The New England Patriots have been a very predictable franchise over the past decade-plus: a lock for 10-plus wins and a playoff spot, usually a first-round bye and a trip to the AFC Championship.
With a new core of receivers, another year of continuity for the defense and several key injury-prone players, this season figures to be one of the most unpredictable in recent franchise history.
This season is gearing up to be eventful, regardless of what ends up happening.
Will the Patriots win despite some uncertainty? Here's a look at what might take place over the course of the season.
There was reason to believe the Patriots could keep Rob Gronkowski on the physically unable to perform list for the first six weeks of the season, but they opted to carry him on the 53-man roster, which indicates he'll be ready sometime before Week 6, at the latest.
Let's say, conservatively, the Patriots wait until Week 5 to bring him back. That's October 6, and there will be 12 games remaining on the schedule. Allow a one-game cushion for any potential injury Gronkowski may suffer during the season, and it seems reasonable he will play 11 or more games this year.
Chandler Jones got off to a red-hot start to the 2012 season, logging six sacks in the first eight games. He suffered an ankle injury in the 10th game of the season, though, and wasn't the same player from that point on.
Now that Jones has had a full offseason to recover from the injury, he should be ready to return to form.
He's already looked stellar in preseason, with three sacks and six quarterback hurries in just 40 pass-rush attempts. That means he's getting pressure nearly one in every four rushes.
It would be tough for anyone to keep up that kind of pace, but Jones looks primed for a big season on the edge of the Patriots defense.
Over the past few years, the Patriots have made it a habit to lock up their biggest free agents before they hit the open market (save for Wes Welker). The Patriots gave linebacker Jerod Mayo an extension in the middle of the 2011 season with a year-and-a-half left on his contract.
Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were both given big extensions before their rookie contracts expired. Of course, the latter of those two didn't work out so well for the Patriots, but they can't let that misstep guide their decision-making in the future.
Bill Belichick has always held Devin McCourty in high regard, and it wouldn't come as a shock for the Patriots to get a deal done for their starting safety before it becomes a problem. Belichick has spoken very highly of McCourty this offseason:
He’s one of our best-prepared players, both physically and mentally. He has a very good understanding of the overall defense and has gotten more experience at the safety position. He's also worked some at corner. He’s a great team player. He's been a captain since his second year in the league, so wherever we need him, I know he’s prepared to play and do the best he can for the team.
That's one of the things we all love about Devin: He's a great team player. He's a good player, does a lot of different things—in the kicking game, defense, safety, corner, nickel, whatever it happens to be. He's very dependable, he's very consistent, and he works hard, puts the team first. There’s not much to not like about him; it's pretty much all good.
McCourty has done everything the Patriots have asked him to do. He was drafted in the first round as a cornerback out of Rutgers, and while his play was up-and-down at that position, he was playing very well at cornerback before being moved to safety full-time in the second half of the 2012 season.
He has remained at safety in practice and in the preseason and looks like a long-term building block for the secondary.
And it's not the end of the world, guys.
The Patriots offense, as presently constructed, is built to attack every part of the field, not just the short and intermediate area between the hash marks as the Patriots offense has done for years with Wes Welker and the two tight ends.
Danny Amendola is the best receiver on the roster, but if the Patriots offense is working the way it should, no one player should be the focal point.
Amendola also has the ability to create more big plays for the Patriots, as we saw from him against the Buccaneers in the preseason on a 27-yard touchdown catch down the seam.
Brady may target Amendola frequently in the early part of the season if the other receivers are slow to acclimate to the offense. But as Brady becomes more comfortable with his new receivers, the ball will be spread around a bit more.
Shane Vereen (left) showed soft hands in the preseason.
Speculation began long ago that Patriots running back Shane Vereen would have a bigger role in the passing game in 2013. He was used in that role in the Patriots' big playoff win over the Houston Texans and logged five catches for 83 yards and two scores in that game.
We saw more flashes of his receiving ability in the preseason, with Vereen hauling in seven passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
These aren't all just dump-off passes, either. In fact, he made a beauty of an overhead catch in the back corner of the end zone against the Eagles in preseason, similar to a touchdown catch he had against the Texans.
