FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots host the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL's season-opening game, and here is a final rundown of what is important to know, leading off with four under-the-radar areas.
Look for rotations in key areas, with left tackle key: Two of the Patriots' top players, left tackle Nate Solder and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, did not play in the preseason as they were sidelined/rehabbing from physical ailments. It is highly unlikely that Bill Belichick will expect them to go wire to wire in the game. In fact, even if they had played in the preseason, Belichick has sometimes rotated early in the season regardless, as players build up their conditioning. Solder's spot, in particular, is critical because that's quarterback Tom Brady's blind side. With top backup left tackle Cameron Fleming unlikely to play with an ankle injury, there could be times when third-unit left tackle LaAdrian Waddle is called upon to keep Brady's blind side clean. The Chiefs, led by outside linebacker Justin Houston, have a solid pass rush that should lead the Patriots to give additional help with tight ends and running backs on the edges.
On Super Bowl ceremony, 30 percent of the roster is turned over: The Patriots are planning what should be a memorable Super Bowl championship banner unveiling before the game, but the message from players leading up to the game was how that aspect of the night is for fans, not for them. That "turning the page" theme has been spearheaded by Belichick, who pointed out how much turnover there has been between the 2016 and 2017 teams. Of the 53 players on the team's roster, 16 weren't on last year's team. That's a 30 percent turnover.
Top special-teams players are ailing: The Patriots' two top special-teams players, Matthew Slater (hamstring) and Nate Ebner (shoulder) have been limited in practice and are questionable to play. Over the past 10 days, the club has traded late-round draft picks for two core special-teams players, Marquis Flowers and Johnson Bademosi. They also acquired defensive end Cassius Marsh for fifth- and seventh-round picks, and he will eventually play an important role on special teams. The willingness to part with four draft picks reflects how Belichick prioritizes special teams, and the opener is a good reason why: He's especially concerned with Chiefs returners Tyreek Hill (punts) and De'Anthony Thomas (kickoffs). Punter Ryan Allen's ability to execute with directional punts will be critical.
Vinovich as referee: Veteran Bill Vinovich has been assigned as referee, and that probably means fewer penalties. While acknowledging that crews can change from year to year, consider this 2016 nugget from ESPN's Kevin Seifert: Vinovich's regular-season crew called 12.5 penalties per game in 2016, 31.7 percent fewer than the league leader (Brad Allen, 18.4). This was not a new development for Vinovich. In fact, his regular-season crew has called fewer than the NFL average number of fouls in each of the five seasons since he returned to the field in 2012 after recovering from a heart issue.
Stat of the week: Last year, Brady targeted receiver Julian Edelman on third down a team-high 38 times. The next three players on the list combined didn't total 38.
Quote of the week: "Returning punts is one of my favorite things to do in the whole world. It's like playing on the highway if you've never done that before. ... I advise you not to play on the highway, though." -- Danny Amendola, who is a leading candidate to assume the role with Edelman out for the season with a knee injury
Prediction: The Patriots will ultimately capitalize on favorable matchups against the Chiefs' secondary, which is without starting cornerback Steven Nelson and has starting safety Ron Parker dealing with a nagging knee injury. That could mean more three-receiver packages on offense. A Malcolm Butler vs. Tyreek Hill matchup would be a rare duel between West Alabama alums. Butler, after a preseason he said was below his standards, will be up to the challenge. Patriots 24, Chiefs 17