By Dan Zeigarnik, Patriots Daily Staff

The start of the 2011 NFL season could not have come sooner enough for Patriot fans. It’s finally time to stop the navel gazing and the theoretical preseason debates, because now the answers to all the offseason quandaries will be played out on the field. This is an exciting time for Patriot Nation for there are plenty of new faces to get acquainted with, as New England gears up for yet another Super Bowl run.

While season openers inherently garner excitement for the new beginning and clean slate that they represent for the teams and the fans, there is still an opponent to face and one that shouldn’t be so quickly overlooked. The 2010 Miami team was disappointing mainly because their quarterback woes really hurt them. Despite this, they still beat Super Bowl champs Green Bay and the Jets, while losing to Pittsburg by the score of 22-23. This year, they will surely try to build on those wins, and in this topsy-turvy league a 7-9 team can easily finish 11-5 the following season.

When the Patriots played Miami on the road in week 4 of last year, victory was not at all guaranteed. In fact, there was a decent amount of consternation as the Pats were coming off a loss to the Jets and a lackluster win against Buffalo. New England did little to assuage these concerns when they headed into the tunnel at trailing at half-time 6-7. However, the second half proved to be spectacular, as Brandon Tate returned a kickoff, Pat Chung blocked two kicks and took an interception back for a TD and Rob Ninkovich piled on with 2 interceptions of his own. The result was a 41-14 rout, but it came about in one of the more unusual series of faux pas by the Miami offense and special team units.

So with this in mind, it will be interesting to see how New England looks in these 5 key matchups:

Patriots Secondary vs. Davone Bess and Brandon Marshall

James Sanders and Brandon Meriweather are gone, so there will be a new face at safety to play along side Chung. If Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, or James Ihedigbo does not pan out there will be a lot of second guessing and questioning of Bill Belichick’s roster decisions. Also, Ras-I Dowling and Leigh Bodden will be patrolling the secondary along with Devin McCourty and it will be important for them to all be on the same page.

Patriots Defensive Line vs. Dolphins Offensive line

There are 3 new defensive linemen and a new 4-3 scheme in place this year. That’s a lot of change even for Belichick’s amorphous game planning style. Shaun Ellis and Andre Carter seem to be ready to set the edge and put pressure on the quarterback. This is something that has been missing for the Patriots in recent years, and fans will be keen to pay attention these 2 new additions. I would be remiss not to mention the Big Kahuna, Albert Haynesworth. Personally, I would only look for glimpses of greatness from him in the season opener as he is still playing his way into shape. If he shows glimmers of frustrating opposing offenses, then it will bode well for the Patriot’s playoff run.

Chad Ochoncinco vs. New England Sports Media

Is Chad frustrated? Of course, he is in a new offense and he is having growing pains for the first time in a long time. Is he suddenly a washed up has-been like Torry Holt and Joey Galloway? Child Please! Those 2 retired shortly after not making the Patriots. Do people honestly feel that Ochocinco wouldn’t be snatched up by another team if he got released? Give the man some time to get acquainted with the new offense. He has too much left in the tank, too hard a worker, too talented, and is too driven to affirm Bill Belichick’s vote of confidence in him to not have a productive year.

Gronkowski and Hernandez vs. Dolphins Linebackers

These 2 electrifying and unique tight ends are entering their second season in the NFL and have been having a great preseason. All signs point to them continuing their stellar performances. Look for them to be used in creative ways, and appreciate them as the anti-Ben Watson’s and Daniel Graham’s of the world.

Special Teams

The new rule about kickoffs being moved up to the 35 yard line is a bit strange. It basically eliminates kickoffs. It will certainly be a change, and it will make that extra commercial break sequence that much more irritating (touchdown, commercial, kick-off, commercial.) If the kickoff is just target practice for the field goal kickers as they try to boot it through the upright, then that break in the action will force more and more people to DVR their game and just start it 30 minutes late (that’s what I do).  Also, there seems to be some trouble brewing on the long-snapper front as the team keeps getting new ones after not signing Lonie Paxton to a long term contract. Hopefully that doesn’t cause costly botched snaps.