At first glance, the Miami Dolphins appear poised to breakout in 2013. They spent the offseason revamping their roster and adding playmakers all across the board. The Dolphins are by and large not the same team they were in 2012, and that's generated an airliner's worth of excitement.
Now the question is can Miami translate its new identity into a winning season? A lot of people (this writer included) believe the Dolphins will be vastly improved, but there are plenty of factors that could derail the still-gelling team.
Miami has a lot of new faces, and while those players are strong on their own, we still don't know if they'll make a strong unit. The defense is especially undeveloped, with an almost entirely new secondary and linebacker corps. Whether or not they'll mesh into a cohesive group is to be seen.
The same goes for the offense. Will Ryan Tannehill develop a healthy rapport with his new weapons, or will they constantly be on different wavelengths?
Those are certainly important questions, and their importance becomes magnified when you consider Miami's schedule. The Dolphins have the eighth-most difficult schedule in 2013.
Miami will have to navigate its thorny schedule with the aplomb of a group of veterans if it wants to make a run for the playoffs. And while the entire schedule is no slouch, here are five games that will determine the Dolphins' fate in 2013.
A general understanding of the NFL will probably make this selection seem silly. But if you look a little closer, it becomes clear that Miami's season opener is one of its most important games in 2013.
First, consider the Dolphins' opening stretch. It's a brutal salvo of quality opponents that sees Miami traveling to Cleveland and Indianapolis to start, followed by the home debut against Atlanta, a trip to New Orleans the following week and closing out back in Miami versus the Ravens.
To find success next year, Miami needs to win at least three of these games. A 3-2 record going into the bye week will allow the Fins to come out of the off period with a load of confidence.
With that need established, it becomes imperative that Miami beats Cleveland. The Browns are arguably the least talented of the teams in the Dolphins' opening stretch.
But don't overlook the Browns. As Bleacher Report featured columnist Matt Miselis points out, Cleveland could be one of the NFL's biggest surprises in 2013.
They made a lot of moves in the offseason to improve their already pretty strong defense. Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo are dangerous on the edge, and their secondary is still anchored by the elite Joe Haden.
The offense still has some questions with Brandon Weeden leading the way, but he could be improved with a full offseason under his belt. A couple of explosive young players like Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron could boost Weeden's performance.
The Dolphins must find a way to beat Cleveland and start their season out strong. But it certainly won't be an easy win.
Things don't get any easier for Miami, as the very next week they head to Indy to face the Colts. The showdown between these two last year turned out to be one of the season's most exciting games.
Rookie quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck dueled fiercely, causing many to dub their rivalry the next Manning-Brady. As both QBs step into their sophomore years with a lot of promise, that comparison may not be far off.
In their first match, the victory went to Luck. He outgunned Tannehill by throwing for 433 yards and two touchdowns. Tannehill was no slouch, throwing for 290 yards and a touchdown, but Luck's experience and superior firepower elevated him.
And the Colts didn't exactly get worse in the offseason. Luck will only get better, and he still has Reggie Wayne and the blossoming T.Y. Hilton to sling it to, as well as tight end Coby Fleener. They added Donald Thomas, strengthening the offensive line, which Luck will certainly appreciate.
On the defensive side, first-rounder Bjoern Werner has the skills to terrorize quarterbacks. Corners Greg Toler and Darius Butler should bolster what was a pretty weak secondary in 2012.
The most important thing to remember about this game is that it carries huge playoff implications. It's entirely possible that both Indy and Miami could be battling for a wildcard spot by the end of the season. A victory in Week 2 could be exactly what the Dolphins need to get the edge in the playoff hunt.
The defending Super Bowl champs may seem like daunting opponents, but the main reason this game is important is because it's another highly winnable contest during the Dolphins' first five games.
The Ravens were absolutely gutted following their Super Bowl victory. They lost eight starters, including Dannell Ellerbe, Paul Kruger, Cary Williams, Bernard Pollard, Ed Reed, Anquan Boldin and Ray Lewis.
That's a ton of playmakers, and no matter how much talent is left on Baltimore's roster, it's tough to recover from that many losses. That's why the Dolphins have a pretty good shot at beating the Ravens in Week 5.
And they may need it, too. Coming off back-to-back games against the Falcons and Saints, the Dolphins could be looking at a two-game losing streak.
Returning home to face a depleted Ravens squad could be just what Miami needs before the bye week.
After the Dolphins emerge from their brutal series of openers, their first important game is a Thursday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Similar to the early-season game against Indy, this game holds playoff implications. There's a good chance the Bengals will be in the running for a wildcard spot, and if the Dolphins are in the same position, a victory against Cincinnati will play in their favor.
The Dolphins pulled off a surprise victory over the Bengals in 2012 when Reshad Jones snatched a game-sealing interception in the waning minutes.
Cincinnati figures to be a tough opponent in 2013. Andy Dalton is one of the most talented young quarterbacks in the game, and he's got an elite target in A.J. Green. The addition of tight end Tyler Eifert only further improves the Bengals' air attack.
Complementing BenJarvus Green-Ellis at halfback is North Carolina rookie Giovanni Bernard, a speedy threat who should ignite the Bengals' running game. On defense, James Harrison improves the linebacker unit while Geno Atkins makes their defensive line strong all on his own.
The Dolphins will need to be at their best to pull out this victory. With this game situated in the middle of the season, we'll likely already have a good idea of which direction the Dolphins are heading. A win here could turn their season around, or keep them chugging down the right path.
Without question, the biggest barometer by which to measure the Dolphins' improvement will be how they fare against the New England Patriots. The reigning kings of the AFC East for as long as many can remember are not going to give up their crown without a fight.
The Patriots have won their last six against Miami. But this is simultaneously the weakest New England's roster has looked and the strongest Miami's has looked.
Hall of Famer shoe-in and one of the all-time best players, Tom Brady, is still the same elite talent he's been. But his supporting cast has been diminished. The Pats lost Brandon Lloyd and, more importantly, Wes Welker. They may have added Danny Amendola, and while he's a good receiver, he's no Welker.
Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski will surely ease the loss of Welker, but Gronkowski's durability could be coming into question with the amount of injuries he's suffered over the last few months.
Meanwhile, New England's defense still isn't that fear-inspiring. Their run defense was strong in 2012 and should continue to be, but their secondary was atrocious. Despite generating 20 interceptions, they ranked 29th, allowing 271.4 passing yards per game. Re-signing Aqib Talib certainly helps, but it's clear they'll need a lot more than that.
Still, the Patriots seem to have Miami's number. It goes beyond players, stats, and practical measureables. The Dolphins have been in the Pats' doghouse since 2009, the last time they toppled Brady and company.
The Dolphins need to win at least one game against the Pats in 2013. A loss this late in the season could ruin Miami's shot at the playoffs and destroy any momentum they could be riding.
Every game is important in the NFL, but these five should prove to be the most decisive contests on the Dolphins' hunt for the playoffs in 2013.