New England Patriots
2009 record: 10-6 (First in AFC East)
Steve WycheThey seem on a mission. The offensive line might not be what it was, but they can survive. Defense has to create turnovers to make a run.
31Sacks the Patriots had last season, which ranked 23rd in the NFL. New England will have to figure a way to rush the quarterback to ease the pressure on its youthful secondary.
The Patriots' running woes can be attributed to Maroney's inconsistency as the feature back. He has failed to post a 1,000-yard season in his career, and his lack of production has forced the team to adopt a platoon system in the backfield. Given another chance to anchor the ground game, Maroney must produce at a higher level or see his role diminish.
Aaron HernandezIt's not often that a fourth-round pick is expected to make an immediate impact, but Hernandez's skills make him a potential star. The ultra-athletic pass-catcher is a matchup nightmare on the perimeter, and his versatility will quickly make him one of Tom Brady's favorite targets in the team's spread formations. Given the big role that the tight end plays in the Patriots' red-zone package, Hernandez is poised to be a major contributor as a rookie.
Tate not to be lost in WR mixThe Patriots top wideouts will continue to be Randy Moss and Wes Welker, but fantasy owners should keep tabs on Brandon Tate. He drew rave reviews in training camp and could even be utilized in the team's three-receiver sets. If nothing else, Tate is certainly a viable dynasty league option.
Three pivotal games
Sept. 19 at New York JetsWhile the Patriots have long been the kings of the AFC East, the Jets undoubtedly won the offseason by assembling one of the most talented rosters in the league. With Jets coach Rex Ryan talking a big game, the Patriots will want to set the tone in the division with an early-season victory in their rival's new home.
Oct. 17 vs. BaltimoreThe Patriots were dominated from the first whistle in last year's wild-card loss to the Ravens. Coming off a bye, the rested Patriots will get their chance for revenge when they host Ray Lewis and Co. This one should be a good measuring stick for a Patriots team that some think is in transition. The stakes will be high for both teams.
Dec. 19 vs. Green BayThe expectation for coach Bill Belichick is always the Super Bowl. The expectation for the Packers -- at least this year -- is the Super Bowl. Could this Week 15 matchup be a preview of the big game? If it isn't, it's at least going to feature a heck of a quarterback duel between Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Weather won't bother either of these teams.