Vereen certainly doesn't lack for running ability, but it looks like he'll have a lot of opportunities to contribute big plays in the passing game. If that's the case, he could end up filling a Darren Sproles-type role for the Patriots.
Logan Ryan (26) could find a spot in the starting lineup.
The Patriots have enough talent to keep them satisfied at cornerback with Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard locked in as the starters. They could face trouble, however, if Dennard is suspended or if Talib suffers an injury as he has nearly every season of his career.
Rookie cornerback Logan Ryan has improved throughout the offseason and earned the job as the fifth cornerback over Ras-I Dowling.
Ryan earned praise from Bill Belichick for his versatility and for improving on his technique, recognition and communication. For now, it looks like he's primed for a role in the team's nickel package. But if either Talib or Dennard misses time, it may not be long before the Patriots insert Ryan into the starting lineup.
The Patriots defense is often the object of ridicule for its porous pass defense.
The Patriots gave up a league-worst 74 pass plays of 20 yards or more in 2012. They allowed 7.7 yards per pass attempt, the fifth-worst average in the league. They've ranked in the bottom four in total pass defense each of the past three years.
They may give up yards in bunches, but they have usually been much better in a more important area: the scoreboard.
This may not be such a bold prediction, given the fact that the Patriots defense has actually ranked in the top 10 in scoring in nine of Belichick's 13 seasons as head coach. They ranked ninth in 2012.
What's more, this unit returns most of its key players. Only two defensive players who started more than six games will not be returning to the Patriots in 2013: defensive tackle Kyle Long and safety Patrick Chung.
With so much continuity on defense, the Patriots should improve on their totals from a year ago and still be a hard defense to score against.
Leon Washington (above) was handed his walking papers.
The Patriots have lacked a true weapon at kick returner since cornerback Ellis Hobbs left the team in 2009.
It looked like they had found their man when they signed former Seahawks running back Leon Washington this offseason, but the team handed Washington his walking papers as it trimmed the roster down to 53 players.
Now, it looks like running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Josh Boyce could be the ones returning kicks for New England.
At 6'0" and 250 pounds, Blount is about as far from a prototypical kickoff returner as it gets. Perhaps the Patriots are hoping he can simply bulldoze his way to the end zone, but Blount may not be completely futile as a returner. He took his lone preseason return for 27 yards.
As for Boyce, he's a bit closer to the ideal kickoff returner at 5'11" and 205 pounds. He took his three returns for 73 yards, an average of 24.3 and a long of 33 yards. He ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, so he has the speed to be a threat in that role. He doesn't have much experience as a kickoff returner, though, with just three returns in his entire college career and three preseason returns.
Boyce could be a surprise home run threat as a kickoff returner, but the Patriots' recent lack of success returning kicks leads to doubt.
These may seem like arbitrary numbers—and maybe they are—but I can't be the only one who finds it interesting that Tom Brady has thrown for 34 or more touchdowns and 12 or fewer interceptions in the same season on four separate occasions (2007, 2010-2012) and in each of the past three seasons.
It may seem like a stretch given the bevy of new and unfamiliar weapons in the passing game, but he was pressured on just 25 percent of his dropbacks last year according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). If the men up front are buying Brady that much time in the pocket, it truly may not matter whom he's throwing to, as long as someone is getting open.
There's the potential for Brady's stats to dip if the Patriots rely more on the running game than they have in years past or if the offense isn't clicking right away. But judging by his preseason performance (77.3 percent completions, 8.1 yards per pass attempt, 106 passer rating), the passing game should be the least of the Patriots' concerns.
The Patriots have a lot of tough road games this year, traveling to face the Cincinnati Bengals, the Atlanta Falcons, the Houston Texans and the Baltimore Ravens. They have a few tough home contests as well, hosting the New Orleans Saints, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Denver Broncos.
The ceiling for this team feels like 12 wins, and that's not accounting for a slow start if the Patriots offense isn't immediately in tune or any potential upset that may occur over the course of the season—and we can usually count on the Patriots for at least one of those.
The schedule isn't easy, but with Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick as the head coach, it's hard to predict fewer than 10 wins.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.