As we await the season kickoff against Cincinnati this Sunday, here are some key things to look for during the game, as well as a score prediction.
#1 - The Patriots' young cornerback duo vs. the Bengals' veteran receivers
With the loss of veteran Leigh Bodden to injured reserve, the Patriots will now field the league's youngest starting duo at cornerback. 1st round pick Devin McCourty and sophomore Darius Butler will get thrown into the fire quickly, as Cincy boasts some serious veteran experience in Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. I expect that McCourty and Butler will get plenty of help via safties Brandon Merriweather and Patrick Chung, but if the youngsters find themselves exposed on a regular basis, it could be the start of a very long season.
#2 - Who fills the void at outside linebacker?
The surprising release of veteran Derrick Burgess has opened up a big hole for the Patriots at outside linebacker. Fill-ins, Rob Ninkovich, Marquis Murrell, and Jermaine Cunningham have a combined zero NFL starts among them. One of them will get their first opportunity Sunday. One of the biggest flaws of the Patriots last season was their inability to get a consistent pass rush going. It's going to take one of those three to step up if the Patriots are going to avoid a repeat performance in 2010.
#3 - Wes Welker's recovery
Nobody expected Wes Welker to be playing this week, but Wes decided to go all Wolverine on us and show off his mutant healing powers. Welker looked good in the preseason, but the real test will come when he plays his first regular season game. If Wes is even at 90% of his normal capacity, the Patriots offense has the chance to be scary good.
#4 - Tight End play
In 2009, the Patriots tight end contributions were nearly non-existent. Belichick reloaded in the draft and rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez appear to be big-time hits. Last year the Patriots did a great job of moving down the field, but had an awful tendency to stall out in the red zone. Having some sturdier targets to duke it out in the endzone in addition to the regular Moss/Welker combo, should be a big asset for Brady. I think we're going to see a much more effective offense this season because of it.
#5 - The kicking game
Rookie punter, Zoltan Mesko may end up paying huge dividends for the Patriots if he can successfully influence the field position game. He'll also be holding for kicker Stephen Gostkowski, which is a big and potentially game-altering change. The normally dead-on Gostkowski may struggle early as he makes adjustments to this new routine. Games are so often won and last due to small things on special teams. It will be interesting to see what effect this new kicker/punter dynamic has on the Patriots.
Prediction: Patriots 35, Bengals 27