There was really just one day of doubt. On March 12, cornerback Aqib Talib signed with the Patriots’ direct rival for AFC supremacy, the Denver Broncos. But on March 13, the Pats responded with a megaphone, shouting to the rest of the league that Darrelle Revis was still the best corner in the game.
The New England defense is expected to be much improved with Revis in tow and with Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo both returning from injury. The offense is expected to remain elite as well, with Tom Brady under center for his 15th NFL season. Though Brady was working with a number of inexperienced receivers last season and with his main target, Rob Gronkowski, banged up for the majority of the season, the Pats still averaged the third most points per game in the NFL at 27.8.
The Patriots’ 2014 journey begins this Sunday, as they invade Miami Gardens, Florida to take on the Dolphins (1 p.m., CBS). Here are a few things to watch for:
Wake and bake
It wasn’t too long ago that CBS commentators would say things like, “Wait a couple years until Cameron Wake and this Dolphins defense matures. They’ll be a force to be reckoned with.”
Well, Wake is 32-years-old now and Miami hasn’t made the playoffs since the former Canadian Football League defensive player of the year signed a deal with the Dolphins in 2009. Make no mistake, however. Wake is still a dominant force, making the Pro Bowl in three of the past four years. The Patriots will again have to pay particular attention to the defensive end on Sunday, particularly with their offensive line in flux after the trade of Logan Mankins.
It will surely be a long afternoon for the New England O-line no matter what as they must adjust to the baking, Miami heat. The forecast in Miami Gardens Sunday calls for an 89 degree day with 75 percent humidity and scattered thunder storms. The Pats left for Florida a day early this week, seemingly to get adjusted to the heat.
Rush the quarterback
No doubt, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill wants to get off to a strong start in 2014. The former Texas A&M star has flashed signs of greatness in his first two years in the league but – as much as it can in lax Miami – the pressure is on him to take the next step. The Fins want to reach the postseason for the first time since 2008 (their only playoff appearance of the past 12 years) and there have been small improvements year-to-year as they have gone from 7-9 in Tannehill’s rookie season to 8-8 last year. Tannehill doubled his touchdown total from 12 to 24 from 2012 to 2013 but his interception total climbed as well, from 13 to 17.
It will be interesting to see how much pressure the Patriots will put on Tannehill in the season opener as the Dolphins have, literally, an entirely new offensive line. According to the Palm Beach Post, Miami will be the first NFL team in 10 years to have five new starters on the offensive line.
Silent but deadly
Much of the off-season banter has been centered around Darrelle Revis and – as always – Tom Brady. But there are several players on the Patriots roster that are poised to flip the talk in their direction.
Defensive end Chandler Jones was somewhat snubbed last year in his quest to land on the AFC Pro Bowl roster, but in his third year, and with Revis now in the secondary, there’s reason to believe his numbers could jump once again. Jones had six sacks in his rookie year of 2012 and bumped that number up to 11.5 last season. His tackle total also climbed from 24 to 40.
Slot receiver Danny Amendola could also have a breakthrough season. While many Patriots fans are still bitter about the team’s decision to go after Amendola over Wes Welker, it’s important to remember that when Amendola was relatively healthy last season that he did produce. In fact, Amendola’s three 100-plus yard receiving games last season were the most of his career in a single season. With Welker suspended for four games to start the season and his career looking as though it’s coming to a close, a big start to 2014 for Amendola could help convert a few people around here.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter: @BurkeMetroBOS