The New England Patriots will open their 2013 season on September 8, facing the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park. For Patriots fans, it'll be the first authentic, "game-day" look at how quarterback Tom Brady intends to run an offense composed almost entirely of new faces.
Though Brady might be surrounded by strangers on the field, those strangers form a youthful, aggressive group of downfield threats who can generate electrifying plays. Some of Brady's shiny new toys are raw prodigies of the game.
For the Patriots to win their opening game and put the first brick in the foundation of an important season, they'll need to beat the Bills in three critical matchups.
New England Offense vs. Buffalo Pass Rush
One of the key matchups of the day will be Brady and his offensive linemen vs. Buffalo's pass rush, spearheaded by elite defensive end Mario Williams.
The meat and potatoes of this matchup began last year during the 2012 offseason, when Buffalo's acquisition of Williams gave this old rivalry a fresh coat of paint. It also acquired defensive end Mark Anderson, who was coming off a career season with the Patriots.
Further intensifying matters was Patriots offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who was entering a contract year and looking to perform well enough to earn a long-term deal.
The pieces were in place for a brawl.
In New England's first game against Buffalo last September, Brady threw 340 yards and three scores without an interception. Williams notched a mere two tackles with no sacks. Vollmer owned him. The Patriots won, 52-28.
Their second game in November brought more of the same. Brady threw 237 yards and two touchdowns. He delivered another clean game with no picks. Williams managed three tackles and no sacks. Once again, Vollmer dominated the matchup. The Patriots won, 37-31.
Following the 2012 season, Vollmer was rewarded with a four-year contract.
Brady ranked No. 4 on NFL Network's Top 100 Players of 2013. On the same list, 68 spots below New England's quarterback, was Mario Williams.
Meanwhile, Mark Anderson went from having 10 sacks with the Patriots in 2011 to having one sack with the Bills in 2012. The Bills released Anderson during this offseason.
The Patriots won the brawl.
Now, heading into Week 1 of the 2013 season, look for Brady, Vollmer and offensive tackle Nate Solder to renew their contentious rivalry with Buffalo's pass rush.
Brady's New Offensive Weapons vs. Buffalo Secondary
Also keep an eye out for another great matchup, as Brady's new offensive weapons go toe-to-toe with Buffalo's secondary.
At this point, Buffalo's defensive backfield is in rough shape. Safety Jairus Byrd is struggling with a sore foot and his status for Week 1 is hazy. Also of note is cornerback Stephon Gilmore, certainly one of the best players on the Bills, who's out for six to eight weeks with a fractured wrist.
On the surface, it may sound like Brady's offense has a leg up on this battered secondary, but we need to remember that Brady's new attack is still raw. There will be growing pains, even in the face of a struggling defensive backfield.
Rookie receivers Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson have been slow to show progress, though Boyce finally came on strong against the Giants with a gorgeous 40-yard touchdown grab from quarterback Ryan Mallett. Still, though, it's tough to know what to expect right away. Dobson, especially, could be a longer-term project.
Another issue is injury-prone wide receiver Danny Amendola. Midway through the preseason, there was a slight injury scare when he missed a few practices. Even if the injury was meaningless, it still matters on a symbolic level. There's a slippery slope here with his body.
Another concern is that New England's chances for a championship seemingly come down to a pair of undrafted rookie free agents, receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld. Sure, there's something enormously thrilling and outrageously beautiful about that, but there's also something relentlessly terrifying about it, too.
There, embedded in that very dilemma, is the exquisite danger and anticipation of the Patriots' new season.
The fact is, Patriots fans do not know this team yet. Week 1 will be an important introduction on the big stage, especially for the new receivers and tight end. It's important for them to make a solid first impression and let the fans know they're for real.
New England Defense vs. Buffalo QB
Another critical area of interest will be New England's ability to attack the passer. This is where linebacker Brandon Spikes can be of excellent service.
But who will the passer be? The Bills might start rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, but he recently had minor knee surgery and might not be ready to go. They might start undrafted rookie slinger Jeff Tuel in his place.
I don't like playing doomed teams, because those are the teams that end up beating you in the Super Bowl. Twice.
The doom factor gets ratcheted up if Tuel gets the starting nod. According to ESPN and the Elias Sports Bureau, "Tuel would be the first undrafted rookie quarterback in the common draft era (since 1967) to start a regular-season opener."
That sets up a crazy Cinderella story.
And this is where Week 1 gets a little precarious. People love this sort of upset. If the Bills win, it'll be pandemonium. If they win with Tuel at the helm, it'll double the madness. Everywhere you look for the whole week after the game, you'll be smothered by the face of Buffalo's quarterback.
The Patriots don't need any part of this situation. The easiest way to avoid it is to simply take care of business. That's where guys like rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan and veteran pass-rushing menace Rob Ninkovich become a factor. They need to knock Buffalo's quarterback all over the place.
Two sacks from defensive end Chandler Jones would be sweet. Three would be sweeter.
These matchups will ultimately determine the outcome of New England's opening game of the 2013 season.