Red flags, easy wins, and everything else to watch for this Patriots season

Will the Dec. 16 meeting against the Steelers be an instant classic like last season’s encounter?
Will the Dec. 16 meeting against the Steelers be an instant classic like last season’s encounter?(FILE/JIM DAVIS/GLOBE STAFF)

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We pick a key player and outline the stakes for all 16 contests:

Sept 9. vs. Houston, 1 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Patriots lead, 9-1 (including playoffs).

Feels like a division game right out of the chute with the number of times these clubs have played — and practiced against — each other the last few seasons. The Texans are coming off a lost season that included dropping their last six games. Offensive leader Deshaun Watson and defensive leader J.J. Watt are coming off season-ending injuries and there’s bound to be rust. Patriots might be catching the Texas at the ideal time, because they’ll be tough come November.


Key player: Jadeveon Clowney

As disruptive a force as there is in the NFL. Call him a defensive end or an outside linebacker, it matters not to him. Just don’t call him names, because this 6-foot-5-inch, 270-pounder can set the edge or terrorize the quarterback.

Sept. 16 at Jacksonville, 4:25 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Patriots lead, 11-1.

It’s no secret the Jaguars have a terrific defense, but the offense (365.9 yards per game last season, sixth overall) is darn good and most of the key players are back. The offensive line is bearish. Blake Bortles will have time to throw and behemoth back Leonard Fournette is bound to improve upon his 1,040 rushing yards. Losing tackling machine Paul Posluszny (retirement) hurts, but Telvin Smith and Myles Jack form an excellent 1-2 linebacking punch.

Key player: Jalen Ramsey

Blessed with tremendous size (6-2, 208) and physical skills, he is the league’s elite shutdown cornerback. It’s a safe bet, however, that football boss Tom Coughlin would rather his young star shutdown his mouth as well as he does receivers.

Sept. 23 at Detroit, 8:20 p.m., NBC


All-time series: Patriots lead, 7-4.

There’s a new sheriff in Motown, but he wears a hoodie, not a holster. Matt Patricia was brought to town by fellow New England alum Bob Quinn to install some toughness to a talented team. Baby-faced Matthew Stafford enters his 10th season as the QB (how’s that possible?) and he needs to play a little more angry. He has a great receiving tandem in Marvin Jones (now that’s a Motown sounding name!) and Golden Tate. Ziggy Ansah must stay healthy for this defense to work.

Key player: LeGarrette Blount

All this terrorizing tailback does is bowl people over and win Super Bowls (three in the last four seasons, if you’re counting). He’ll push incumbent tailback Ameer Abdullah for carries. If he pushes hard enough, he’ll take Abdullah’s job.

Related: Patriots round table: 10 questions about the 2018 season, answered by our beat writers

Sept. 30 vs. Miami, 1 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Dolphins lead, 54-51

Ryan Tannehill finally is back in the QB saddle for the Dolphins (for updates on Jay “Cranky Pants” Cutler, please tune into “Very Cavallari” on E!). Tannehill has missed the last 20 games and this is probably his last, best chance to make this team his. It won’t be easy with Jarvis Landry and his billion catches per season now in Cleveland. Tannehill does have a nice trio in Kenny Stills, DeVante Parker, and Danny Amendola. Kenyan Drake flashed out of the backfield at times last season.


Key player: Danny Amendola

Who else? The 10-year veteran was brought in as much for his professionalism as for his production. Mr. Clutch won’t be afraid to tell Tannehill — or anyone else — what’s what. He’ll lead the league in bro hugs on this day.

Oct. 4 vs. Indianapolis, 8:20 p.m., Fox, NFL Network

All-time series: Patriots lead, 51-29

It’s a tough turnaround Thursday for these teams, but at least the Patriots welcome back Julian Edelman. The Colts already welcomed back Andrew Luck after the quarterback missed 2017 with shoulder woes. If he’s healthy, he’ll rely on T.Y. Hilton and the talented tight end tandem of Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. Indy’s defense was pretty solid in the preseason as it switched from a 3-4 hybrid to a traditional 4-3. Old friend (hey, that’s not a shot!) Adam Vinatieri is in NFL season No. 23.

Key player: Marlon Mack

This second-year player will get a shot to be the feature back with Frank Gore in Miami. Mack showed nice promise last year as a runner (he had six rushes of 20-plus yards) and receiver (225 yards).

