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What to watch for in Chiefs-Pats NFL Kickoff Game

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  • By Edward Lewis NFL.com
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Football is back!

The 2017 NFL season kicks off tonight at 8:30 ET when the New England Patriots begin their quest to repeat as Super Bowl champions against the Kansas City Chiefs.

What are we watching for on opening night? Here are five things:

1. How long exactly is Alex Smith's leash? The veteran Chiefs quarterback was fine this preseason, completing 19 of his 32 pass attempts for 175 yards, a touchdown and no picks. His general manager, Brett Veach, also publicly stated it's not "even close" to how far ahead he is of rookie Patrick Mahomes. Yet that Mahomes hype train is barreling down Smith's back. The rookie was stellar in the preseason, posting a 109.3 quarterback rating and doing it with throws like this and this. It's obviously unlikely Smith gets benched in Week 1 for the rookie, but it will be interesting to see how the veteran plays knowing Kansas City's anointed future franchise signal-caller is holding a clipboard just yards away on the sideline.

2. With Spencer Ware going down for the season with a knee injury in the preseason, the Chiefs' backfield is suddenly one of the more interesting ones in the league. Third-round pick Kareem Hunt is the favorite to be the workhorse, having carried the ball second-most on the team this preseason behind only recently released Devine Redding. But veterans Charcandrick West and C.J. Spiller are looming. Can Hunt can be the breakout player some are projecting him to be in 2017? Or is he just another body in a Chiefs backfield that has had constant turnover since Jamaal Charles' knees broke down?

3. The Patriots' backfield is just as alluring as the Chiefs'. New England showed the NFL's rushing touchdown leader LeGarrette Blount the door, and has opted to take a community approach with all-around backs Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee as well as speedsters Dion Lewis and James White. The Pats' offense has always been the Tom Brady air show, but it will at least be mildly interesting to see who gets the bulk of touches in that crowded backfield.

4. There were big offseason additions all over the NFL this year, but none was quite as intriguing as the Patriots opting to grab Brandin Cooks. The last time Tom Brady had a receiver that was this capable of stretching the field, he and Randy Moss re-wrote the NFL record books. Cooks is a burner, and Brady needs a new BFF at wide receiver after Julian Edelman's season-ending knee injury. The start of a long relationship between the two could begin this evening.

5. Gronk's back. Limited to just eight games last year because of back and hamstring issues, Patriots All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski says he's healthy and "leaner and meaner" heading into tonight's season opener. There will be not only eyes looking out to see how his body holds up, but we'll also be taking a look to see if the Patriots limit him in any way after a career's worth of ailments. Seeing what Gronk does in the endzone now that the NFL's relaxed its stance on celebrations will be worth the cost of the game, too.

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