but the Patriots' offense should be rounding into form by this point, setting up one of the most anticipated late divisional games in a number of years.
The Texans lost twice to the Patriots in Foxboro last season and should welcome the venue change to Houston in 2013.
With Brian Cushing back in the lineup and Ed Reed on the back end of their defense, the Texans should be better prepared to defend the Patriots. Rookie receiver DeAndre Hopkins should give Houston a secondary receiving threat to challenge the Patriots defensive backs.
The Patriots defense was stout run defenders in 2012, and that forced the Texans out of their comfort zone with Arian Foster and their zone-blocking scheme. But in the friendly confines of their home stadium, Matt Schaub should be more comfortable taking to the air early and often against the Pats pass defense.
There's little doubt the Texans will once again be in the AFC hunt in 2013, and this early December matchup could go a long way toward determining the seedings for the playoffs. The Texans can't be considered an elite AFC team until they knock off the Pats. This will be an excellent chance for them to do so.
The Patriots and Ravens both went through significant change this offseason, but what won't change is that both teams will be highly competitive and physical, and regardless of turnover, should have another epic battle on Sunday Night Football in Week 16.
The NFL knew what it was doing saving this game until the end of the season. In recent years, Weeks 16 and 17 were reserved for divisional games, which, for the Patriots, were often meaningless. But this year the Pats' second-to-last game could have real implications in the AFC playoff race, if not the divisional race for both teams.
While Ed Reed and Ray Lewis were not the players they once were, their knowledge and experience was invaluable against Tom Brady and the cerebral game he plays. Brady will no doubt be breathing a sigh of relief not seeing Ed Reed in the Ravens secondary any more (and Bernard Pollard too, for that matter).
The Patriots and Ravens are two of the best run organizations in the NFL, and no amount of personnel turnover will affect that. Even without Reed, Lewis and Wes Welker on the field, this will still be one of the best football games of the season in the NFL.
The Patriots will be looking to get back on track against the Ravens, who took both matchups in 2012, and three of the last five overall.
The hype machine for Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning part 14 has already started, and with Wes Welker switching sides in the NFL's most famous quarterback rivalry, it adds another twist on the 13-year war.
But most interesting, aside from the Brady-Manning-Welker angles, will be the implications in the standings for what were the top two seeds in the AFC a year ago. Set in late November, both teams should be beginning to peak, though it would still be early enough for either to overcome a loss.
Brady and the Pats offense has rolled over the Broncos in their last three matchups; can that continue with Welker on the other side now? And how will the Patriots stop the best slot receiver in the game when they were so poor doing so the last two seasons?
The result will impact the Brady-Manning rivalry, Wes Welker's Patriot legacy and, most immediately, the playoff seeds in 2013.
This is the crown jewel of the 2013 season, not just for the Patriots and Broncos, but all of the NFL.