Related: Here are the Globe staff’s picks for the 2018 NFL season

Oct. 14 vs. Kansas City, 8:20 p.m., NBC

All-time series: Chiefs lead, 18-14-3.

Is it a rule that these teams have to play in prime time? The Chief question however is, is young QB Pat Mahomes ready for it? Andy Reid is banking on it after letting Alex Smith walk. Mahomes has a superb arm and good targets in receivers Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and tight end Travis Kelce. Kareem Hunt is an electric back. Justin Houston remains, but this linebacking corps will take some early lumps with Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali out of the picture.


Key player: Eric Berry

The All-Pro safety and emotional leader of this team tore his Achilles’ in last season’s opener — a win over the Patriots at Gillette. If he can return to form, he can help shore up this defense. If he can’t, there’s trouble on the horizon.

Oct. 21 at Chicago, 1 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Patriots lead, 9-4.

Expect a big jump from quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, who threw for more than 2,000 yards in his rookie season — a year in which he was supposed to be limited to holding a clipboard. Trubisky should target big receiver Allen Robinson, who signed as a free agent, and Taylor Gabriel, who is slick out of the slot. Ex-Patriot Akiem Hicks was a grizzly last season and can play inside and out on the defensive line. Young linebackers Leonard Floyd and Roquan Smith will make Georgia proud.

Key player: Khalil Mack

The newest Monster of the Midway, Mack is a swift and tough thumper who can give opponents — and offensive coordinators — fits. He came with a heavy price tag, but it’s the guy with the ball in his hand who will really pay the price.

Related: Patriots have questions on offense — but Tom Brady will find answers


Oct. 29 at Buffalo, 8:15 p.m., ESPN, Ch. 5

All-time series: Patriots lead, 72-43-1.

What’s better than Monday night with the Mafia? The Bills Mafia, that is. Will the Goodfellas from Orchard Park fold under questioning? Not likely, but the quarterback, whomever it may be — all of them lack experience — might fold under pressure of a rebuilt offensive line. LeSean McCoy’s still around and he’ll be counted on heavily, but there’s a lot of mileage on the running back’s chassis. This defense, particularly the secondary, is solid. And it’ll need to be.

Key player: Nathan Peterman

A tip of the urban sombrero to this guy after beating out the No. 7 overall pick (Josh Allen) and the big free agent signing (A.J. McCarron) for the starter’s job. Peterman had a disastrous debut last season (five first-half picks) but bounced back with a solid summer.

Nov. 4 vs. Green Bay, 8:20 p.m., NBC

All-time series: Packers lead, 6-5.

The run of five prime-time games in seven weeks comes to an end with the Cheeseheads visiting Gillette. The Packers’ season effectively ended when Aaron Rodgers went down in Week 6. He’s bound to come back with a vengeance this season. Rodgers has tremendous arm strength, and though Jordy Nelson is in Oakland, he still has excellent weapons in Devante Adams and Randall Cobb, and new tight end Jimmy Graham. Ex-Jet Muhammad Wilkerson will look to kick-start his career and jump-start this defense.

Key player: Jamaal Williams

Can this tailback consistently find creases and take the pressure off Rodgers? If the offensive line can’t open holes, then Rodgers will be under siege. He can’t afford to take too many whacks or it’ll be another short season in Green Bay.

Related: Patriots’ defensive success hinges on one thing: versatility

Nov. 11 at Tennessee, 1 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Patriots lead, 25-16-1.

It’s a mini family reunion in the South with Malcolm Butler, Dion Lewis, and Logan Ryan all in teal and navy. Oh, and ex-Patriot Mike Vrabel is calling the shots — and his defensive coordinator is Dean Pees. This will be a disciplined and fundamentally sound team. The thunder and lightning backfield duo of Derrick Henry and Lewis could be scary. Rookie linebackers Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry should inject some adrenaline into a defense that has lacked bona fide studs in the front seven.

Key player: Marcus Mariota

Really gifted athlete with a good arm, Mariota has never looked completely comfortable in the pocket. He does his best work when he’s on the move, buying time for his receivers to separate from defenders.

Nov. 25 at NY Jets, 1 p.m., CBS.

All-time series: Patriots lead, 63-54-1

Sam Darnold is the latest wunderkind quarterback charged with trying to save the day in Gotham. OK, East Rutherford. Darnold is well equipped for the job. He played in a pro style offense at a big-time program and in many high-pressure games and environments. He rarely was rattled and rarely let poor plays carry over. He’ll need a short memory in this market. Can this line protect him, is the big question. Quincy Enunwa, Jermaine Kearse, Robby Anderson, and Terrelle Pryor can make plays.

Key player: Leonard Williams

Williams is the sole survivor of Gang Green’s purge of their formerly terrific front four. He hit the quarterback 25 times last season but only registered a pair of sacks.

Related: As always, expect Patriots to kick it up a notch on special teams

Dec. 2 vs. Minnesota, 4:25 p.m., Fox

All-time series: Patriots lead, 8-4.

These are not your father’s Purple People Eaters. They just might be hungrier. Veteran tackles Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson will form a human wall, while ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen can get after the quarterback. Griffen is a tremendous pass rusher but can also consistently set the edge against the run. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are versatile linebackers who play in every package. On the third level of defense, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith are All-Pros.

Key player: Kirk Cousins

Minnesota’s new quarterback finally gets a chance to play without worrying about his future ($84 million will do that). A solid cast of characters around him (Kyle Rudolph, Adam Thielen, and Stefon Diggs) means he won’t need to worry about the present, either.

Dec. 9 at Miami, 1 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Dolphins lead, 54-51.

These late-season trips to the Sunshine State have left the Patriots sunburned more often than not, with the Dolphins winning four of the last five. Cameron Wake remains a savage off the edge (his 92 sacks are tops in the NFL since he entered in 2009). Raekwon McMillan missed his rookie season with an injury but is ready to lead a linebacking crew that has had trouble stopping the run in recent years. Minkah Fitzpatrick, the 11th overall pick, can play safety and slot corner, and specialized in big plays at Alabama.

Key player: Kiko Alonso

This heat-seeking missile led the Dolphins in tackles last season despite being miscast as a coverage linebacker. Alonso is instinctive and quick. If he’s running forward, he’ll run through you. If he’s backpedaling, you can burn him.

Related: Burning questions about the state of the Patriots? We’ve got the answers

Dec. 16 at Pittsburgh, 4:25 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Patriots lead, 16-15.

Is it too much to ask for a repeat of last season’s December date in Steeltown? Most playoff games aren’t as drama filled and fun as that instant classic. Ben Roethlisberger enters Year 15 and though he’s lost a shade off his fastball, he’s still among the very best. It helps that he has the league’s best running back in Le’Veon Bell (at least for one more season) and best wide receiver in Antonio Brown at his disposal. JuJu Smith-Schuster is an emerging star.

Key player: Jon Bostic

Can this former Patriot replace the production lost by Ryan Shazier’s devastating injury? He’ll be plugged into an inside linebacker spot with the hopes he can build on a solid season in Indianapolis.

Dec. 23 vs. Buffalo, 1 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Patriots lead, 72-43-1.

We’ll know by then if Sean McDermott’s resurrection of the Bills is still on track after landing in the playoffs last year. He brought in Star Lotulelei (they have a history together in Carolina) to shore up the front seven. A big question is whether defensive end Shaq Lawson can fulfill the high expectations attached to him as a high pick three years ago. The secondary is loaded with playmakers in safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, and shutdown corner Tre’Davious White.

Key player: Tremaine Edwards

What, you were expecting Corey Bojorquez? Edwards was the team’s other first-round pick (after Josh Allen) and he’ll quarterback the defense. The middle linebacker has excellent instincts and athleticism. He’ll lower the boom.

Related: Gasper: Savor these seasons with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, folks

Dec. 30 vs. NY Jets, 1 p.m., CBS

All-time series: Patriots lead, 63-54-1

The Jets have made some head-scratching decisions in the past, and right up there with the itchiest is letting Demario Davis walk out the door in free agency. The thumping inside linebacker led the club in tackles and sacks last season. This team had just 28 sacks in 2017, part of the reason it allowed 30 passing TDs. New corner Trumaine Johnson should help a secondary that features hard-hitting safeties Marcus Maye and Jamal Adams. Fun fact: Folorunso Fatukasi is both fun and hard to say. The UConn rookie will be a backup DE.

Key player: Isaiah Crowell

After three seasons in Cleveland, Crowell arrives to help the Jets achieve a more balanced attack and to take some pressure off Sam Darnold. Crowell doesn’t have game-changing speed but he can wear down a defense.

Jim McBride can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.